Three weeks ago, I wrote that the current featherweight division is the most interesting weight class in the UFC -- and after another thrilling event in Jacksonville, Florida, I stand by that.
Alexander Volkanovski (24-1) has elevated himself into must-see TV. He has always been a good fighter, as he has just one loss in a 10-year professional career. But he has reached a new level in his past two performances against Brian Ortega and Chan Sung Jung. This is a different fighter from even the one who narrowly beat Max Holloway twice in 2019 and 2020.
The division starts with Volkanovski, but it's fascinating from top to bottom. But questions linger. What's the biggest challenge for Volkanovski moving forward? Who are the fighters on the rise at 145 pounds? Who in the division would most likely consider moving up in weight? Following this weekend's main event, let's take a second to reset the division 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 that case, but he's not there yet. If anything, he has cast doubt on whether Holloway should be considered the greatest featherweight of all time. It's a three-horse race among Jose Aldo, Volkanovski and Holloway. Holloway had surpassed 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 that in the WEC (which was essentially the UFC, under a different name).
Whenever Volkanovski and Holloway square off for the third time, that fight will have a lot to say on this topic. It's interesting because Volkanovski has beaten Aldo and Holloway, but I don't think you can call him the greatest just yet because his body of work -- or lack of title defenses -- lags behind the duo. Aldo has lost to both of them, including Holloway twice, but his résumé is arguably the greatest at the weight. This 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 title challenger to Volkanovski's throne
Max Holloway goes all five rounds in win vs. Yair Rodriguez
Max Holloway cements his status at No. 1 contender with an incredible showing at UFC Fight Night.
Holloway. What are we even talking about here? It's been Holloway. He just needed to win a few fights over the last two years to force the third matchup. It was supposed to happen at UFC 273, but Holloway aggravated a prior injury which forced him to withdraw. Ironically, he was cleared in time to still take the fight on April 9, but the UFC had already moved on to Volkanovski vs. Jung by then. It is the only fight to make.
Dana White was noncommittal on 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 do feel like Volkanovski doesn't have any "unfinished business" with Holloway -- I see both of his wins over him as legitimate. But these are two of the best featherweights of their era, if not the two best of all time. It only makes sense they would face off multiple times, considering how close the matchup is and how they've handled all the other opponents they've faced.
If the division has become Volkanovski, Holloway and everyone else, which name could break through that gap?
Yair Rodriguez. It's easy to forget Rodriguez is only 29, even if it feels like he's been around forever. His inactivity has made it so that it doesn't feel like he's been in some tough fights in a small amount of time. He lost to Holloway in November, but it was fascinating how competitive he was in that fight. Two judges felt he only lost that five-round fight by a single round, and that's not to be taken lightly considering the opponent.
Rodriguez still has room to grow. He has devastating finishing ability. This division is stacked, so it's hard to break out and reach that Volkanovski-Holloway level. If I had to put stock in one to separate himself, it's Rodriguez.
So, what does the next year look like at featherweight?
Dan Hooker, Arnold Allen trade blows early
Dan Hooker and Arnold Allen give the London fans their money's worth in Round 1.
There's a linchpin at the center of this division -- Volkanovski vs. Holloway 3. That fight has to happen, and it will help dictate what is to come. If Holloway loses to Volkanovski for the third time, he'll be gone with a likely move up to lightweight. If Holloway reclaims the belt, you'll have Volkanovski thrown back into the contender mix. I don't think he would consider a move in weight versus focusing on regaining his belt.
Beyond that matchup, you have many main event-worthy fights. It's why I like this division so much. Perhaps it's not the deepest division in the UFC, but it's stylistically the most entertaining right now. They are dynamic, athletic guys who can crack. Arnold Allen, coming off what he did against Dan Hooker? The UFC hopes to return to England in the summer, with Allen likely booking a big fight on that 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 contender with well-rounded skills. Bryce Mitchell and Movsar Evloev's grappling could wreck many in the division. Dan Ige floats in the middle of it all, serving as a proven test for anyone near the top.
I envision Rodriguez vs. Ortega. Kattar vs. Emmett. Ige vs. Evloev is happening in June. Allen vs. Jung or Chikadze. I'm telling you, come back to this story in a year and ask yourself, "Which weight class produced the most consistently entertaining fights in the UFC over the past 12 months?" My money is on 145.
Volkanovski says he's open to fighting at lightweight if no options emerge. How would that impact 145 and 155?
Volkanovski is on a small list of candidates for the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet right now, making him a candidate to switch weight class and pursue a title in a second division. I could see it eventually, but I don't see it right now. Not when Volkanovski has a potential trilogy fight with Holloway in front 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 might fight one another for a No. 1 contender spot.
Still, whether they do or don't, the lightweight division doesn't need a "new contender" in Volkanovski. It's got a lot going on, starting with Charles Oliveira's title defense against Justin Gaethje next month. And there will be legitimate featherweight title challengers soon. The UFC needs to book some of these bigger fights at 145. The division will shake out a bit, and there won't be any need for Volkanovski to move up.