While 2018 will go down in history as the year that the 155 pound lightweight division truly became the glamour division of the UFC, ten pounds south, the featherweight division also saw a banner year in 2018.
From the rise of Brian Ortega as a potential future superstar, to the fielding of a new crop of rising young contenders such as Zabit Magomedsharipov and Alexander Volkanovski, to Yair Rodriguez and The Korean Zombie having one of the best fights in UFC history at the UFC 25th Anniversary show in Denver on November 3, this division provided nothing but thrills. The incredible battle between champion Max Holloway and Ortega at UFC 231 in Toronto on December 8 was the best icing on a beautiful cake that was the amazing year of 2018.
Going into 2019, however, the featherweight division is hanging in a bit of limbo, thanks to the status of champion Max Holloway.
With the possibility of the Hawaiian champion moving up in weight, the division could be wide open. Add to that the number of both experienced contenders and rising prospects, 2019 could be the craziest year on record for the 145 pound weight class. Yet, as the new year kicks off, how are the five questions that must be answered about the immediate future of the featherweight division.
1) Will Max Holloway stay in the 145 pound division?
With his star-cementing performance last month against Brian Ortega, the world became Holloway’s oyster, and few fighters have as many future matchups as Max does. Somewhat surprisingly, many of those aren’t at 145, but in the 155 pound division. In the shadows of UFC 231, Dana White was very enthusiastic at the prospect of “Blessed” moving up to the 155 pounds, where there are several matchups that everyone would love. The UFC has already tried to make Max versus champion Khabib Nurmagomedov once. For hardcore fight fans, Max versus Tony Ferguson is a wet dream. Yet, for the most MMA fans, the fight they want to see is Max versus Conor McGregor, which would be a rematch of a fight the two had as UFC youngsters back in 2014, and Max’s last loss. It is a fight that makes a whole hell of a lot sense.
In addition to the financial windfalls that would be possible for Max if he moved up, there is also the factor that Max a big dude for featherweight. Reports suggest that he can get as high as forty pounds over his fighting weight between camps and common sense tells you that he won’t be able to cut down to 145 pounds forever, especially considering that Max may still be growing at twenty-seven years old. Plus, there are many that believe that the symptoms Max exhibited in his new infamous interview with Michael Bisping and the UFC Tonight crew were weight cutting related. Going to 155 in 2019 may be what is best for his body.
Then there is the fact that Max is running out of top contenders at 145. While most people seek to clean out their divisions once they become champion, Max did much of that work before he won the belt by outslugging Ricardo Lamas, submitting Cub Swanson, out-kickboxing Jeremy Stephens, and outfoxing Charles Oliveira. With his two destructions of Jose Aldo and running through Ortega, Max is almost out of challengers.
Notice the word “Almost” in that last sentence. There is one more legitimate challenger for Max at 145 pounds and that leads us to our second question.
2) Will Frankie Edgar challenge for the 145 pound title again?
While Dana White and the UFC Tonight crew wondered who was left to challenge Max Holloway for the title, somewhere in New Jersey, Frankie Edgar had to be looking on incredulously. Twice now, Holloway and Edgar have been signed to clash for the 145 pound title in a matchup that was looked at as one of the best matchups in any division. Edgar had to pull out of their UFC 219 clash with an eye injury and then Holloway had to pull out of UFC 222 with a leg injury. With that event in serious jeopardy, Edgar agreed to a three round bout with Ortega and suffered a shocking first round knockout, effectively knocking him out of the title picture for the time being.
Edgar followed up by doing what Edgar does — fight. He bounced back thirty-five days later with a three round domination of Cub Swanson and was scheduled to fight the Korean Zombie on the UFC 25th Anniversary Show, but he had to pull out with a torn bicep. It seems that Edgar is close to being fully healed and should be ready to get back in the cage soon. Even with his loss to Ortega, there is no reason why Edgar hasn’t earned the next shot at the world title, especially after the career he has had in the UFC and what he did for the company last year.
Not to mention that the matchup between Holloway and Edgar is just as interesting now as it was a year ago. With his inside boxing and offensive wrestling, Edgar presents Holloway with some unique challenges that he has not faced before. Most of Holloway’s victories have been against other strikers and jiu-jitsu masters. He may have never faced a wrestler as good as Edgar, and damn, do I want to see this fight!
3) What is next for Brian Ortega?
When Ortega knocked out Edgar with a single uppercut at UFC 222 last March, the company has stumbled onto a gold mine. There are few babyfaces in combat sports as pure as Brian “T-City” Ortega. Jiu-Jitsu bros love his chokes. Women (like Claudia Gadelha) want to have his babies. He surfs. He loves to do charity work. He looks, talks, acts, and most importantly, fights like a star. That so many media and fans were firmly picking Ortega over Max, despite the fact that Max had twelve fights in row, shows how powerfully Ortega has won over the UFC audience. Despite the fact that Holloway cut him to ribbons with combinations until Ortega’s corner stopped the fight at the end of the fourth round, Ortega’s effort, his graciousness in defeat, and the fact that he looked normal in a week only advances his cause with fans. This is guy that people are going to be coming to see for a long time.
For now, however, his future seems uncertain. He won’t be getting an immediate rematch with Max. Jose Aldo, who would be a great opponent for him, is matched up with Renato Moicano on February 2 in Brazil. He’s already beaten Edgar. Names such as Zabit and Volkanovski seem a little too risky at this point. Then there’s the fact that like Max, Ortega is a big 145 pounder. 155 doesn’t seem too far away.
Given everything that is going on this division, Ortega’s best course of action may just be to wait. If Max does move up, Ortega is a great position to fight for the vacant title, possibly against the Moicano/Aldo winner. If Max versus Frankie does get made, Ortega should take a fight and look to call out the winner. But for now, Ortega should probably just kept suffering and working on his wrestling-which Max exposed a little bit last month. This guy has plenty more left in him.
4) How long can the old war horses last?
Few divisions have as many long-time contenders still fighting at a high level as does 145 pounds. Guys like Edgar, Aldo, Swanson, Ricardo Lamas, Stephens, and others have been plying their trade in this division for many years now and the fact that many of them are still viable in 2019 is pretty remarkable.
Aldo, the most legendary of these men, rescued his career with his bodyshot knockout of Stephens in July in Calgary and if beats Moicano, who has emerged a legit title threat, in Ferbuary, he could be a position for another title shot.
Despite his loss to Aldo, Stephens was on a real knockout streak beforehand and seems to still be near top form. Lamas shook off a devasting knockout at the hands of an overweight Josh Emmett and a rough decision to Mirsad Bektic to stop Darren Elkins in November. Only Swanson had a really rough year, losing three times in nine months, getting submitted by Ortega and Moicano and dominated over three rounds by Edgar. It’s a tough break for a fighter that looked on the verge of a title shot just a year ago. Meanwhile, another 145 stalwart in Charles Olivera, who has been fighting at lightweight, seems poised to come back to the division.
The likes of Aldo and Lamas and Olivera and Swanson are still viable but there is a young set of contenders that is looking to knock them off. They will get plenty of chances to work in 2019 and if anyone of these guys can put some wins together, upset a Zabit or a Yair, that’s the fast track to a title shot! All of these guys can still fight and as long as have that fire in their bellies, they are going to continue to make this division a lot of fun.
5) Which young contender will break out in 2019?
Few, if any divisions, have as many young contenders ready to break out as does the 145 pound weight class. Of course, you have to start with Dagestan’s Zabit Magomedsharipov, who trains out of the Iron Army camp in New Jersey and may very well be the top prospect in the sport. He went 2-0 in 2018, the last win being a sick kneebar victory over Brandon Davis at UFC 228 in September. He has been on a collision course with Mexico’s Yair Rodriguez over a year now, and that fight is now as coveted as ever given how Yair rescued his career with his insane elbow knockout over the iron-chinned Korean Zombie in November, in one of the greatest fights in UFC history.
Coming behind up those two men is Australia’s Alexander Volkanovski, who went 3-0 in 2018, the last being an upset knockout win over former title challenger Chad Mendes last week. This dude can wrestle and kickbox and as thick as they get in the 145 pound division. The sleeper contender remains Bosnia’s Mirsad Bektic, who recovered from his shocking loss to Darren Elkins in UFC 209 by going 2-0 in 145, the last being career making win over Lamas at UFC 225 in Chicago. He may be the hardest hitter in division and he can also wrestle.
The question is which one of these guys is going to get the right matchup and cash in. Zabit vs Yair is one of the best fights that can be made in any division. Volkanovski is ready for a top five guy and Bektic may have trouble getting anyone to fight him. Any one of these guys could be ready to be champion by the end of the year; its just the matter of which one surges forward first.
And one more…
6) What are we missing?
As a wise man said, there are known knowns and known unknowns, all of which we have covered here. But what are the unknown unknowns, the things we don’t know we don’t know? Will anyone from the 155 pound division come down in weight looking for green pastures? Does anyone from 135, following the current trend move up and start tearing through everyone? Who is the next young prospect that’s going to come along and wow us? Will the GOAT himself Artem Lobov, stop having mercy and start running through anyone? And maybe, just maybe, will Conor McGregor move back down to challenge Max Holloway.
One thing I have learned about MMA and the featherweight division — you don’t rule anything out…