A Beginner’s Guide to a Grown Man’s Fantasy: The UFC in 2014 Part III

By: Justin Nearon

Unlike the flyweights, the featherweight division is absolutely stacked. Champion Jose Aldo is clearly better than anyone else in this group, but has a endless supply of worthy challengers including: Ricardo Lamas, Cub Swanson, Chad Mendes, Frankie Edgar, Dustin Poirier, Dennis Bermudez and Conor McGregor. That being said, after this february’s title defence at “UFC 169” vs Ricardo Lamas, his biggest challenge might come outside the weight class.

Jose Aldo  - drawn by Justin McAllister

Jose Aldo – drawn by Justin McAllister

If both combatants are willing, a ‘super fight’ with Lightweight Champion Anthony Pettis is brewing. With all due respect to everyone else I just mentioned, this option is far more exciting than anything else the division has to offer.

Aldo could move up to lightweight, Pettis could come down to meet him for the featherweight crown or the two could agree to a catchweight fight (this just means they would meet in the middle with no championship on the line). I’d favour Jose in all three scenarios, but especially in the 136 -145 lb range, so I really don’t see him ending the year without a belt.

Frankie Edgar  - drawn by Justin McAllister

Frankie Edgar – drawn by Justin McAllister

The red hot Ricardo Lamas (winner of 4 in a row) should provide the stiffest challenge at featherweight. After that, with Chad Mendes coming off a lack luster performance in December and Frankie Edgar coaching on “Ultimate Fighter 20” this spring, I’d have to think that Cub Swanson will be the next man up.

Swanson has actually won five in a row, and had his last loss not come against Lamas (way back in 2011) he’d be the one fighting Aldo at “UFC 169” on Feb 1st.

Cub Swanson (left) and Ricardo Lamas (right)  - UFC/Espanol

Cub Swanson (left) and Ricardo Lamas (right) – UFC/Espanol

The easy pick for my “Rising Star” is UFC poster boy Conor McGregor, but the pride of Ireland seems to be everyones favourite up-and-comer already. Besides I want to see how he recovers from the leg injury that has kept him sidelined since last August.

Primarily a boxer, his fighting style relies a lot on fluid and unpredictable movement. Any lingering effects from ACL surgery could seriously hinder his ability.

Conor McGregor - David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Conor McGregor – David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Instead of Conor, I’ll focus on a former media darling; Dustin Poirier. A couple of years ago “Diamond” was considered the next big thing at featherweight until his victory train got derailed by losses to Swanson and “the Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung. People forget that Poirier is only 24 and still improving. Coming off the destruction of a bloated Diego Brandao at “UFC 168”, Dustin is back on track and may be just a win away from title contention.

Dustin Poirier (left) and Cub Swanson (right)  - MMAWeekly.com

Dustin Poirier (left) and Cub Swanson (right) – MMAWeekly.com

Men’s Lightweight – 146 to 155 lbs

As deep as the featherweight division is, the lightweights are equally stacked. We’ve already covered the prospects of lightweight champion Anthony Pettis competing outside the division (see featherweights above), so instead let’s focus on the steep challenges he faces in his own weight class.

This is the first division in which I don’t see the current champion retaining his belt for the entirety of 2014. As much as I love “Showtime” Pettis, I don’t perceive him as the completely unstoppable force everyone else seems to think he is.

Anthony Pettis (right) - UFC.com

Anthony Pettis (right) – UFC.com

We forget that he lost a unanimous decision to Clay Guida just two and a half years ago despite being the betting favourite. The loss seemed to speak of a lack focus the fiery Pettis can sometimes be prone to. Less than 6 months removed from his championship win over Benson Henderson, Pettis’ attention appears to be straying again. He’s been pushing for that fight outside his division with Jose Aldo. That’s something other champions like GSP, Anderson Silva or Aldo didn’t even consider doing until defending their belt several times. If Pettis doesn’t stay focussed on the murderers row in his own division, his title run could be short lived.

Who are these marauders coming for Anthony’s crown? I count at least eight guys and that doesn’t include rising stars Michael Johnson and Rustam Khabilov or dangerous vets Nate Diaz and Diego Sanchez. I don’t see either of the latter men winning a title anytime soon, but both are certainly capable of beating Anthony Pettis on any given night.

Josh Thompson (right) and Benson Henderson (left) - titococuture.com

Josh Thompson (right) and Benson Henderson (left) – titococuture.com

“Showtime” was supposed defend the belt against Josh Thompson on February 1st, but has been sidelined by an injury until summer. Thompson instead fought former lightweight champion Benson Henderson on that “UFC on Fox” card. Henderson won, but just barely against a guy with a broken hand, and by a split decision that really could have gone either way. So now it’s doubtful that either man will get the next title shot.

That opportunity will likely go to Gilbert Melendez. The UFC would love to pair him with Khabib Nurmagomedov until Pettis returns. The problem is Melendez feels it’s in his best interest to wait, rather than risk his standing in the division, by possibly losing to the 21-0 Russian.

Canadian TJ Grant has to be kept in the mix as well. People forget that Pettis replaced an injured Grant in his title winning fight against Benson Henderson back at “UFC 164”.

If I had to choose one to be wearing the belt at the end of 2014, it would be Gilbert Melendez. “El Nino” is a former Strikeforce champion, lost a controversial decision to ‘then champ’ Henderson last April and is a better technical fighter than Pettis.

Gilbert Melendez - Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Gilbert Melendez – Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

The “Rising Star” in this division appears to be just as difficult to single out, but I was able to narrow it down to one; Michael Johnson.

After a second consecutive loss in early 2013, “The Ultimate Fighter 12” runner up seemed destined for a career of relative obscurity on UFC undercards. It wasn’t helping that he was attached to what appeared to be sinking ship in the Florida based MMA team, “The Blackzilians”.

Michael Johnson - ryanloco.com

Michael Johnson – ryanloco.com

But then something changed. Members of the ‘Blackzilians’ started winning and so did Johnson. “The Menace” strung together two spectacular victories, both as an underdog and in the process may have established himself as the most dangerous lightweight fighter outside of the top 10.

The Blackzilians - ryanloco.com

The Blackzilians – ryanloco.com

Up next in Part 4: Men’s Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight.

Part 1: Women’s Bantamweight and Strawweight

Part 2: Men’s Flyweight and Bantamweight

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