By Adam Martin
Two judges screwed up the UFC’s plans this past weekend, but it may ultimately be for the best.
When Sal D’Amato and Brian Puccillo decided that Benson Henderson did enough to earn a split decision victory over Josh Thomson in the main event of UFC on FOX 10, the lightweight division had a wrench thrown into it. Had he received the judges’ decision, Thomson was already confirmed by UFC president Dana White as the next title challenger for currently-injured UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis.
“Showtime” has stated that he wants to return in July and his timeline would have matched up well with Thomson’s. Not only that, but Thomson had been scheduled to fight Pettis back at UFC on FOX 9 before the titleholder pulled out with an injury. Many thought Thomson got that fight with Pettis more due to timing than anything else, but had he defeated the former champion this past weekend, Thomson would have truly earned his title shot.
But then Henderson had his hand raised. As soon as that happened, the UFC lightweight division had to be rejigged because Henderson has already lost to Pettis twice and isn’t anywhere close to getting a trilogy fight with him. The other top contender, TJ Grant, has been out since last summer with post-concussion symptoms and isn’t even training yet, so he’s out of the picture. Nate Diaz, who has been vocal on Twitter about wanting a title shot, isn’t getting one anytime soon because c’mon. Former Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez is still out there, but it’s hard to say he deserves a title shot just because he defeated Diego Sanchez at UFC 166, even if his resume is amongst the absolute finest in the division. There’s also guys like Rafael Dos Anjos, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller, but none of them are deserving of a crack at the crown right now.
Cue Jose Aldo.
This weekend at UFC 169, Aldo puts his UFC featherweight title on the line for the sixth time in the Octagon when he takes on Ricardo Lamas in the event’s co-headliner. Should Aldo win, he would be on a 17-fight win streak which would include six defenses of the UFC featherweight championship as well as two defences of the old WEC featherweight title. He’s beaten everyone the UFC and WEC has thrown at him, including former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes, Kenny Florian, and TUF 12 winner Jonathan Brookins. That’s a resume that ranks amongst the very best in the entire sport, especially when it comes to the lighter-weight divisions. If Aldo beats Lamas this weekend at UFC 169, there is literally no one left for him to fight in the UFC featherweight division.
And that’s why, with a win at UFC 169, Aldo should move up to lightweight and be the next challenger for Pettis.
Pettis and Aldo match up extremely well with one another. They are each the best strikers in their respective divisions, and both are amongst the most exciting finishers in the sport. Don’t forget they were supposed to fight last summer at UFC 163 for Aldo’s featherweight title before Pettis pulled out with an injury (an unfortunate theme with him). That fight was highly anticipated by hardcore fans, no doubt, but it was strange that Pettis would be moving down to 145, a division he had never fought at before, when he was considered by many to be the best lightweight in the world.
So, in a way, it may be a blessing in disguise that the fight never took place, because now that Pettis is a champion at lightweight and Aldo still has his belt at 145, the UFC can promote a true superfight between two active champs, something that hasn’t happened since UFC 94.
In 2014, the UFC has very few stars. And by stars, I meant guys/girls who move the needle. Their No. 1 moneyman, former UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, recently announced an indefinite hiatus from the sport and gave up his title. He’s now at odds with the promotion over their mediocre drug testing. Anderson Silva, the No. 2 guy, had his leg snapped in half on Chris Weidman’s kneecap at UFC 168 and figures to be out most of the year despite White insisting that he will return before the calendar year is over. Former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, who hasn’t competed since 2011, seems content to do professional wrestling and isn’t likely to return anytime soon.
The only big stars the UFC has right now are UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, and former UFC light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort. Former UFC light/welterweight champion BJ Penn will return to the Octagon this summer 10 pounds lighter and figures to draw as well. It’s also possible that Nick Diaz could mount a comeback, and that’s a guy who always moves the needle. But other than that, there really aren’t any elite draws.
The UFC doesn’t just need a star, though. They need a superstar. And that’s exactly what the winner of the Pettis vs. Aldo fight would be – a bonafide superstar that the UFC could market as one of the very best athletes on the planet, especially if their fight is exciting and especially if it ends in a devastating finish. So the UFC has to strike while the iron is hot, and they have to figure out a way to make this match.
This is what I propose: For the UFC’s annual 4th of July weekend event in Las Vegas, Aldo should fight Pettis in the main event for the UFC lightweight title. Aldo will still be the UFC featherweight champion (barring a Ricardo Lamas upset), but if he defeats Pettis he must relinquish the belt and move up to 155 permanently. Should he lose, however, Aldo moves back to 145 and is still the champion.
Since there is a very real possibility that Aldo beats Pettis, an interim title would be created for the 145-pound division. The UFC featherweight division can’t just sit around and wait to see what happens with Aldo. The division has to move on, and so the right thing to do is to schedule an interim title fight between Chad Mendes and Cub Swanson, two fighters who already lost to Aldo but who are very much deserving of a featherweight title shot at the moment. The fight would also be a rematch of their WEC bout that Mendes won via decision, which adds another interesting wrinkle.
Should Aldo defeat Pettis and become the UFC lightweight champion, the winner of the Mendes vs. Swanson fight would be promoted to undisputed UFC featherweight champion. But if Aldo loses to Pettis, Aldo would come back and fight the Mendes vs. Swanson winner to unify the 145-pound belts. Either way, the UFC wins, Aldo wins, and the top contenders at 145 aren’t just sitting around waiting for Aldo. I’m not normally a fan of interim titles, but in this situation it is warranted.
The UFC said that 2013 was going to be the year of the superfight, but the only big match between cross-divisional rivals that we got to see was Aldo vs. Edgar. We never got to see GSP vs. Silva, and Jones never moved up to fight Velasquez. But in 2014, the UFC can stick to their promise from last year and put together a true superfight between the UFC lightweight champion and the UFC featherweight champion.
It all depends on Aldo winning this weekend, of course, but if he does there is absolutely no reason the UFC shouldn’t put this fight together. They can’t blow it. They need a superstar. And that’s why they need Aldo and Pettis to fight, so a new superstar can be created.