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The UFC Featherweight Ladder: Ranking the Division’s Worthiest Challengers

(Pictured above: Barry “Sarge” Walters, the schizophrenic UFC fan who can often be seen running onstage during weigh-ins. / Photo via Getty)

By Alex Giardini

Unlike some weight-classes we won’t mention, the UFC featherweight division is currently loaded with dangerous contenders, any of whom could be a serious title threat in the future. At UFC 163 (August 3rd, Rio de Janeiro), divisional ruler Jose Aldo defends his belt against fan-favorite “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung, and as long as an immediate rematch isn’t booked, there will be a feeding frenzy of 145-pounders trying to make their case as the true #1 contender. So who’s worthiest of the next title shot? Let’s put aside the phony UFC rankings and business-driven matchmaking and break down where each featherweight contender really stands in the pecking order.

Ricardo Lamas

(Photo via Esther Lin/MMAFighting)

Lamas is the obvious frontrunner to be next in line but why is he being overlooked? The fact that Jung got the title shot over Lamas after their UFC 162 bout was canceled raised a few eyebrows in itself. Lamas, who hasn’t lost in over a year and a half, has blazed through his opposition in the UFC including men on this very list, and despite demolishing a highly-regarded prospect in Erik Koch back in January, his immediate future is unknown. Lamas has a devastating striking game — including some flashy and dangerous kicks — which gives him the ability to end a fight at any moment. He also has a quality wrestling pedigree, alongside a brown belt in jiu-jitsu, and his ground and pound is murderous; woe to anyone in the division who finds himself on the bottom of Lamas’s elbows and power strikes.

It’s relatively strange that Lamas was skipped in line for a title shot but maybe the UFC feels Aldo’s competition should come with a familiar face. Jung is no slouch, finishing all three opponents thus far in his UFC career, but Lamas also has an equally impressive track record in the company – undefeated in four bouts with previous stoppages over Cub Swanson, Matt Grice. The aforementioned brutalizing of Erik Koch was a major reason to include him in the mix, as Koch was a highly-touted prospect who was already paving his way to a title shot before he met “The Bully.” With Conor McGregor and Cub Swanson angling for fights with the Chicago-born fighter, his next move is up in the air, but maybe he’ll remain quiet until August 3rd to see how everything pans out.

Frankie Edgar

(Photo via Getty Images)

Maybe because Edgar is used to razor-thin decisions, it was fitting that the New Jersey native pushed Aldo as far as anyone did thus far in the Brazilian’s championship tenure. Physically incapable of having a boring fight, Edgar’s pace was a bad matchup for Aldo in the championship rounds – he was able to take the champion down and didn’t look as exhausted as his counterpart. With his win over Charles Oliveira at UFC 162, Edgar looks posed to make a statement in the division, and it’s inevitable he will get another shot. His star power is unmatched for a non title-holder, and it would be a crime if Edgar is slotted anywhere under the co-main event for the rest of his career. Edgar’s drop to featherweight grants the division with an abundance of possibilities for his next bout – putting him against almost any other 145′er (especially the ones on this list) would create a compelling, main event-worthy fight.

Edgar’s gutsy first performance against “Scarface” has already earned him the right to a future rematch, and the thought of Edgar scrapping with Jung is salivating, to say the least. The dilemma that surrounds Edgar is that he may catch the ‘‘Urijah Faber title bug,’’ which means he constantly gets title shots no matter how the previous ones pan out. But Edgar was a champion not too long ago, and although Faber was the kingpin of the WEC in his time, Edgar was ranked as the top pound-for-pound fighter when he was the champion, not only due to his skill but his immeasurable heart — plus, he actually won some of those UFC title fights.

Since Edgar is currently 1-1 in the featherweight division, he’ll need another fight to climb back up the ladder. With a victory, he can leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that he’s title-bound yet again.

Cub Swanson

(Photo via MMAFighting)

The Albuquerque, New Mexico-based featherweight has had an inspiring comeback in the UFC — after going 5-3 in the WEC, he lost his UFC debut against Ricardo Lamas but has summoned a storm in the division with five straight victories including stoppages over Ross Pearson, Charles Oliveira and Dennis Siver. Greg Jackson thinks Swanson did enough with his win two weeks ago to be granted the next title shot, and his dazzling displays of speed, intensity and work on the ground has proven he could hang with the best in the division. Swanson would like to get revenge from that bitter WEC 41 fight against Aldo back in 2009 when he got his eye socket obliterated by the current champion’s knees. He would be keen on showcasing his abilities against Aldo for real this time, since seven seconds was surely not enough.

Even if you’re a firm doubter of the MMA math, Swanson lost to three men in the past three years that are on this list — Ricardo Lamas, Chad Mendes and Jose Aldo — so it might be tough for the UFC brass to jump him ahead of any of those guys. But Swanson looks like a fighter reborn, and if it’s true that “everyone has a comeback,” Swanson’s previous efforts should not weigh so heavily on the possibility of a title fight. Out of six UFC appearances, he has earned two Knockout of the Night bonuses as well as a Fight of the Night honors two weeks ago. He could be the fan favorite for a title shot this very moment and if the UFC feels he has done enough to earn the shot, we’d have no problem with that.

Swanson’s name has been appearing besides the likes Ricardo Lamas, Frankie Edgar and the winner of Aldo/Jung when talking about his next fight. His recent track record has him at the forefront above anyone on this list in terms of accomplishments, but beating a fellow contender before a championship fight would really set his position in stone.

The winner of Clay Guida vs. Chad Mendes at UFC 164

(Photo via MMAWeekly)

The self-proclaimed ”Big Lebowski addict” has always been an exciting fighter to watch, but Guida’s recent performances against Anthony Pettis and Hatsui Hioki were tedious displays of lay and pray, and have turned him from crowd-favorite to UFC villain. Minus the highly entertaining war he had with Benson Henderson, we’ve seen Guida borrow a play off Kalib Starnes’ clipboard against Gray Maynard in a main event snoozer last summer, and play it extremely safe during Anthony Pettis’s Octagon debut in mid-2011.

Guida is still a recognizable figure among fans and is extremely likable, but the notion of him never being in a boring fight is somewhat gone. He has been in the UFC since 2006, and his 10-7 record sums it up if you’re wondering why he has never earned a title shot.

Meanwhile, Chad Mendes’s capability to finish fights and his constant title aspirations could have him on the top of anyone’s list. Mendes had some good moments against Jose Aldo during their title fight at UFC 142, but the way “Scarface” ended the fight left no doubt in anyone’s mind. Still, it was a learning experience that was necessary for his career, and Mendes has bounced back a better fighter because of it.

Mendes’s immense frame is an undeniable advantage at featherweight, since he is one of the stronger competitors in the division. If there is one criticism about Mendes, it’s that his past three fights were mismatches – against Cody McKenzie, Yaotzin Meza and Darren Elkins – even though that last one looked good on paper. Still, you can’t argue with the results: three first-round finishes in his last three fights, none of them exceeding two minutes.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea if the winner of this fight waited until beating one more opponent before they are thrown in the Octagon against the champion. That is unless one of them scores a spectacular knockout. Unfortunately, this fight has “decision” written all over it.

Nik Lentz

(Photo via Getty Images)

It’s safe to say that Lentz had some forgettable performances in his UFC career. (It’s pretty hard to remember fights that you slept through.) Lentz has been in the UFC for a little under four years now, facing some stiff competition from the likes of Evan Dunham, Charles Oliveira and Mark Bocek. Although he dropped a decision to Bocek, suffered a doctor’s stoppage TKO against Dunham, and was illegally kneed in the head by Oliveira, which turned that original loss into a no contest, Lentz had won Fight of The Night honors for two of those fights and is currently riding a three-fight win streak. Lentz’s comfort with his striking game is increasing, and he’s slowly losing his reputation as the boring wrestler who grinds you against the cage for fifteen minutes. He has the style and will to have a good fight with almost anyone in the division. In terms of his popularity, that’s what needs work — in twelve fights, he’s never appeared on the main card…not even once. His fights have been televised, but it’s the boring ones really stuck out — his stinker with Andre Winner could have been the worst televised fight in the world since William Shatner against a demonic Ninja Turtle. But if Lentz can sneak onto a main card fight and secure another finish, that could have the UFC brass (and the fans) finally considering him as a worthy challenger.

Final Analysis…

The only reasonable decision that could be made is if Lamas gets a title shot against the winner of Aldo vs. “Zombie.” The lack of attention being paid to him as of late in terms of getting recognition and another fight is odd, but perhaps the UFC already has him penciled in to be the next challenger.

Edgar and Swanson should trade blows, not only because it would be one hell of an exciting clash, but it would also facilitate the next steps at the top of the division — have the winners of those respective fights meet, and why not have the losers meet as well? Either way, the UFC’s business model will probably decide this for us, and although they have let us down before, any of these three men would be worth considering. The champion has already beaten three out of these six men (ironically, those three men would probably be the managerial and fan favorites for Aldo’s hypothetical next title defense) but if Jung walks away with the upset in Rio de Janeiro in convincing fashion, the division is blown wide open with numerous possibilities. Whether or not Aldo retains his title or “Zombie” shocks the world, there won’t be boring or unimpressive matchmaking when it comes to title bouts for quite a while at one-forty-five.

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As Good As Anyone- July 25, 2013 at 7:58 am
Guida should not even be in this conversation. He has yet to win a single fight at featherweight (and don't bullshit on the Hioki fight, that was a garbage-ass decision). I don't believe Edgar should be in the conversation either, he barely beat Oliviera due to fending off submissions and wrestling (which is nonsense). Lamas, Mendez, and Swanson are clear contenders, Lentz and Frankie are close, but need another win or two. Guida needs a few wins to even be talked about. As for the upcoming title fight, I'd like to see Zombie beat Aldo, but very unlikely.
Omelette Platter- July 24, 2013 at 9:13 pm
guida can't out-wrestle or out-box mendes. i say money finishes this thing.
Pen Fifteen- July 24, 2013 at 2:18 pm
"Edgar was ranked as the top pound-for-pound fighter when he was the champion." That's news to me. I understand that a lot of people find his spastic boxing "exciting," but to say his dominance as champ compared to that of Silva or GSP is silly.