At the end of last year, I wrote an article claiming 2013 would be a breakout year for the featherweight division. And for the most part—at least thus far—that prediction appears to be well on its way to coming true.
While there have been a few twists and turns with Frankie Edgar and Anthony Pettis coming down from the lightweight division and getting title shots, these elements have only served to bolster the depth of a weight class on the rise.
In fact, the current dynamic in the featherweight division is completely opposite of how the 145-pound weight class looked in previous years.
The one constant remains in the form of young Brazilian phenom Jose Aldo still holding court over the division. But outside of "Junior," where the weight class once struggled to produce worthy title challengers, there is now a collection of featherweights scrapping their way toward a shot at championship gold.
Here is a look at the contenders on the rise and what could potentially come next for them.
There is, perhaps, no more curious position to be in than the one Chad Mendes is currently holding. Since suffering the first loss of his professional career via knockout against Aldo at UFC 142 in January 2012, "Money" has blistered every opponent put in his path.
The 28-year-old has disposed of three consecutive challengers in a collected time that tallies just north of three minutes, a feat unheard of in the modern era of mixed martial arts.
Where two of the wins during his current runs may have come over lackluster competition, his most recent destruction of Darren Elkins turned heads in the MMA community.
The Indiana native was riding a five-fight win streak going into his bout with the Sacramento-based fighter, but after the cage door locked and the referee stepped aside, Mendes made short work out of Elkins, casting him to the back of the line in the divisional race.
To be entirely fair, Elkins stepped up on short notice to replace an injured Clay Guida, but with the type of steam Mendes has been showing inside the Octagon, it's hard to imagine the result would have been different had either man showed up in San Jose at UFC on Fox 7.
That being said, why isn't Mendes being touted as the next title contender?
While some of the reason certainly has to do with the way the bout against Aldo ended, that isn't enough to explain why the Californian's stock dropped so far in the public eye. Despite losing to the pound-for-pound great, Mendes has remained one of the very best featherweights on the planet, and his recent work has only served to solidify this notion.
I personally believe Mendes falling in the division had more to do with "new blood' rising than it did with his loss. When he stepped in against Aldo, the weight class was lacking a true challenger in the "next" position. That situation has since changed, and the division has a batch of ready-made title challengers all waiting to get a crack at the featherweight strap.
What comes next for Mendes will certainly be interesting. While I wouldn't put the UFC rescheduling the bout with Guida out of the realm of possibility, I believe the former No. 1 contender's next fight will depend on what happens in July and August.
If Anthony Pettis is able to oust Jose Aldo from the throne during their showdown in August, an immediate rematch is to be expected. This would put the contender race on hold once again, and if this were to materialize, Mendes facing the winner of Ricardo Lamas vs. Chan Sung Jung to determine the next title challenger would make perfect sense.
On the other hand—if Aldo defeats Pettis—the winner of Lamas vs. Jung will most likely get the next title shot, and Mendes will once again be treading water.
Ricardo Lamas and Chan Sung Jung
Outside of Johny Hendricks, no other UFC fighter has made a better case for title contention than Ricardo Lamas. "The Bully" has been defeating the best fighters in the division over his recent run, including an impressive smashing of former No. 1 contender Erik Koch at UFC on Fox 6.
Following the victory of "New Breed," the 30-year-old Chicagoland native's title opportunity appeared to be a given. That was until Pettis threw his hat in the ring and was subsequently granted the title shot, which left Lamas hanging in the balance with a chip on his shoulder.
When a fighter is in these types of situations, the decision on what to do next can be a tricky one to make. Often, there isn't a sensible opponent to match up with and a fighter has to enter a high-risk/low-reward bout. Fortunately for Lamas, there was a challenger in the wings that made sense, as Chan Sung Jung would be returning from a lengthy layoff due to injury this summer.
Before "The Korean Zombie" hit the sidelines, he was all but guaranteed a title shot. The 26-year-old South Korean had put together three consecutive victories over top-tier talent, including an impressive submission stoppage of Dustin Poirier at UFC on Fuel TV 3.
Unfortunately for Jung, the victory over Poirier came with a price, as he suffered a shoulder injury in the scuffle. The injury required surgery and put the WEC veteran out of action for the rest of 2012 and the first half of 2013.
The most interesting aspect of Jung's current situation is that his status as a top featherweight has remained intact, despite his absence. When he returns to action in July to face Lamas in the co-main event of UFC 162, there is a good chance that a title opportunity will be on the line.
With that being case, the bout will provide excellent motivation, as both Lamas and Jung have been hunting for a title shot for some time.
There is perhaps no better story in the featherweight division than Cub Swanson. As the longest-tenured featherweight under the Zuffa umbrella, the Palm Springs native has experienced his fair share of ups and downs in the fight game.
For years, Swanson has been a fighter looking to live up to the potential that others have placed on him, and his recent run of four consecutive victories provides solid evidence that "Killer Cub" has finally turned that corner.
While other fighters may be ahead of him in the divisional hierarchy, Swanson is determined to reach the top of the mountain in the 145-pound weight class. The 29-year-old was originally slated to face German striker Dennis Siver at UFC on Fuel TV 7, but an injury to the former lightweight forced him out of the scrap and Poirier stepped in.
After Swanson defeated "The Diamond" in the co-main event in England, the UFC rescheduled the bout with Siver for UFC 162 in July. Should the Jackson's/Winkeljohn-trained fighter defeat Siver in Las Vegas, he will undoubtedly earn a fight in the contender's tier of the division.
And while there is no telling exactly who that opponent will be, a potential matchup with Mendes toward the end of the year would seem fitting.
Then again, this divisional picture could shake out in a few different ways, so it is difficult to pinpoint how things will look in September. But regardless of what happens with the other moving parts, if Swanson can pick up his fifth consecutive victory at UFC 162, he will cement himself as a major player in the 145-pound weight class.
After losing his featherweight debut to Jose Aldo at UFC 156, talk swirled of Frankie Edgar dropping down to compete in the bantamweight division. But if there is one word to describe Edgar, it is resilient, and "The Answer" is committed to making another run at the 145-pound title.
The Toms River native will return to action in July when he faces Charles Oliveira at UFC 162. The bout with "Do Bronx" will be Edgar's attempt to bring a three-fight skid to a halt and put his career back on track.
It has been an unfortunate run for the former lightweight champion, as he came out on the losing end of two razor-thin, albeit controversial, decisions against Benson Henderson and suffered a unanimous-decision loss to Aldo in his next outing.
Edgar's current position is a far stretch from the champion status he has enjoyed over the past few years. And while three straight losses would be enough to shake most fighters' confidence into shambles, the 31-year-old isn't your typical run-of-the-mill competitor.
The undersized fighter with an oversized heart is determined to reclaim UFC gold, and his current losing streak has provided a unique brand of motivation for him to re-ignite his career. Edgar recently told Bleacher Report that pressure brings out the very best in him—and make no mistake about it—the pressure is certainly on going into his bout with Oliveira.
On one hand, a win would catapult Edgar back into the contender's mix in the featherweight division. On the other hand, a loss would be disastrous. Should the New Jersey-based fighter emerge victorious from his bout with the Brazilian submission artist, a bout with either Swanson or Mendes could be on the horizon.