“No matter how high a feather goes up, it must always come down.” —Proverb
Can the same be said for the featherweights dueling it out in the UFC’s newest 145-pound weight class? UFC Featherweight Champion José Aldo is floating high right now, but, sooner or later, every feather falls. Who will be the first man to pluck the title away from one of the best pound-for-pound principals? We’ve got the rundown on the Champ and eight elite featherweights waiting for their chance to soar.
UFC FEATHERWEIGHT CHAMPION
UFC Featherweight Champion José Aldo is a rolling ball of butcher knives. A Nova União product, the good-natured 24-year-old shows little mercy inside the cage. It was no secret that Aldo was a special combatant from the moment he first stepped into the WEC’s cage in 2008. Facing Shooto legend Alexandre Franca Nogueira, Aldo thrashed the guillotine master with a diverse offensive onslaught. Highlight after highlight piled up until Aldo redefined what a statement fight meant by knocking out Cub Swanson in eight seconds. The former semi-professional soccer player launched a flying knee with such cutting precision that it lacerated Swanson above and below his eye. The KO is tied for the second-fastest knockout in Zuffa history, but more importantly, it secured Aldo a title shot against American Top Team’s Mike Thomas Brown.
Although Brown proved to be Urijah Faber’s kryptonite, Aldo dismissed him via TKO in their title fight. To affirm his position as the best featherweight in the world, he then thoroughly dismantled Faber—the most recognizable WEC champion in history—with leg kicks at WEC 48 in April 2010. “The California Kid” was the only fighter to hear the final bell versus Aldo in the WEC, but he still had to leave the Arco Arena in Sacramento, California, on a stretcher thanks to a barrage of Aldo’s leg kicks. The mistake-free performance headlined the WEC’s first pay-per-view, highlighting Aldo’s efficiency in a terrifying light. It only takes a few of Aldo’s kicks to maim the opposition, at which point he strikes for the finish—a gameplan he executed flawlessly in his second title defense versus Manny Gamburyan en route to a KO. Aldo’s terrorizing run through the WEC earned him the inaugural UFC Featherweight Championship when the UFC absorbed the WEC in December. His first title defense against steadfast Mark Hominick at UFC 129 proved a stern test for the Brazilian, but he was able to earn a unanimous decision while turning Hominick’s forehead into a football.
Aldo represents a new dynamic in mixed martial arts—a competitor that separates first place from second place by feet instead of inches. The lone defeat of his 20-fight career is a distant memory buried in Brazil’s regional circuit and eclipsed by his current 12-fight win streak. Rarely appearing vulnerable in the cage, Aldo draws warranted comparison to Black House teammate and UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva for his split-second violence and eloquent form. Number one in his division and a pound-for-pound phenom, it will take a special performance to bring Aldo’s feather back to the ground.
Anchored in Sacramento, California, and led by Urijah Faber, Team Alpha Male is a premier destination for sub-155-pound fighters. A drop to the bantamweight division for “The California Kid” has cleared the way for former Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo NCAA wrestling star Chad “Money” Mendes to emerge as a top gun at 145 pounds.
A perfect 5-0 since joining Zuffa’s organizations, the two-time All-American toppled Michihiro Omigawa in his UFC debut to put his name in the title picture. With each appearance, the physically imposing wrestler demonstrates a better understanding of each facet of the game, including the all-important transition of wrestling to striking. His punching combinations are equally indicative of the fast-twitch muscle fibers that make him a handful for his opponents on the mat. The undefeated 26-year-old has all the intensity of Faber in the cage and a similar laid back demeanor outside of it. It’s no surprise that after José Aldo’s victory over Mark Hominick at
UFC 129, Dana White announced that Mendes would be the next candidate to try and dethrone the UFC Featherweight Champion.
Erik “New Breed” Koch lives up to his nickname. The Duke Roufus protégé is one of the most dynamic up-and-comers in the featherweight division. He’s faced defeat only once in 13 outings — a hard-fought bout against Chad Mendes at WEC 47. Three consecutive finishes (triangle, TKO, KO) since the first loss of his burgeoning career shaped a solid highlight reel for the 22-yearold, culminating with a successful UFC debut that put an extra $70,000 in his pocket from a Knockout of the Night against Raphael Assuncao at UFC 128. Despite the stellar kickboxing Koch brings to the Octagon, he’s ended seven of his professional bouts with submissions.
Taking after his roommate, UFC lightweight Anthony “Showtime” Pettis, Koch says that he’s just like the 145-pound version of his star teammate but “just a little whiter.” True to his assessment, Koch enters the cage both to win and make a statement. The rangy fighter will get his next chance to make a statement at UFC 132 on July 2, when he takes on the always-dangerous Cub Swanson.
Two-time UFC title challenger Kenny Florian is determined to wear UFC gold, and he keeps dropping to lower weight classes in search of it. Of Florian’s 11 wins inside the Octagon since 2005, he has stopped 10 of his opponents before the final bell. His impressive résumé of victories over Takanori Gomi, Clay Guida, and Joe Stevenson creates an instant threat at 145 pounds, where the Massachusetts native plans to push past the blocks that kept him from the top of the lightweight mountain. However, it will be no easy task as “Ken-Flo” is tabbed to face Diego Nunes at UFC 131 on June 11 in Vancouver, Canada.
Dealing with criticism from UFC President Dana White that he chokes in key fights, Florian’s legacy hinges largely on how his run at featherweight unfolds. His reputation as both a finisher and a media-savvy mixed martial artist always keeps his name in contender talks, and a decisive win over Nunes in his featherweight debut is a sure-fire way to jump into the upper echelon of the division.
It’s no secret how Diego “The Gun” Nunes earned his nickname. A kickboxer rooted in the famed Brazilian grappling camp Nova União, the Rio de Janeiro native let just one opponent in his first 11 bouts get out of the opening round. The 28-year-old has posted a 5-1 record under the Zuffa banner. Despite hearing the final bell in those bouts, his swift punches and steady stream of kicks against sturdy competition have fashioned the featherweight into a contender.
Confidence and natural ability have carried the Brazilian through much of his seven-year career, but learning from his lone loss to wrestler LC Davis improved his ground game enough for him to implement a three-fight win streak. Nunes’ most recent victory was his Octagon debut against Mike Thomas Brown at UFC 125. Slated to face Kenny Florian at UFC 131 on June 11, Nunes has the opportunity to test his ground game against a potent blend of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and ground-and-pound. If it goes his way, “The Gun” may get a shot at the winner of Aldo vs. Mendes.
A 1-5 record began Michihiro Omigawa’s career and a subsequent 0-2 run through the UFC’s lightweight division inspired little hope for the Hidehiko Yoshida pupil’s future. However, a drop to the 145-pound class and an improved boxing skill set revived the Yoshida Dojo representative as he bested LC Davis, Nam Phan, and Marlon Sandro to secure a spot in the Sengoku Featherweight Grand Prix tournament finals in 2009. Undeterred by a split-decision loss to Masanori Kanehara in the finals, he rebounded by earning the judges’ nod against Hatsu Hioki at Sengoku 11. He followed that victory up with four consecutive wins over Hiroyuki Takaya, Micah Miller, Young Sam Jung, and Cole Escovedo.
Omigawa’s featherweight good fortune came to an end against Chad Mendes at UFC 126. The Team Alpha Male standout wore down the Japanese judoka with explosive takedowns and tenacious ground-andpound. In defeat, Omigawa proved competitive versus one of the weight classes’ most promising prospects. The internationally seasoned veteran will look to get back on the winning track as he takes on Darren Elkins at UFC 131 on June 11.
“The Korean Zombie” left Sengoku’s ring for Zuffa’s cages, debuting at WEC 48 in April 2010 where he dropped a controversial decision to Leonard Garcia. A Fight of the Night win and Fight of the Year nod transformed the Korean Top Team product into an overnight sensation. He avenged the loss to Garcia in his UFC debut, scoring a Submission of the Night worth $55,000 in his most recent outing. The last two fighters to defeat Leonard Garcia have earned title shots within 12 months, but none disposed of “Bad Boy” like Jung, who scored the first twister submission in UFC history.
Fluidity in his striking and a strong base have earned The Korean Zombie nine finishes in 11 victories. Recently, the South Korea native has sought out international training, touching down in elite sub-155-pound camp Ultimate Fitness to train alongside the likes of Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes, and Joseph Benavidez in Sacramento, California. Despite a TKO loss to George Roop in September 2010, his recent victory over Garcia proves the 24-year-old is back to building a solid foundation in the UFC’s featherweight division.
“The Machine” was on a five-fight win streak—including victories over George Roop and Leonard Garcia—before running into José Aldo at UFC 129. Despite a valiant effort (and a Quasimodo-looking lump on his forehead), Hominick lost the five-round decision, but not before winning the respect of the entire MMA world. The pundits who suggested Aldo was untouchable now know that the Brazilian is human, thanks in large part to Hominick’s heart and tenacity.
Now, it’s back to mid-level contender status for Hominick, as the Canadian striker will likely have to put together a couple of consecutive wins over top opponents before getting another shot at the title. The good news is that the UFC 131 card on June 11 features six top featherweights—including Florian, Nunes, and Omigawa—and a victorious matchup over any of those winners could present an opportunity for Hominick to get his name thrown back in the hat. Until then, Hominick will be icing the hematoma on his forehead.
Josh “The Fluke” Grispi has been fighting professionally since he was 17 years old, earning 10 wins in his first 11 fights before the WEC signed him in 2008. His first test in the WEC was a stern one against veteran Mark Hominick, but Grispi barely broke a sweat as he secured a guillotine submission in the first round. The New England native then put consecutive beatdowns on Micah Miller, Jens Pulver, and LC Davis.
When the UFC absorbed the WEC in December, Grispi was slated to make his UFC debut against Featherweight Champion José Aldo. However, Aldo suffered an injury, forcing Grispi to risk his contender status in a matchup with Dustin Poirier in January. Grispi came out of the gate sluggishly and Poirier busted the 22-year-old’s jaw on the way to earning a unanimous decision. Grispi should be back in action soon, and, if he can remain healthy (he’s already had serious back and ankle injuries), the South Shore Sportfighting prospect has one of the biggest upsides in the division.