With a quick look at the UFC's schedule for 2013, it becomes clear the organization has every intention to fire out of the gates in the new year throwing heavy leather. With the past 12 months marred by injury, bout changes and an entire card being cancelled, the UFC is looking to bounce back in impressive fashion by rolling out a first-quarter lineup filled with high-profile matchups featuring a handful of the sport's biggest names.
While the promotion's superstars will rightfully draw the lion's share of the attention, the current schedule has created an interesting opportunity for an entire weight class to make a long-overdue impact with the UFC fanbase.
Since the WEC merged with the UFC in 2010, the featherweight division has sat idly at the bottom of the promotion's deck. Save for current champion and pound-for-pound candidate Jose Aldo, the weight class has failed to establish itself as a "must watch" division. But the tides of change are swirling, and suddenly there is a group of potential contenders looking to scrap their way into the title picture.
The collective is a mixture of veterans, prospects and a former lightweight champion. If said fighters continue to bring the same brand of ruckus they brought to the Octagon in 2012, by the end of the coming year, the featherweight division could not only put itself on the map in the UFC, but produce several stars in the process.
Contenders in the Making
With the way the current schedule is lined up, the 145-pound divisional picture is going to become hectic in a hurry. While former No. 1 contender Chad Mendes and rising prospect Dustin Poirier both finished 2012 with strong performances, the remaining fighters in the Top 10 will all see action in the coming months.
On January's UFC on Fox 6 card, Duke Roufus protege Erik Koch will face Ricardo Lamas. While "New Breed" was originally slated to face Aldo in the main event of UFC 153, injury ultimately forced him out of the fight, and with Frankie Edgar dropping down and stepping in to fill his place, the 24-year-old watched his title shot become nonexistent.
When Koch steps into the Octagon in Chicago, it will be his first appearance in over a year, but prior to the injury that forced him out of the Aldo fight, the Milwaukee-based fighter had put together four consecutive victories.
Another fighter who has put together a banner year is Jackson-Winkeljohn trained fighter Cub Swanson. The longest-tenured featherweight on the Zuffa roster experienced a career resurgence in 2012, as he earned victories over George Roop, Ross Pearson and Charles Oliveira. All three victories came by way of knockout, and in the process of doing so, Swanson solidified himself in the conversation of top contenders in the featherweight mix.
Despite the California native campaigning for a bout with Chan Sung Jung, "The Korean Zombie" has yet to return from injury and Swanson's next bout with come against Dennis Siver at UFC on Fuel TV 7 in February.
Since dropping down to featherweight, the 33-year-old Siver has looked like a man possessed. The German-born fighter has earned lopsided decision victories over Diego Nunes and TUF alum Nam Phan working behind a high-output attack and powerful strikes.
Another noteworthy clash at the UFC on Fox 6 card in January will feature former lightweight contender Clay Guida as he makes his UFC featherweight debut against Hioki. With both fighters coming off losses, the bout carries no title implications, but the outcome will determine which fighter stays in the hunt of an increasingly competitive division.
Guida has competed for years as an undersized lightweight, and it will be interesting to see how he fares against fighters his own size. "The Carpenter" is coming off a poor performance against Gray Maynard where his typically fan-friendly fighting style was anything but. A win over an opponent of Hioki's caliber will put the Chicago native on the fast track to the division's upper tier.
The Non-Superfight Superfight
While the rest of the pack scraps it out to see who is going to fill out the "next" position, the one featherweight clash the MMA world is salivating for will come at UFC 156 when Aldo defends his title against Edgar. After the initial meeting was scrapped due to Aldo's injury in late September, the UFC decided to keep the pairing intact and reschedule for a later date.
Those are lofty expectations to live up to, but Aldo has shown no signs of such things being too burdensome to carry. The only knock to Aldo's reign has been the level of competition he's faced, and if he can defeat an opponent as accomplished as Edgar, the GOAT talk will certainly increase.
The picture looks a bit different from Edgar's perspective. One year ago, the Toms River native was the reigning lightweight champion, but after two razor-thin decision losses to Benson Henderson, "The Answer" suddenly found himself on the outside of title contention in the ultra-competitive division he once championed.
Edgar had been receiving pressure to drop down to the featherweight division for years, and following his second loss to Henderson, the former Clarion University standout wrestler decided it was time to make the move.
Should Edgar be the first to solve the Aldo puzzle, he will join a small group of fighters who have accomplished the difficult task of earning titles in two different weight classes. On the other hand, if Edgar falls short against the Brazilian phenom, a third consecutive loss would do major damage to his relevance in the sport. While I can't see a loss to Aldo costing Edgar his job with the UFC, for a fighter as proud and talented as Edgar has proven to be, it would put him in limbo.
Over the next two-and-a-half months, all of the lingering questions will be answered, and it's quite possible that those answers will come in exciting fashion. If this proves to be the case, 2013 will be the year the featherweight division finally gets its due.