When 2012 came to a close, the UFC featherweight division looked poised for a breakthrough.
While other deep and talented divisions receive a greater share of the spotlight, the 145-pound ranks appeared ready to make their presence felt in 2013, and through the first six months of the year, that is exactly what they've done.
Once an under-appreciated collection of talent brought over from the WEC, the featherweight division has become a can't-miss attraction under the UFC banner, with standout performances being delivered on the regular.
In addition to champion Jose Aldo, Cub Swanson, Ricardo Lamas, Chad Mendes and former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar have created a heated divisional race—one that is on pace with the heavy hitters the likes of the light heavyweight and welterweight divisions.
But with heavily contested title action, there are going to be bumps along the way, and while the featherweight division certainly has a few problems at hand, they are not necessary bad problems to have.
A Crowded Title Picture
In the aftermath of UFC on Fox 6 back in January, Ricardo Lamas appeared to be sitting on the front porch of a title shot. "The Bully" had just obliterated former No. 1 contender Erik Koch during their tilt in Chicago and the lane for Lamas to get a championship opportunity seemed wide open.
That was until top lightweight Anthony Pettis decided to make a play for Aldo's title, and Lamas suddenly found himself skipped over and waiting on the sidelines.
Nevertheless, the 30-year-old Chicagoland native wasn't looking to wait around for things to get more convoluted and decided to take a bout against Chan Sung Jung at UFC 162. The bout was slated as the co-main event on a stacked summer card and had the potential to determine the next contender to the featherweight crown.
But just as Pettis threw a wrench in the works in January, "Showtime" would ultimately create another wrinkle in Lamas' plan in late June. After a knee injury forced Pettis out of the bout with Aldo at UFC 163, the UFC tapped Jung to replace the former WEC lightweight champion, leaving Lamas without a dance partner in Las Vegas.
This series of events is undoubtedly frustrating for Lamas, as he is once again pushed aside and without a clear road to contention in front of him.
In the mean time, Cub Swanson has absolutely made the most of the disorder in the championship tier. While the Aldo/Pettis/Lamas shuffle has been going on, "Killer Cub" has picked up two impressive victories and boosted his running total to five straight.
The Jackson's MMA-trained fighter has never looked better. The Palm Springs native has finished four out of the five opponents he has faced over this stretch, and the fashion in which he is putting people away has bolstered his momentum with the UFC's passionate fanbase.
While his last defeat came at the hands of Lamas at UFC on Fox 1 back in November of 2011, the current version of machine Swanson is displaying, mixed with the time Lamas has been out of the picture, has the 29-year-old running neck and neck for title contention.
As far as title talk is concerned, it would be impossible to talk about top featherweights without mentioning Chad Mendes. The Team Alpha Male staple has been on a blistering tear since suffering a setback against Aldo at UFC 142 in January of 2012. "Money" has put away three consecutive opponents, all by way of brutal stoppage, and every one of them coming early in the opening frame.
The reignited momentum certainly has Mendes charging back towards the featherweight throne, but he is set to face a serious test in his next bout against Clay Guida at UFC 164. Should the former No. 1 contender defeat "The Carpenter" and pick up his fourth consecutive victory, he will join Swanson and Lamas as fighters who have a strong argument for a title opportunity.
The final position in the upper tier at the current time belongs to Frankie Edgar. The former lightweight champion recently put the brakes on a three-fight losing skid by edging out Charles Oliveira at UFC 162 in Las Vegas.
While "The Answer" was most certainly in a slump, the caliber of opponent he suffered losses to did minimal damage to his stock. Coming up short in two hard fought losses to Benson Henderson and coming out on the wrong end of a split-decision against Jose Aldo kept Edgar's pulse alive in his new weight class.
Nevertheless, the Toms River native earning the victory over Oliveira thrust him directly back into the title picture at 145 pounds. The biggest downside where Edgar is concerned will come in his recent track record in comparison to his peers in the title race. Having one win in his last four outings will make it difficult for him to stick around on the title radar should he suffer another setback.
That being said, the four fighters waiting for a title shot will make things interesting in the second half of the year in the featherweight division. Any way the UFC decides to divvy up the matchups will work, because all carry tremendous weight and each fighter has heavy stakes on the line.
Having so much talent in the upper tier would be enough for the featherweight division to stand on, but what makes the weight class so interesting is the collection of fighters scrapping their way towards the top.
Former lightweight Nik Lentz has found new life in his career at 145 pounds and is quickly making his way up to elite status as a featherweight. "The Carny" has collected three consecutive victories since making the drop down to 145 pounds and has looked impressive in doing so. While Lentz has been shunned in the past for his grinding style and failure to produce exciting fights, every outing in the featherweight fold has been action packed.
With increased confidence in his abilities and a bit of momentum at his back, Lentz is poised to make a strong run in his new weight class.
Clay Guida is in a similar situation. He left the lightweight division after being pushed out of the title picture for the foreseeable future and attempted to start a new run at featherweight. Guida made good on his debut in the weight class by edging out Hatsu Hioki at UFC on Fox 6 and will have a huge opportunity to climb the ladder when he faces Chad Mendes at UFC 164.
If the Jackson's MMA fighter can derail the Mendes train in Milwaukee, he will automatically cement himself in the upper tier at 145 pounds. Then again, if Guida doesn't have the answer to what Mendes brings to the table, any hopes the veteran has for a potential title shot will vanish.
Finally, with all the focus put on the title in the featherweight division, champion Jose Aldo holds a substantial piece of the puzzle. The Brazilian phenom has been one of the UFC's most dominant title-holders and will be looking to keep his reign alive when he faces Chan Sung Jung at UFC 163 on August 3.
While Aldo is the favorite going into the bout with the "Korean Zombie," there are bigger questions lingering on the horizon. "Junior's" wishes to jump up and compete for the lightweight title are no secret, and should he decide to make that move following UFC 163, that would throw an even crazier spin on the title picture at 145 pounds.
This situation could create a scenario where there is a vacated title, and the top four fighters in the division lock up in an unofficial tournament to determine who will compete for the gold. Then again, Aldo could put his plans to make the jump on hold for the time being, and a No. 1 contender would still have to be determined somewhere along the way.
There are plenty of interesting scenarios, potential matchups and possible paths for the division to take in the second half of the year, and this is what ultimately makes the UFC featherweight show the division to keep your eyes on in 2013.