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Littered amongst the path of Jose Aldo's rise to the top of Zuffa's Featherweight division are the bodies of his opponents. Many have fallen due to the flurry of strikes, knees and vicious leg kicks that he has delivered in his quest to claim, and retain, the 145-pound championship belt.
With his iron grip cast over the division, the idea that "Junior" can be challenged seems preposterous in the wake of the destructive manner of his victories, including his vicious knockout of Chad Mendes at UFC 142 earlier this year.
However, as opponents fall, new ones rise up to take their place on the featherweight ladder. Who can step up to the challenge and dethrone Aldo?
A look at some possible contenders, after the jump."In The Fray" Contenders
The next man chosen to have a crack at knocking Aldo off the top perch. Koch is an exciting prospect that trains alongside former and current champions such as Anthony Pettis and Ben Askren. The sole loss on his record comes against Chad Mendes, but that's not too disparaging considering that Mendes has managed to outwrestle everyone he has fought, barring Aldo. However, his last fight against Brookins didn't really show his capabilities as the TUF Champion gave him a harder fight than many expected. Based on that performance, many believe that the odds are heavily stacked against him when he fights for the Featherweight title at UFC 149, but one should look beyond his last fight to see that he brings new challenges for the current champion with his height, range and creative striking.
Against Aldo, perhaps it's a case of "too much, too soon". But regardless of whether he wins or loses, Koch looks to be a name amongst the Featherweights for some time too come.
The UFC's Japanese import was regarded at the time as being one of the few 'credible' challenges to Aldo's reign. Unfortunately, a lackluster debut against George Roop quelled the fire, only for a spark to reignite in his decision win against the game Bart Palaszewski. Although it was rumored that he had a chance to fight Aldo, he turned the opportunity down in favour of having one more fight against Ricardo Lamas.
This puts him in a risky position: although Lamas has looked like a reborn fighter in the ranks of the UFC's featherweight division, he still lacks name value. Hioki risks losing more if he lost than he would gain if he won. However, if he did win (and he should), expect him to be offered either an immediate title shot against the Aldo/
Koch winner, or to face the loser of Zombie/Poirier in another title eliminator.
Along with Aldo, Koch and Mendes, "The Diamond" is one of young talents that Zuffa recruited into their Featherweight ranks. His only loss comes against Danny Castillo at Lightweight, but since dropping down to 145, Poirier remains an undefeated force. He recently submitted Max Holloway, who was making his UFC debut at the age of just 20. Although Holloway showed prowess on his feet, Poirier managed to drag him down to the ground and submitted him inside the first round. Strong performances have seen him touted as a potential contender, but first he must get past...
The Korean Zombie. His headkick KO loss against George Roop seems a universe away in light of his "Twister" against Leonard Garcia and his spectacular 7 second KO against Mark Hominick. Always willing to fight, and seemingly impervious to everything except headshots, if he wins against Poirier, he might find himself in line for a title shot against Jose Aldo due to his popularity and wild style of fighting.
"Looking In" - Potential Contenders
4. Chad Mendes, 11-1 (Last Fight - L against Aldo)
Ignoring the loss against Aldo, Mendes was on a tear in the Featherweight division, and had defeated the likes of Koch, Vasquez, Omigawa and others to claim his title shot. Unfortunately, when the time came, his dreams were shattered by way of an Aldo knee in the last second of the first round. However, despite the loss, Mendes remains a tough test for any fighter in his division, and even more worryingly, it looks to stay that way as the former contender is only 27.
The dilemma for Zuffa now is how to utilize him. If it wasn't for Aldo, there is a huge possibility that the featherweight gold would be around Mendes' waist right now. Do they wait for Aldo to leave the division, then push Mendes to become champion? Or do they give him fighters, and hope that he doesn't become the featherweight Jon Fitch - perennial number 2 fighter in a division dominated by the champion?
5. Dennis Siver, 20-8 (Last Fight- W against Nunes)
If Siver was a boxer, he would be considered a journeyman. Journeymen in boxing rarely get even a sniff of a title shot. Fortunately for Siver, he competes in MMA, and also, as of his last fight, in a division that is only just beginning to find its feet. Furthermore, his first foray down from Lightweight has been successful, winning a hard-earned decision against Diego Nunes. With that win, and the lack of recognizable names in the division, he stands on the edge of entering the fray of potential title contenders. Perhaps the next few fights will bring him closer to the final destination on his journey - a Featherweight title shot.
6. Charles Oliveira, 15-2-1 (Last Fight - W against Wisely)
Before his drop to Featherweight, Oliveira was a widely touted Lightweight prospect. Having won two Submission of the Night awards, the hype was somewhat derailed when he fought against Jim Miller. For some bizarre reason, the bookies must have let Oliveira's previous performances get to their heads as he was a huge favourite against Jim Miller, who had at that point been fighting in the UFC for 2 years and had compiled a record of 18-2 against credible opponents. The knowledgeable fans were the real winners, as Miller submitted "Do Bronx" in under 2 minutes of the first round.
After a tough loss, Oliveira rebounded against Nik Lentz, and would seemingly go on to become the first person to stop Lentz in the octagon. However, it was not to be as it was held that Oliveira had delivered an illegal knee, and with that, his W was changed to a No Contest. Oliveira was then matched against a rejuvenated Donald Cerrone, and in that fight, Oliveira's age (he's only 22) really showed as he looked completely dwarfed against "The Cowboy". A KO loss against Cerrone made him drop to 145lb, a wise choice as he sought to even the physical disadvantages of fighting at Lightweight.
A successful debut placed him back in people's minds and on the fringes of the prospects radar once more, and now Oliveira should not be overlooked as he attempts to revive his hype in the Featherweight division.
Part 2 to follow.