For Cub Swanson, perhaps the sixth time will be the charm.
Swanson ran his impressive Octagon win streak to an even half-dozen on Saturday at UFC Fight Night 44, outdueling the headhunting Jeremy Stephens en route to a unanimous-decision victory (49-46 x 2, 48-47).
The win—over an up-jumped lightweight who himself came in on a three-fight roll—might leave him at the very top of a suddenly robust featherweight division.
Then again, maybe not. There is more than just one 145-pound horse in this race.
Champion Jose Aldo’s dance card already has him ticketed for a rematch with Chad Mendes at UFC 176 on Aug. 2. Any number of indecisive outcomes there—an injury, a draw, a loss by Aldo necessitating a rematch—could cause a delay.
Next Sunday’s The Ultimate Fighter 19 finale bout between BJ Penn and Frankie Edgar might also be just as likely as any to produce Aldo’s next challenger. In addition, Dennis Bermudez will meet Clay Guida next month at UFC on Fox 12. Bermudez currently has a win streak just as long as Swanson’s, and if he extends his to seven against Guida, well, all bets could be off.
The featherweight tides could shift a hundred times over before Swanson gets his shot. Any number of outside factors could put him off, including the fact that his victory over Stephens might turn out to be one of the lowest-profile happenings on the above list. Heck, it probably won’t even go down as the biggest story of the weekend.
Swanson’s main event win came at the tail end of another marathon UFC Saturday, which saw the company run back-to-back shows on separate continents for the second time in less than a month. It also happened just hours after news broke that Chael Sonnen had failed yet another drug test, this time for substances of the decidedly performance-enhancing kind.
So, yeah, it might turn out that the 5’7” Swanson has a tough time standing out in the crowd, despite his neon green, tiger-striped fight gear.
What we do know with absolute certainty, however, is that—no matter what happens with the rest of the division—he deserves a second crack at Aldo as much as anyone. At this point, his case is pretty much airtight.
Their first meeting at WEC 41 in July of 2009 has haunted him on highlight reels ever since. Aldo’s eight-second double-flying-knee knockout propelled the Brazilian into a title fight against Mike Brown. Aldo won it and has been champion ever since, currently rivaling all comers near the top of the pound-for-pound list.
Swanson’s journey has been a tad more arduous. Since dropping that fight to Aldo, he also lost to future No. 1 contenders Mendes and Ricardo Lamas. He sat out a year and a day with injuries, and for a while there, it seemed as though he’d never distance himself from the featherweight pack.
In the wake of the Lamas loss, though, Swanson has been on a tear. It’s been more than two-and-a-half years since the 30-year-old Jackson’s MMA product has tasted defeat, and he seems a world away from the inconsistent fighter who went 2-3 from 2009 to 2011.
His performance against Stephens seemed as good a capstone on a run to No. 1 contender status as Swanson could have hoped for. By the time it was over, he had the ferocious Iowa native bloodied and discombobulated, having weathered rough patches during the early rounds when it seemed Stephens’ power might win the day.
But Swanson proved too good and too complete. For the majority of the bout, he was able to control the range, switching stances to land kicks to the legs and body. He was also able to keep Stephens off balance, stifling his potshot offense with a higher volume and more diverse array of strikes.
It didn’t hurt, either, that the former 155-pounder said he injured his right hand during the second round. Only firing on half his cylinders, Stephens proved incapable of keeping pace once Swanson began to pull away down the stretch.
“I just wanted to come out here and paint a picture for you guys,” Swanson told play-by-play announcer Jon Anik in the cage after the fight. “What do you guys think? Six (wins) in a row, have I redeemed myself, or what?”
Consider Swanson redeemed.
On top of that redemption, though, he’s going to need a little bit of patience and a whole lot of luck to cash in his first career shot at the gold.