mma / Columns

The Featherweights Are Exciting (Too Bad No One Cares)

December 13, 2016 | Posted by Evan Zivin
Conor McGregor

This always seems to happen, doesn’t it? That we give an upcoming UFC card crap for having lineup changes or being devoid of what we consider to be “top shelf” talent and the show ends up overperforming with a great night of fights?

And I’m not even talking about the Fight Night Albany card from Friday night, which I only remembered took place after the fact because Reddit told me it did. Still, that main card had all finishes (even if Derrick Lewis had to huff and puff to get to his) so that’s not bad, right?

Then came UFC 206 from Toronto on Saturday night, a card that has been talked about for months in the leadup for reasons other than the fights themselves.

Well, some of the fights were talked about. There was talk of the show being Georges St-Pierre’s UFC return (against Michael Bisping, no less) before that ultimately fell apart because UFC wanted him to compete on the contract he had before he went on hiatus in 2013, back when sponsorship dollars were still a thing (fight the power, Rush).

Then there was the original main event, Daniel Cormier vs. Anthony Johnson for the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship, a fight that was only made because Jon Jones wasn’t going to be able to defend his interim title that night (AKA The Real Championship *wink*).

That fight was set to go down before Cormier decided to tear his groin instead. That meant that, out of desperation, UFC elevated the co-main event, a scrap between featherweight contenders Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis, to main event status. And, out of even more desperation, UFC decided to make it a title fight, putting into motion the sequence of events that saw UFC Featherweight Champion Conor McGregor “relinquish” his title, elevating current interim champion Jose Aldo to full champion, allowing Holloway vs. Pettis to go on to crown a new interim champion.

I’ll give a second for your head to stop spinning.

Good? All right.

It was a fight that didn’t really need the “interim title” nonsense attached to it, partly because it was an interesting matchup regardless of any stakes that could have been placed on it and partly because I doubt adding a title resulted in any additional buyrates because no one likes interim belts, not to mention how pissed off many members of the MMA community still are over the UFC’s short-sighted actions towards Conor.

Of course, this was going to be a dilemma no matter what UFC did and when they did it. Conor was (and, according to him, still is) the champion at 145 but he clearly had no interest in defending the belt. We know this because he fought three times this year and none of them were featherweight title defenses. He could have defended the belt, and Dana White made it known at multiple times throughout the year that he wanted Conor to do just that, but Conor wasn’t feeling it. He wanted to chase monster paydays and additional accolades instead, and defending his belt wasn’t going to bring him either.

And, as depressing as that line of thinking may be, it was true. If Conor wanted to make money and increase his public exposure, he wasn’t going to do it fighting featherweights because, as exciting as the division has been for us hardcore fans, the casuals just don’t care.

I guess it never helped that the first UFC Featherweight Champion, and the first face that many of today’s current audience associated with the weight class, was Aldo, a man who was dominant yet conservative in the majority of his title defenses and has shown little interest in promoting himself or his fights, resulting in a champion who could barely get 200,000 people to buy his fights.

That’s compared to McGregor, who can pull one million without even taking off his (presumably expensive) coat.

Conor is so popular now that he’s even getting made fun of on Saturday Night Live. Granted, the show hasn’t been funny since Phil Hartman left (RIP) but that’s still saying something about his level of penetration into the public consciousness.

Now, it is unfair to compare the rest of the featherweight division, or the rest of the UFC roster, to McGregor, but there’s no question that, without the Irishman at the helm, even as nothing more than a glorified mascot, the division is going to tank quite a bit in terms of popularity.

If there’s any good that came from the decision to strip Conor of his featherweight belt, since that’s what actually happened, it’s that it does clear up the logjam of contenders. We can see the top fighters at that weight compete for more than just the chance to be the next man to call out Conor on Twitter in a vain attempt to earn the most money of their entire lives.

As far as whether the division can carry on without Conor, we all know it can. Saturday night saw the (interim) crowning of who might be the new face of the division in Holloway. The Hawaiian has been nothing but impressive since he lost to McGregor three years ago, amassing a 10 fight win streak, topping it off with an absolute dismantling of former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis in Toronto.

Holloway’s journey to the top has been a fun one to watch. He went from debuting as a short notice injury replacement against Dustin Poirier in 2012 to the McGregor loss to his march through the rankings that saw him knock off top guys like Cub Swanson and Ricardo Lamas before the Pettis win, which now puts him on a collision course with Aldo for next year.

Max is a guy who started his UFC career at the bottom of the barrel and has scratched and clawed (and jabbed) his way to the top and I couldn’t be happier to see him make it this far, even if his trash talk could use a little help.

I mean, Where’s (W)Aldo? That’s what you’re going with? Then again, if Max gets the hat, the glasses, and the shirt, he’d be a dead ringer…

Personally, I got excited seeing Holloway get that win because it meant that, after a year of stalled momentum, the featherweight division was finally alive again and ready to trudge on. It’ll be unfortunate that a lot of people who only followed the division for one man will all jump ship now that he’s no longer the captain.

Then again, that’s not a bad thing. Most of the people who only followed the sport for Conor weren’t true fans anyway. The rest of us will be a lot happier without them.

Then again again, WME-IMG, the new UFC owners, have extremely ambitious profit projections this year, numbers they won’t hit without Conor being around, especially if it’s true that he may be out up to 10 months.

Enjoy the featherweights while they’re still here, fight fans, because, for all we know, Ari Emanuel is just going to fire them all before the end of next year for not being “Notorious” enough.

Sorry, Doo Ho Choi. You still had a helluva fight with Cub on Saturday. It’s probably going to be my Fight of the Year, mainly because it takes too much effort to remember who else fought the last 11 months.

It’s been a long year…

Evan Zivin has been writing for 411 MMA since May of 2013. Evan loves the sport, and likes to takes a lighthearted look at the world of MMA in his writing…usually.

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UFC 206, Evan Zivin