Three weeks ago I wrote that the current featherweight division is the most interesting weight class in the UFC – and after another exciting event in Jacksonville, Florida, I stand by that.
Alexander Volkanovski (24-1) has become a TV staple. He has always been a good fighter, having only suffered one defeat in his 10 year professional career. But he reached a new level in his last two performances against Brian Ortega and Chan Sung Jung. He’s a different fighter even to the one who narrowly beat Max Holloway twice in 2019 and 2020.
The split starts with Volkanovski, but it’s fascinating from top to bottom. But the questions persist. What is Volkanovski’s biggest challenge moving forward? Who are the fighters rising to 145 pounds? Who in the division would most likely consider gaining weight? After this weekend’s main event, let’s take a second to reset the split and what fights we want to see next.
Is Alex Volkanovski already the GOAT at 145 pounds?
I think Alex “The Great” is well on his way to making this case, but he’s not there yet. On the contrary, he questioned whether Holloway should be considered the greatest featherweight of all time. It’s a three-horse race between Jose Aldo, Volkanovski and Holloway. Holloway had passed Aldo in many people’s minds, but now, when you consider his back-to-back losses to Volkanovski, it’s easy to rethink that. They’ve been neck and neck through those two fights. Aldo successfully defended his UFC featherweight title seven times and defended it twice before in the WEC (which was basically the UFC, under a different name).
Whenever Volkanovski and Holloway meet for the third time, this fight will have a lot to say about it. It’s interesting because Volkanovski beat Aldo and Holloway, but I don’t think you can call him the greatest yet because his work — or lack of title defenses — lags behind the duo. Aldo has lost to both, including Holloway twice, but his resume is arguably the best at weight. It will probably generate some pushback, and maybe I tend to favor the past, but I’ll call Aldo the greatest now. Ask me again at the end of the year.
Who is the most worthy challenger to Volkanovski’s throne
Max Holloway cements his No. 1 contender status with an incredible performance at UFC Fight Night.
Holloway. What are we even talking about here? It was Holloway. He just needed to win a few fights over the past two years to force Game 3. It was supposed to happen at UFC 273, but Holloway aggravated an earlier injury that forced him to pull out. Ironically, he was cleared in time to continue fighting on April 9, but the UFC had already moved on to Volkanovski vs. Jung by then. This is the only fight to be fought.
Dana White didn’t commit to that this weekend, but I don’t see them going anywhere else. Holloway is 1B to Volkanovski’s 1A, and their first two fights were too close to call. I feel like Volkanovski has no “unfinished business” with Holloway – I consider his two wins over him legitimate. But they are two of the best featherweights of their time, if not the two best of all time. It makes sense that they would face each other multiple times considering how close the game was and how they handled every other opponent they faced.
If the division became Volkanovski, Holloway and all the others, what name could fill that gap?
Yair Rodriguez. It’s easy to forget that Rodriguez is only 29, even though he feels like he’s been around forever. His inactivity has meant that he doesn’t feel like he’s been in tough fights in a short time. He lost to Holloway in November, but it was fascinating to see how competitive he was in that fight. Two judges felt that he only lost this five-round fight by one round, and that shouldn’t be taken lightly considering the opponent.
Rodriguez still has room to grow. He has a devastating finishing ability. This split is stacked, so it’s hard to get out there and get to that Volkanovski-Holloway level. If you had to put one to part with it, it’s Rodriguez.
So what does next year look like at featherweight?
Dan Hooker and Arnold Allen give London fans their money’s worth in the opening round.
There is a pivot at the center of this split – Volkanovski vs. Holloway 3. This fight needs to happen, and it will help dictate what happens next. If Holloway loses to Volkanovski for the third time, he will likely leave with a move up to lightweight. If Holloway gets the belt back, Volkanovski will be thrown back into the contenders mix. I don’t think he would consider changing weights rather than focusing on getting his belt back.
Beyond this match, you have plenty of fights worthy of a main event. That’s why I like this division so much. It might not be the deepest split in the UFC, but it’s stylistically the most entertaining right now. They are dynamic and sporty guys who can rift. Arnold Allen, after what he did against Dan Hooker? The UFC hopes to return to England this summer, with Allen likely booking a big fight on this card. Calvin Kattar, another boxer-wrestler who just put Giga Chikadze in a phone booth? Josh Emmett, with knockout power in both hands? Sodiq Yusuff is an under-the-radar candidate with well-rounded skills. The struggles of Bryce Mitchell and Movsar Evloev could destroy many in the division. Dan Ige floats in the middle of it all, serving as a proven test for anyone near the top.
I imagine Rodriguez versus Ortega. Kattar versus Emmett. Ige vs. Evloev takes place in June. Allen versus Jung or Chikadze. I’m telling you, look back on this story a year from now and ask yourself, “Which weight class has produced the most entertaining fights in the UFC over the past 12 months?” My money is on 145.
Volkanovski says he’s ready to fight at lightweight if no option emerges. What impact would this have on 145 and 155?
Volkanovski is currently on a shortlist of candidates for the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, making him a candidate to switch weight classes and pursue a title in a second division. I might see it eventually, but I don’t see it right now. Not when Volkanovski has a potential trilogy fight with Holloway ahead of him, and not when the lightweight division has Islam Makhachev – and to a lesser extent, Beneil Dariush – waiting for a title shot. Makhachev and Dariush could fight for a No. 1 contender spot.
Still, whether they do it or not, the lightweight division doesn’t need a “new contender” in Volkanovski. There’s a lot going on, starting with Charles Oliveira’s title defense against Justin Gaethje next month. And there will be soon be legitimate challengers for the featherweight title. The UFC needs to book some of those bigger fights at 145. The division will shake up a bit, and Volkanovski won’t need to step up.