LAS VEGAS -- Featherweight is the new lightweight.
The UFC's 155-pound division has long been considered the gold standard for divisional depth. But after a pair of featherweight fights earned co-Fight of the Night honors at UFC 162 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday, it's become clear the pool of talent at 145 pounds underneath longtime champion Jose Aldo Jr. is becoming deeper by the day.
While Anderson Silva's upset loss to Chris Weidman rightfully overwhelmed the headlines coming out of the event, the featherweight fights – Frankie Edgar's unanimous decision win over Charles Oliveira and Cub Swanson's comeback win against Dennis Siver – were among the best bouts of the year.
"They were awesome," UFC president Dana White said. "These guys went out and put on the type of fights the fans want to see. There's so many good guys at featherweight now I can barely keep track of them."
Swanson's case is one of redemption. The Jackson's MMA fighter out of Palm Springs, Calif., was run over by Aldo in a 2009 World Extreme Cagefighting match. Aldo knocked out Swanson with a flying knee in just eight seconds.
Since then, though, the 29-year-old Swanson (20-5) has matured as a fighter. His third-round TKO of Siver (21-9) was his fifth victory in a row. Four of them have come via finish and he's earned three post-fight bonuses along the way.
Never, though, has Swanson shined like he did at UFC 162. Siver, a former lightweight, is a powerful featherweight with finishing ability. In the first round, he used an array of kicks to keep Swanson at bay. Siver turned the fight in his favor in the second with a picture-perfect judo throw, then turned it on in the third with a brutal finishing flurry.
"I've been given these opportunities, and it's up to me to deliver," Swanson said. "I've been able to do that lately. It's paying off for me."
Swanson's boss, for one, noticed his efforts. "Cub looked awesome tonight," White said. "That fight was sick. Both guys went in there and were determined, and both guys wanted to win and fought their asses off from the first round to the last round. Cub poured it on when he needed to."
In the case of Edgar, the victory was a long-awaited return to the winner's circle. The former UFC lightweight champion had been through a murderer's row over his past seven fights, going two in a row each with B.J. Penn, Gray Maynard, Benson Henderson, and once with Aldo. But he came out on the wrong end of decisions in his last three fights and was just short in a decision loss to Aldo in February.
In his first three-round fight since 2009, Edgar (16-4-1) looked like a man on a mission, turning up the pressure and never taking his foot off the gas pedal. The 23-year old Oliveira (16-4, 1 no-contest), a submission specialist, looked worthy of his spot in the evening's co-feature bout, as he matched Edgar blow for blow. But in the end, Edgar was a bit too fast, landed more often, and earned an across-the-board decision win.
"A win feels good, anyway, but especially after three losses in a row," Edgar said. "Being that this is my first win at 145, [it feels] very good."
White was impressed with both Edgar and Oliveira. "I was cheering because it was an awesome fight," White said. "Both guys fought hard, and they got $50,000. … Oliveira proved he's a talent to be reckoned with. That kid's just going to get better and better and better. It was a great fight. I loved it."
So where does this leave the victorious duo in the mix? For his part, Swanson has been around long enough to understand that the UFC bases its title shots and main events around what the fans say as much as they do based on wins and losses in the division.
"I did everything I needed to do," Swanson said. "Like I said, I'm trying to get the fans to back me and let them decide. Dana does a good job of listening to the fans. If they speak up and want me to be the next in line, then it will happen."
[Also: What's next for Cub Swanson?]
White, though, isn't willing to commit just yet. Aldo, who has been champion since winning the WEC belt in 2009 (which became the UFC title when the WEC was folded into the larger organization), defends his title against Chan Sung Jung on Aug. 3. Also in the running is Ricardo Lamas (the last man to defeat Swanson), who has won four straight fights, and Chad Mendes, who is unbeaten since losing to Aldo in Jan. 2012.
Also looming is Anthony Pettis, a former WEC lightweight champion who ruffled feathers by dropping a class and jumping the line to get a title shot against Aldo. Pettis had to drop out of the fight due to a knee injury (Jung took his place), so it's unclear what his next move might be.
Of course, these title scenarios will be moot if Jose Aldo makes the jump up to lightweight after his fight against Jung as he has stated he will do.
With so many options, and a title fight just around the corner, it's hard to blame White for not committing.
"We'll see what happens," White said. "Pettis is flapping in the wind. He can fight at 155, he could fight at 145. We'll see what happens."
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- Cub Swanson
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- Dennis Siver
- Charles Oliveira