Things in the UFC featherweight division are about to get downright nasty.
Despite being one of the organization's newest weight classes, the battle for contender status at 145 pounds has become intense. Over the next five weeks, nearly every fighter ranked in the divisional Top 10 will step into the Octagon looking to take a step forward.
The bulk of this action will take place next Saturday night at UFC on Fox 6 in Chicago, where a collection of top featherweights will battle it out to determine who stays in the race and who goes to the back of the line.
Of the 145-pound matchups on the card, the fight carrying the most stock comes between Ricardo Lamas and Erik Koch. The bout has the potential to determine the next contender to the featherweight crown, and “The Bully” is looking to make the most of the opportunity.
If a high-profile fight on Fox with possible title implication were not enough to fire Lamas up, the bout taking place in his hometown certainly does the trick. The 30-year-old has Chicago roots, and the chance to throw down with Koch in front of a Windy City crowd has Lamas ready to get after it.
“I’m definitely excited about fighting in Chicago,” Lamas told Bleacher Report. “I haven’t fought in front of a hometown crowd since 2008, before I got into the WEC. Being able to come back and fight in front of my hometown crowd in Chicago is an honor. I’m really happy they are letting me do it.
I think the way we match-up will make for a very exciting fight. He alone is an exciting fighter and I believe I am as well. When you put two fighters like that together you are going to get a very high-paced, high-action fight. Most likely there is going to be some blood. I would suggest that fans keep their eyes open and not to look away from this one.”
During his time in the WEC, Lamas had a successful campaign competing as a lightweight. But when he transitioned into the UFC, Lamas began his new chapter as a featherweight. The decision paid dividends as he has collected three consecutive victories at 145 pounds, with his most recent coming over Hatsu Hioki this past June.
The Japanese fighter was considered by most to be the No. 2-ranked featherweight in the world going into the fight, but after an impressive performance by Lamas, the former Division Three All-American exited the Octagon with a new burst of momentum.
That being said, the featherweight division has been slow to pick up steam with the UFC fanbase, and Lamas is admittedly one of featherweight's lesser-known commodities. Undeterred, he understands that while he may not be a household name with the fans, the biggest organization in the sport certainly give him his due.
"I don’t think I’m being overlooked,” Lamas said. “I believe I’m getting some of the credit I deserve because they are matching me up with some high-level competition. That says something. That says the UFC believes in me and that I deserve to be in there with the top guys.
As far as the regular fan knowing me; that isn’t so important to me right now. I’m here to fight and be the best that I can. Being well known comes second to that.”
A victory over Koch would make a strong case for Lamas to earn a title shot. The Duke Roufus-trained fighter was originally slated to face champion Jose Aldo at UFC 153 before he was forced to withdraw due to injury. Following Koch's withdraw, Lamas was offered the position opposite Aldo—which he accepted.
Ultimately the UFC decided to change directions and tapped former lightweight champion Edgar to take Koch's place. The bout was scrapped entirely when Aldo suffered an injury, but the “super fight” drew enough heat with the fanbase for the organization to put the fight on a later card at UFC 156.
Much like Lamas, the 24-year-old Koch is riding a win streak of his own. “New Breed” has collected four consecutive victories but has not competed inside the Octagon for over 17 months. Lamas getting a win over the Milwaukee native will put him high on the list of potential contenders, but he also understands, much like the previous incident, it is a decision entirely beyond his control.
“I’m at the point in my career where I want to make a run at the title,” Lamas said. “I feel I’m at that stage where I can make a serious run at this thing, give it my best, and see what happens. But a [title shot]is something the UFC will decide and it is not really up to me. One thing I’ve learned a long time ago from my old college coach in wrestling is to never look past the match you have right in front of you. Right now I’m not even thinking about a title shot or anything like that. I’m 100% focused on Erik Koch.”
The bout between Lamas and Koch will put the spotlight on the featherweight division and kick off a fantastic run of matchups that will keep the eyes of the MMA world locked on the weight class. It is a defining time for the young division, and with fighters who were elite-level lightweights choosing to drop down, Lamas feels it is only going to make the competition at 145 pounds that much stronger.
“There are a lot of guys dropping down from 155-pounds like [Clay] Guida and Frankie Edgar,” Lamas said. “With these guys coming down I think it is going to be a very challenging weight class and there are a lot of great guys already competing at 145-pounds. It is going to make for some exciting match-ups and there are going to be a lot of great fights for fans to watch. “
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained first-hand unless noted otherwise.