By almost all accounts, Hatsu Hioki is the number 2 featherweight in the world.
Sure, he didn't look great in his UFC debut against George Roop back at UFC 137. Hioki earned a split decision, but many onlookers—and I'll include myself in that group—believe Roop did enough to win the fight.
Before the Roop fight, many considered Hioki a shoo-in as the next opponent for Jose Aldo, but that went out the window after his dreadful performance.
He rebounded against Bart Palaszewski at UFC 144, looking much more like the Hioki who made a name for himself fighting in Shooto and Sengoku. Palaszewski is a tough opponent for anyone, and Hioki nearly dominated him from bell to bell. It appeared that he was once again in the driver's seat for a title shot against Aldo.
Hioki was indeed offered a shot at the Brazilian, but curiously turned it down. He felt he wasn't ready just yet and wanted another bout or two before taking on one of the world's best fighters.
His next opportunity in the Octagon comes Friday night, when he takes on Ricardo Lamas on the Fuel TV-aired preliminary portion of UFC on FX: Maynard vs. Guida.
The question I'm attempting to answer today is this: Does Hioki deserve a featherweight title shot if he's able to beat Lamas?
It's an easy answer. Hioki was the most deserving featherweight contender before he stepped foot in the UFC last year to face George Roop. Since November of 2007, Hioki has strung together a 14-1-1 record, often against some of the better featherweights Japan had to offer.
He owns victories over the legendary Rumina Sato, Masanori Kanehara, Ronnie Mann and Marlon Sandro. A win over Lamas would give him three wins in the UFC.
The UFC's featherweight division is almost devoid of true contenders for the belt. We know Koch will get his shot when Aldo heals up and is ready to return. Chan Sung Jung is in the mix. Charles Oliveira is slowly making his own case as a contender. But none of them have been able to put together the kind of record that Hioki has over the past six years.
The only downside to a Hioki title challenge is that, for the most part, he's a virtual unknown to UFC fans. But there are no true main-event superstars in the division. Aldo is the best-known commodity around, but he hasn't proven himself to be a pay-per-view draw. Jung is popular among UFC fans but has never come close a UFC pay-per-view main event.
Sometimes, the rules of sport must outweigh the entertainment aspect of mixed martial arts. Hioki may not be the most popular guy on the roster, and he likely won't attract many PPV buyers when he challenges for the belt.
But there is no question that he's the most deserving candidate.