The Big Picture: The Best Division in the Sport

By Eric Stinton Nov 12, 2019

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The idea that there can be too much of a good thing usually refers to things like the sadness and isolation of being too smart, the paranoia that comes with vast wealth or the sudden sugarcoating around your waist after Halloween candy goes on sale in November.

Yet there is a similar problem for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s featherweight division, though “problem” may not be the most accurate way to describe it. As former featherweight greats Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar age out of the division and test the bantamweight waters, there are four potential contenders -- Zabit Magomedsharipov, Yair Rodriguez, Chan Sung Jung and Brian Ortega -- who are a clear notch above everyone else. Between them, champion Max Holloway and No. 1 contender Alexander Volkanovski, they have essentially cleaned out the entire division other than each other. This allows for several possible matchups moving forward, each with compelling stylistic and narrative intrigue.

After Magomedsharipov defeated Calvin Kattar at UFC Fight Night 163 on Saturday in Moscow, he called for a title shot. In the absence of any other contenders, a solid win against a Top 15 fighter may be enough to justify a title shot, but that is not the case here. Despite being 18-1 overall and 6-0 in the UFC, Magomedsharipov has yet to face an elite opponent, and he has yet to put on the type of performance that makes his deservingness undeniable. With the other four featherweights booked against each other in December, now is the time to fight Rodriguez. They were set to fight before but Rodriguez allegedly turned it down, prompting the UFC to briefly cut him from the roster. After returning from his brief exile, Rodriguez was booked to fight Magomedsharipov at UFC 228 in September 2018 but had to pull out due to an injury. Now, they both have gone from prospect to contender, and whoever wins would have a much more defensible claim to a title shot. It’s the most sensible and obvious match to make right now.

The winner of a hypothetical Rodriguez-Magomedsharipov fight would not be a guarantee for the next title shot, however. There is still the Jung-Ortega bout in December to consider. This poses a bit of a matchmaking dilemma. You can either create two contenders and one of them has to wait, or you can make it a mini-tournament, with the winners of each bout fighting each other in a title eliminator. Given the personnel involved, either option is a win. Rodriguez-Ortega would be a dream matchup from a promotional angle and an awesome fight for fans. Magomedsharipov-Ortega would be a wrestler vs. jiu-jitsu toss-up. A Rodriguez-Jung rematch would be welcomed by just about everyone, and a Magomedsharipov-Jung fight would be just as bonkers. Plus, it’s not like the losers of these fights would be out of contention for good; they’d still have ample time to make comeback campaigns.

Then there’s the upcoming title tilt between Holloway and Volkonovski to consider. It’s an interesting fight in its own right, but it also magnifies how awesome the top of the division is right now. Regardless of who wins and who gets next, there’s not a bad fight in the bunch. Holloway vs. Magomedsharipov, Rodriguez, Jung or Ortega are all exciting matchups, and the same can be said of Volkonovski. Plus, they’re all in the same age window that’s often considered to be a fighter’s prime, with Rodriguez being the youngest at 27 and Jung being the oldest at 32. Not only does that create compelling individual matchups, but there’s a good chance for multi-fight rivalries to emerge for the next several years.

What is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this current lineup is that, despite a combined UFC featherweight record of 49-7-2, these six fighters have only crossed paths twice: Jung-Rodriguez and Holloway-Ortega. Nobody would have any issue with running either of those fights back, either. Holloway-Ortega was “Fight of the Night” and “Performance of the Night” for Holloway, while Jung-Rodriguez was “Fight of the Night,” “Performance of the Night” for Rodriguez and the 2018 “Knockout of the Year.” The worst-case scenario in this mix of six is for one of those rematches to happen, which would be better than most best-case scenarios for top-contender matchups in most of the other divisions.

It’s hard not to argue that the UFC featherweight division is the best division in the sport right now. The best fighters are all in similar stations in their career in terms of age, accomplishment and development, and they’re already starting to fight one another. It feels like solar systems slowly circling each other, about to collide, while we get to sit and watch the featherweight nebulae form. There’s no need for any extra promotional ornament, no interim title, no thematically determined pseudo-interim BMF title. There are only good fights to be made, fights that are relevant to the rankings and almost guaranteed to be dynamic spectacles of violence. The only potential bumps in the road here are the ever-looming ones: injuries, contract disputes, last-second weight cut problems, that sort of thing. Even those don’t seem all that bad when there are another five to six fighters ready to fill in, with almost no distinguishable drop in quality. This isn’t too much of a good thing; it’s just a lot of a good thing.

Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com. Advertisement

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