As recently as seven months ago, I was ruthlessly criticizing the lack of depth in the featherweight division. I don't know precisely when it happened, but the 145-lb division has evolved in a profound way.
It's not just because of the arrival of various lightweights. The additions of Clay Guida, Frankie Edgar and Jeremy Stephens certainly help, but they were really just part of the featherweight division's rise. The real turning point was when, beneath everyone's notice, a legitimate hierarchy of fighters developed that allowed stars to be built.
This wasn't the case when Erik Koch found himself in a title fight with featherweight champ Jose Aldo after beating Jonathan Brookins (which, by the way, was Brookins' first fight after winning The Ultimate Fighter season 12). It is now, though—what we have seen over the last few months is Ricardo Lamas assert himself as a legitimate top contender, with Cub Swanson, Chad Mendes and Chan Sung Jung hot on his heels, and Clay Guida and Dennis Siver just behind.
Because of that, while a match like Jose Aldo vs. former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar made sense six months ago, it is not necessary now. That, however, is precisely what we're getting in the recently-announced featherweight championship bout between Jose Aldo and former WEC lightweight champion, and current UFC lightweight top contender, Anthony Pettis.
Anthony Pettis is an amazing talent. He should be universally regarded as one of the best strikers in MMA today—with wins over top-10 lightweights including Donald Cerrone, Joe Lauzon, and champion Benson Henderson, he is as deserving of a title fight as anybody in the UFC today.
Cashing those chips in as a featherweight makes sense for a variety of reasons for Pettis. Now that he is finally through an injury-plagued 2012, “Showtime” seems to be healthy for the first time in a good while. After getting denied a title fight at 155 lbs before, a guaranteed payday in a guaranteed title fight on a guaranteed date must be appealing.
On top of that, he claims that he only needs to cut a few pounds to make 155 lbs, which would make clearing the featherweight mark an easy task. Last but not least, this keeps Pettis clear of high-level wrestlers that have a serious size advantage on him, like Gray Maynard (who has been calling Pettis out lately) or Jim Miller. Pettis, if you'll remember, was badly out-wrestled by Clay Guida not all that long ago.
Still, even though it is a great opportunity for Pettis, it is not great for the featherweight division as a whole.
Ricardo Lamas has a four-fight winning streak over Matt Grice, Cub Swanson, Hatsu Hioki and Erik Koch. Hioki and Koch, by the way, were both lined up to fight for the belt in 2012, and Swanson is currently ranked as the No. 6 featherweight in our rankings. Suffice it to say, he has done more than enough to earn a crack at Jose Aldo.
With a legitimate pileup of fighters with skyrocketing stock just behind Lamas, there is no reason to have another lightweight cut the line.
Unfortunately, as we have seen with Johny Hendricks, winning a bunch of fights over top-10 fighters does not mean anything until you have the drawing power to back it up. That is the pickle Ricardo Lamas finds himself in—with the UFC opting to bring in established lightweights rather than letting featherweights get media exposure, it is a predicament that will persist longer than necessary, which will hurt more than just Lamas.
So, while fans are all undoubtedly salivating at what will likely be a high-flying, fast-paced battle that has more kicks than a Rockettes show, this fight does come at the expense of the numerous rising stars in the featherweight division. The UFC will reap the short-term benefits, but it hurts one of their hottest divisions in the long-term.