The featherweight division is one of the UFC’s best, but Dana White, Sean Shelby, and Mick Maynard have a lot of work to do to keep the weight class moving in the right direction. Booking the fights is a difficult task in itself, but placing them in locations that make sense only further complicates the process.
At this moment, only two ranked fighters are booked (in a very important matchup, might I add). Max Holloway will put his belt on the line against #4 ranked Frankie Edgar at UFC 240 on Saturday, July 27.
This fight is obviously pivotal to the future of the division — any title fight is. But no matter who emerges victorious, he will have a horde of hungry contenders breathing down his neck. The question remains, who stands out from the pack?
To find out the answer, the UFC needs to pit the best against the best.
If there’s anyone who shouldn’t take a fight until the title is on the line, it’s Alexander Volkanovski. Volkanovski established himself as the #1 contender by defeating Jose Aldo by unanimous decision at UFC 237. He was passed over for a shot at Holloway’s belt in favor of the third booking of Holloway vs. Edgar, but Volkanovski is undoubtedly the most deserving contender.
The further down the UFC rankings you go, the trickier things get.
Brian Ortega, Chan Sung Jung, and Yair Rodriguez are three fighters in the top ten who are all but locked into a spot on UFC Fight Night cards.
Dana White has confirmed that both Ortega and Rodriguez are expected to fight at UFC Mexico City on September 21, but he has not said that they will fight each other. The UFC is hoping to build these two fighters in an attempt to expand further into the Mexican market — a process hung up by former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez’s fall from grace — but that means the matchmakers need to find two more featherweights to make it happen.
Jung has asked for the Ortega fight on numerous occasions, but the timing of the fight puts the UFC in a difficult spot. Still, the promotion is entertaining the fight according to Chris Taylor of BJPenn.com.
Jung would have to emerge from the bout with Ortega relatively unscathed in order to headline the UFC’s card in South Korea that he campaigned for. UFC Busan takes place exactly three months after UFC Mexico City.
It would be disastrous for the promotion’s growth in Korea if “The Korean Zombie” wasn’t able to headline the card. With fellow fan-favorite Dong Hyun Kim also unlikely to return, the UFC would have a rough time earning the support of the Korean fans.
Online response to The Korean Zombie possibly not being on the #UFCKorea card this December is not good. Fans are very open about not buying a ticket. If he fights Ortega on September 21 many are very skeptical even if he says he wants to fight in Korea https://t.co/BG84ofBveU
— John Hyon Ko [고현] (@JHKMMA) July 18, 2019
Other regional candidates
Then there’s Aldo, Zabit Magomedsharipov, and Renato Moicano. These three top-10 featherweights are not quite locked down to one card, but they and the UFC likely have a preference.
The event in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on November 16 is a good landing spot for Aldo. He has previously expressed interest in competing exclusively in Brazil, and the fans love him like no other, so Aldo can certainly headline the card as long as the UFC finds a willing opponent.
Sao Paulo could also work for Moicano, provided he is planning on returning to the Octagon before the end of the year. Moicano has yet to get in the win column in 2019, suffering losses to Aldo in February and Jung in June, both of which by TKO.
Moicano played the villain in his home country the last time he fought there, so a warmer homecoming against a lower/unranked opponent would be the UFC’s way of saying “sorry.”
Two options stick out for Magomedsharipov. The fifth-ranked featherweight will likely wind up on UFC Moscow on November 9 as a headliner or on the main card of UFC 242 on September 7.
Magomedsharipov’s last three fights have taken place on pay-per-view cards. The promotion is pushing the Dagestani toward international stardom, so being on the same card as Khabib Nurmagomedov’s title unification bout against Dustin Poirier helps that cause.
At the same time, the two Russians being on UFC 242 together means neither are likely to make the quick turnaround to fight in Moscow two months later, leaving the event lacking a local name with enough drawing power to headline.
Further down the list
All of the upcoming international cards make it difficult to put together the matchups fighters want. There are so many fighters who need just one win to get into title contention, but many of them are committed to fighting in certain countries.
In the interest of pleasing the fans outside of the United States, it makes sense to have at least one fighter from the area on each international event. That leaves #8 ranked Jeremy Stephens and #9 ranked Josh Emmett as the two American fighters who are likely to hit the road for their next fight.
In the 11-15 range, there’s Calvin Kattar, Arnold Allen, Shane Burgos, Ryan Hall, and Mirsad Bektic.
Bektic just suffered a brutal loss at the hands of Emmett at UFC Sacramento on July 13, and he typically only fights once or twice per year as is, so it’s safe to count him out for the rest of 2019.
Hall also competed on that Sacramento card, and he asked for a spot on Washington D.C.’s card in his post-fight speech. That event takes place on December 7. Though he’s currently ranked #14 at 145 pounds, his next opponent may come from outside of the rankings, especially if he wants a spot on the D.C. event.
Burgos is due for a fight. He last competed on May 4, picking up a win over Cub Swanson. The 28-year-old is 12-1 (5-1 in the UFC), and a prime candidate for one of the higher-ranked featherweights who must defend his spot in the rankings.
Allen remains undefeated as a UFC fighter with his last win coming at UFC 239 over Gilbert Melendez. It might be early for the 25-year-old to get a big test, but in a division filled with sharks, he’ll have to take on a hefty task soon to justify his #12 spot.
Finally, there’s Kattar sitting just outside the top 10. He called for a fight on the Boston card on October 18 and has gone back and forth with Stephens, but in his climb toward a championship, he might have to bypass the hometown fight for a bigger opponent outside of the country.
Who fights who?
Below, I have provided an idea of big fights we could see in the featherweight division before the year’s end. Reminder: these are hypothetical matchups.
- #2 Brian Ortega vs. #6 Chan Sung Jung at UFC Mexico City on September 21
- #8 Jeremy Stephens vs. #11 Calvin Kattar at UFC Boston on October 18
- #5 Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. #7 Yair Rodriguez at UFC Moscow on November 9
- #3 Jose Aldo vs. #9 Josh Emmett at UFC Sao Paulo on November 16
If this situation were to play out: Mexico still gets a big fight in Ortega vs. Jung; Moscow gets a highly anticipated bout between Magomedsharipov and Rodriguez; Aldo fights at home for the third time in 2019 against a rising contender in Emmett; Calvin Kattar gets his wish for a Boston bout and a chance to crack the top-10.
Some problems these bookings pose are: Jung runs the risk of not headlining UFC Busan; Rodriguez loses out on a fight in his home country.
If the UFC wants to play it safe with Korea while still giving the fans an excellent show in Mexico, the fights could look more like this:
- #2 Brian Ortega vs. #7 Yair Rodriguez at UFC Mexico City on September 21
- #5 Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. #13 Shane Burgos at UFC Moscow on November 9
- #3 Jose Aldo vs. #9 Josh Emmett at UFC Sao Paulo on November 16
- #6 Chan Sung Jung vs. #8 Jeremy Stephens at UFC Busan on December 21
In this scenario, the positives for the UFC are: Ortega and Rodriguez both appear in Mexico as planned; Magomedsharipov headlines UFC Moscow; Jung doesn’t have to make a quick turnaround.
Some of the negatives include: Ortega and Rodriguez fight one another; Magomedsharipov gets a lower-ranked opponent; Jung gets a lower-ranked opponent and loses out on the Ortega fight he wants so badly.
In the ultimate goal of creating quality matchups and separating the great featherweights from the elite, the UFC really can’t mess anything up. But trying to please every fighter and every fanbase? Well, chances are someone is going to wind up disappointed.
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.