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For better or worse, the men’s featherweight division tries to pick up the pieces and move on from Conor McGregor Saturday at UFC 212.
The most obvious prize at stake in the main event pitting champion Jose Aldo against interim champ Max Holloway will be a unified 145-pound title.
In a larger sense, though, this fight seeks to finally provide the entire division a way forward.
It has been nearly 18 months since McGregor won the championship with a devastating 13-second knockout of Aldo at UFC 194. With the Irishman now off chasing a big-money boxing match with Floyd Mayweather there is concern he may never come back to the Octagon at all.
Even if he does, a return to featherweight appears out of the question for the foreseeable future—and that leaves the division little choice but to claw its way back to some sense of normalcy.
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For his part, Aldo says he’s done talking about McGregor and has given up on the notion of ever getting his chance to avenge that aura-shattering defeat.
“He doesn’t want to fight me anymore, and it’s never happening again …,” Aldo said during last week’s UFC 212 conference call, via MMA Junkie’s Fernanda Prates. “I don’t give a damn about what Conor is or isn’t doing.”
In retrospect, while McGregor’s stunning win over Aldo was the most dramatic single moment in featherweight history—and certainly the high watermark for interest in the division—the mess that followed left the whole weight class looking a little lost.
After all, their fight marked the last time the 145-pound title was defended without an interim belt gumming up the works.
While Aldo and Holloway certainly won’t make anybody forget about McGregor this Saturday, their fight can at least get the division moving again. They can finally undo the curious knot the man left in the title picture when he swaggered out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas with the gold around his waist.
Even back then there was speculation McGregor never intended to fight at 145-pounds again. Longtime trainer John Kavanagh had already said he considered it unsafe for his fighter to continue making the difficult weight cut.
Besides, McGregor had his eyes on bigger things.
His next two bouts were at welterweight, where he went 1-1 but cemented himself as the biggest star the UFC had ever produced during a feud with Nate Diaz. Next, he sojourned up to lightweight and easily defeated champion Eddie Alvarez to become to the first fighter to simultaneously hold titles in two different UFC weight classes.
The historic nature of that accomplishment was fleeting, however. Fight company brass allowed him to hang onto the 145-pound gold just long enough to beat Alvarez and get his photo op with a belt slung over each shoulder.
Two weeks later, they stripped him of the featherweight title and aside from the occasional off-handed verbal barb, it hasn’t seemed to make much difference to McGregor.
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All this turmoil has been good for him, obviously. It has been good for the UFC, too, considering the organization scored four of its Top 5 best-selling pay-per-views of all time during McGregor’s magical run through three different weight classes.
But for 145-pounds at large? That’s up for debate.
Clearly, the division had never had a star like McGregor before and likely never will again. But if McGregor had no plans to stick around at featherweight in the first place, the company was right to strip him and get back to business as usual.
And if that means fights like Aldo vs. Holloway, well, that’s not too shabby.
Not only does UFC 212’s featured attraction figure to put an end to this entire, confusing conundrum—wherein both Aldo and Holloway have been award interim or undisputed titles in McGregor’s absence—it also shapes up as one of the best pure match-ups the UFC could book right now.
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Aldo comes in just 30 years old, but somehow needing to prove he’s still the ruthless aggressor who ruled the division with an iron fist from 2009-2015. It’ll be hard for him to ever live that McGregor KO down—especially with no rematch—but asserting his dominance over a young lion as ferocious as Holloway would be a good way to put the featherweight class on notice all over again.
Holloway, meanwhile, comes in riding one of the UFC’s most impressive streaks. He’s won 10 fights in a row dating back to an August 2013 loss to McGregor (when Holloway was just 21 years old). His list of notable recent victims includes Cub Swanson, Jeremy Stephens, Ricardo Lamas and former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis.
Now 25, he’ll be a slight favorite over Aldo, according to Odds Shark. That’s incredible, when you consider how dominant Aldo had been prior to the McGregor loss, but it’s also true that Holloway will likely enjoy most of the physical advantages in this fight.
Aldo is known for his picture-perfect boxing style and crushing leg kicks, and it remains to be seen if he’ll be able to work that game against an opponent who is listed 5’11” and is likely just as skilled as he is in the stand-up game.
Nathan McCarter @McCarterN
Jose Aldo’s 7-second destruction of Cub Swanson. WEC 41, 2009. https://t.co/cvCTWH5u4X
Taking on a Brazilian legend in Rio de Janeiro might sound like a tall task, but Holloway isn’t worried.
In fact, he’s already making grand plans.
“In the olden days, this is what kings would do,” Holloway told The Fight Society podcast this week, via Fox Sports’ Damon Martin. “Real kings, they roll up with their soldiers to the king’s village and they go dethrone them. That’s what I plan on doing. Going to Brazil, taking what’s mine, showing the world why I’m the best fighter at this weight class.”
Either way, the featherweight division will have its champion.
McGregor’s shadow won’t be easy for either man to escape, and the division itself likely won’t soon feel as vital as it did in the days when McGregor was on the rise.
But at least now there can be progress.
At least now, featherweight can move on with its life.