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By: Shawn Ennis, MMATorch Senior Columnist
This is the second of a two-part series breaking down the UFC's featherweight division. For Part One, CLICK HERE.
Ah, the featherweight pool. With this being a relatively new division in the UFC that continues to see fighters drop from lightweight in search of greener pastures, the pool is a place where fighters can rise or fall in the blink of an eye. We've got a lot of guys to talk about, so let's start, as is customary, with the fighters who have fights coming up.
We'll start with a fighter who is making his featherweight debut this very weekend (featherweight debut will become a bit of a theme here). Charles Oliveira (14-2) looked like he was about to make a run in the lightweight division, dominating Darren Elkins and Efrain Escudero before he was beaten quickly by Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone (with a no contest due to an illegal knee with Nik Lentz in between) It looked very obvious in the fight with Cerrone that Oliveira was outsized, so the move to featherweight should hardly come as a surprise. He takes on the debuting Eric Wisely (19-6) at the UFC's second Fox show. Wisely fought in Strikeforce at lightweight, losing a decision to Pat Healy in August of last year. He will also be making his featherweight debut. Wisely has shown promise in the past as well - he has two wins over Hermes Franca and one over Matt Veach.
Also fighting on Saturday will be George Roop (12-8-1) and Cub Swanson (15-5). Neither fighter has put together two wins or losses since 2008. That will change for one of them, as both are coming off of losses. Roop last saw action in October, losing a close decision to Hatsu Hioki. Swanson's loss was more definitive at the UFC's first FOX show, where he was submitted by a resurgent Ricardo Lamas (11-2) in the second round. Lamas is now 2-0 in the UFC and should see a stiff test his next time out. He was scheduled to face Dustin Poirier at UFC 143 but was removed due to injury. Should the timing work out, the winner of Poirier's fight with the debuting Max Holloway (4-0) would be a fitting opponent for Lamas.
After UFC 143, at the first Fuel card, lightweight TUF winner Jonathan Brookins (12-4) will face Vagner Rocha (7-2). Rocha will be making his featherweight debut after going 1-1 at lightweight, most recently defeating Cody McKenzie in September. This one will spend a lot of time on the mat if both fighters play to their strengths. Brookins will fight for the second time at 145 pounds in the UFC (he fought at featherweight in WEC previously) after dropping a decision to Erik Koch in his first post-TUF outing. The question in this one will be whether Brookins can control Rocha and avoid his submission prowess. I have my doubts about that, but we'll find out soon.
In addition to the potential number one contender fight between Hatsu Hioki and Bart Palaszewski at UFC 144, there should be an action-packed, if not as high-level, featherweight clash between Tiequan Zhang (15-2) and the UFC's resident decision-robber Leonard Garcia (15-8-1). I'm not sure if any result here would surprise me outside of Zhang scoring a knockout. Zhang has 12 submission wins, and both of his losses have come in fights where he was dominated positionally en route to a decision. Garcia has a great chin and Zhang probably won't test it, but he could take a submission. Garcia could also land one of his crazy haymakers and end the fight. Or it could go to a decision, and who knows what would happen there? Zhang lost his featherweight debut to Darren Elkins (13-2), who is now 2-0 as a featherweight after losing at lightweight to Charles Oliveira. Elkins' other win came in controversial fashion in a fight that many thought he lost against Michihiro Omigawa (13-11-1). For his part, Omigawa may be on the outs with the UFC soon as he's 1-3 in his second stint with the promotion. He'll probably get another tough fight his next time out, and he'll probably have to win if he wants to stick around. I wouldn't be surprised to see someone like Tyson Griffin (15-6) get the call in a loser-leaves-town situation. Griffin is 1-4 in his last five, and 1-1 since dropping to featherweight. Griffin's only win in that span came over Manny Gamburyan (11-7), who has hit a rough spot of his own. Since earning a title shot against Jose Aldo in Aldo's last WEC fight, Gamburyan is 0-3.
A rematch is on tap for the UFC's second FX event when Robert Peralta fights Mackens Semerzier (6-3, 1 NC). In their last fight back in November, the fight was initially ruled a TKO in favor of Peralta, but replays showed an obvious but unintentional headbutt that ultimately led to the stoppage, and the fight was eventually ruled a no contest. These two will settle things in March. On that same show we'll have another debuting former lightweight in Cole Miller (18-5) taking on TUF 14 alum Steven Siler (19-9). The obvious subplot here is the fact that Siler beat Miller's brother Micah in the fights to get into the TUF house. I love the prospect of Miller at 145 if he can make it comfortably. He gave a lot of people trouble with his length at lightweight, and that advantage should only be more clear if he's able to make the weight with no difficulty. Siler is a bit of an enigma to me. He's had fights where he's looked really good (against Miller and Josh Clopton (6-1-1) at the finale), but he looked like he had no business in the cage with Diego Brandao during the season. If he's able to give Miller some difficulty, that will speak to how much he belongs in the division. I could definitely see Miller blowing through him though.
Another TUF 14 standout will make his UFC debut in April on the UFC's second Fuel TV card when Akira Corassani (9-3, 1 NC) takes to the Octagon against Jason Young (8-5). Young is 0-2 thus far in the UFC and was little more than cannon fodder against Michihiro Omigawa and Dustin Poirier in his first two fights. Needless to say this is a must-win for him. Corassani would also do well to pick up a win against a guy who has not looked impressive thus far. If he can't, it's not a given that he'll get a second chance. Also on Fuel's second card, Diego Nunes (17-2), who was on his way up the chain before a loss to Kenny Florian (14-6) derailed his ascent, will fight Dennis Siver (19-8), who is making, say it with me, his featherweight debut. Siver is another one who could make a nice run if the weight cut ends up being comfortable for him. He was clearly outsized and outgunned by Donald Cerrone in his lightweight swan song (Cerrone also sent Charles Oliveira to 145), so it'll be interesting to see what he does. Nunes is certainly a tough guy to debut against, but there aren't a lot of gimme's at this weight either, so Siver will have his work cut out for him either way.
In April at UFC 145, former title challenger Mark Hominick (20-10) will try to rebound from his quick and devastating knockout loss to Chan Sung Jung when he faces Eddie Yagin (15-5). Yagin didn't exactly set the world on fire losing his debut to Junior Assuncao (13-5), but looking bad in your UFC debut is not exactly a shocker. Yagin holds a victory over former Bellator champion Joe Soto and is not to be taken lightly, but Hominick will probably be too much for him to handle. Of course, also at UFC 145, Maximo Blanco (8-3) will make his UFC (and featherweight) debut when he fights another TUF 14 veteran in Marcus Brimage (4-1). Blanco looked absolutely ferocious in his time with Sengoku, notching five wins with four coming by vicious knockout. He was in for a surprise when he fought Pat Healy in Strikeforce in his US debut, as Healy was too big for Blanco to handle and his wrestling neutralized the Venezuelan's power on the way to scoring a rear naked choke. Brimage won't give Blanco a break in the wrestling department, but "Maxi" should know what to expect coming in, and one would think that size will be less of an issue here.
That's it for fighters who have scheduled fights coming up. If we then move on to the rest of the division, a good guy to check out first is Ross Pearson (13-5), who refuses to go down easy. People counted him out against Edson Barboza and he acquitted himself very well in that fight despite losing a close decision. There were some (myself included) who thought he might have a tough time with the weight cut in his first fight at 145 pounds against Junior Assuncao, but Pearson looked very comfortable and able in scoring a decision win. Assuncao was cut for some reason following the fight despite being 1-1 as a UFC featherweight and winning seven straight before the close loss to Pearson. There's an abundance of good opponents for the Brit in his next fight, but there are a couple in particular I'd like to see. Daniel Pineda (16-7) has won six straight by stoppage, most recently submitting Pat Schilling (5-1) on last week's FX card in under two minutes. Felipe Arantes (14-4) also looked good in taking out 10-year veteran Antonio Carvalho (13-5) at UFC 142. I think Pineda would make for a really fun fight, but Arantes would certainly be a worthy alternative.
We've touched on almost all of the cast of TUF 14 – two guys I can think of who could probably be paired up pretty easily are Dustin Neace (23-18-1) and Stephen Bass (10-1). I'm not sure Neace has what it takes to stick in the UFC, and if Bass does, that's a fight he should win. You've also got Bryan Caraway (16-5), who beat Neace at the finale. I think he would make a nice opponent for Jimy Hettes. Caraway is another one who is questionable in his ability to stick around, but I think if he can even compete with Hettes he could be kept around for another fight or two.
There aren't many guys left to discuss in the UFC, so let's play matchmaker rapid-fire style. We've got Dennis Bermudez (7-3), who I think shows a lot of promise, and he'd make a nice opponent for Nam Phan (17-10) or Pablo Garza (11-2) his next time out. Garza had two spectacular wins via flying knee and flying triangle before losing to Dustin Poirier in November, and he continues to be a guy you'll want to keep your eye on. Phan is probably on his way out of the UFC with another loss, and that might be the way I'd go with Bermudez in his next fight if it were up to me. Garza could also fight the loser of Oliveira-Wisely or Brookins-Rocha, and both of those would make sense. He could also take on a returning Josh Grispi (14-3) should a return be in the cards sometime soon for "The Fluke." Grispi was once a would-be title contender before falling on hard times after the WEC merger. He'll need to get back on track in a hurry to avoid going from streaking up-and-comer to another casualty. Matt Grice (14-4) is 13-0 outside the UFC and 1-4 inside the Octagon. He lost his UFC featherweight debut against Ricardo Lamas in June – he would make a fitting opponent for Mike Brown (25-8), who last fought in August, defeating Nam Phan by decision. Brown was scheduled for last week's FX card but was pulled due to injury. There are only four fighters left, and it actually works out pretty well matchup-wise. You've got Rani Yahya (16-7), who could put on a great grappling clinic with Javier Vasquez (16-5) if that fight were to be made, and you've got the recently-vanquished Chad Mendes (11-1) coming off of his first loss at the hands of the Champion Jose Aldo. If Kenny Florian were still active, that would be a great fight. But my guess is that Florian is going to retire, so a good opponent for Mendes would be the loser of Hioki-Palaszewski at UFC 144.
Outside of the UFC we do have a few interesting names. Typically at the top of the list would be the Bellator champion, which is currently Joe Warren (7-2). The problem is that I think Warren is deeply flawed and would get absolutely mowed over in the UFC's featherweight division. In fact, I think he's going to get mowed over by Pat Curran (16-4) when the two fight in March for the title. Curran has looked spectacular at 145 since losing a hard-fought decision to Eddie Alvarez at lightweight. Speaking of which, this marks the second straight Bellator tournament that Curran has won, having won the lightweight tournament in 2010. That's a pretty impressive accomplishment. Also in Bellator we've got the recent Curran-victim but still always-exciting Marlon Sandro (20-3), who would be a great fit for Zuffa were he available or so inclined. I do wonder if he would come now though due to the fact that he trains with Jose Aldo and would not fight the champion if the opportunity were to arise. Back to guys who have won two Bellator tournaments, we've got Patricio Freire (17-1). "Pitbull" was slated to face champion Joe Warren in a rematch of their first championship bout this past summer, but a broken hand has sidelined him until further notice. He was going to fight Warren early this year, but the hand still isn't healed yet, which opens the door for Curran. I had Freire winning the first fight against Warren, so I'd like to see a fight between him and Curran should Curran indeed capture the gold.
Outside of Bellator, we go to Japan, where two familiar names still remain. Tatsuya Kawijiri (30-7-2) has still got it, but for how long remains to be seen. Hiroyuki Takaya (17-9-1) is in a similar situation. The question for both of these guys is whether they'll remain in Japan to fight nobody of note, or whether they'll jump to the UFC, which they almost certainly have the opportunity to do. Hopefully it's the latter and we get to see "Crusher" and "Streetfight Bancho" here in the States.
So that's about it. Did I miss anyone? Let me know what you think in the comments, shoot me an email at ennistorch(at)gmail(dot)com, or hit me up on Twitter - @shawnennis.
History of the UFC Featherweight Championship
*Bold indicates title changing hands
Note: We're going to start in the Zuffa-era WEC, since that's where the current iteration of the UFC title started.
1/20/07 – U. Faber def J. Pearson (Submission due to Strikes)
3/24/07 – U. Faber def D. Cruz (Submission)
6/3/07 – U. Faber def C. Farrar (Submission)
12/7/07 – U. Faber def J. Curran (Submission)
6/1/08 – U. Faber def J. Pulver (Decision)
11/5/08 – M. Brown def U. Faber (TKO)
3/1/09 – M. Brown def L. Garcia (Submission)
6/7/09 – M. Brown def U. Faber (Decision)
11/18/09 – J. Aldo def M. Brown (TKO)
4/24/10 – J. Aldo def U. Faber (Decision)
9/30/10 – J. Aldo def M. Gamburyan (KO)
*WEC merges with UFC; title becomes UFC Featherweight Title*
4/30/11 – J. Aldo def M. Hominick (Decision)
10/8/11 – J. Aldo def K. Florian (Decision)
1/14/12 – J. Aldo def C. Mendes (KO)
Longest Title Reign: Jose Aldo (799 days and counting)
Most Consecutive Defenses: Jose Aldo (5)
Current Reign: Jose Aldo (799 days, 9 defenses)
The Champ: Self-explanatory
The Contenders: Fighters who could fight for the title immediately and be taken as legitimate contenders. Fighters coming off of a loss will not typically be in this category.
A Step or Two Away: Fighters who could be in contention for a title with another victory or two over legitimate competition.
Up and Comers: Fighters who have no more than three fights in the UFC, who have shown promise. They're not always undefeated, but they have potential.
The Pool: Other fighters of note within the division, who could work their way into the top three categories by going on a run and/or proving themselves/proving themselves again in the Octagon. Also those outside the UFC who could make an impact.
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