Every shiny UFC belt comes along with its very own history lesson. Some long and storied, others short and recent. The premier fight league’s Featherweight crown is rather unique in that sense. Upon the division’s arrival inside the octagon, Jose Aldo was made champion off the back of his WEC dominance. The Brazilian would certainly prove his worth regardless, holding the title for over four years until being unforgettably flat-lined by the startlingly cocksure Conor McGregor. For the 145lbs landscape though, that iconic finish would bring nothing but chaos.
As McGregor ventured into other weight-classes, Aldo soon regained some gold, winning the interim title in a rematch opposite fellow legend Frankie Edgar. Underneath those two established elites, a surging contender continued to rise in the meantime. Since losing a decision to Conor McGregor in August 2013, Max Holloway had strung together nine wins in an almost unprecedented streak. He’d beaten some genuine contenders along the way too, including wins over Cub Swanson, Jeremy Stephens and most recently, a thrilling points victory over Ricardo Lamas.
That immense climb had positioned Holloway for a title fight and in December 2016 he’d get just that, even if only one of the interim genre. With McGregor vacating his Featherweight belt, Aldo had been promoted to the full title which allowed for a somewhat unnecessary interim title bout between Holloway and former Lightweight champion Anthony Pettis. Whilst probably an example of the UFC’s constant search for main event title bouts, Holloway very much warranted his spot in that title bout and inside the cage he made the most of it too, scoring a 3rd round TKO win.
Now with a belt over his shoulder, Holloway next looked to complete his quest, taking on Aldo for the undisputed Featherweight crown. In an enthralling affair, Holloway had to weather a classic Aldo storm before silencing the Brazilian crowd with a violent onslaught, earning the stoppage victory in round 3. Holloway had now joined the rather small group beyond him, suddenly standing above sport icons Aldo and Edgar and shifting a division that outside of the McGregor madness, had been relatively stagnant at the highest level.
Holloway had just shook things up though and in the same vein, a rising top 10 contender would soon return to the cage too. Brian Ortega had shown immense potential for quite some time but due to inactivity, he’d failed to ever truly build up the kind of momentum that his talent warranted. Nonetheless, his July 2017 outing would be a successful one, getting the submission win over Renato Moicano after a back and forth affair. That obviously wasn't enough to break into that aforementioned upper echelon though and UFC’s 218 event would perfectly highlight that.
First scheduled to defend his title against Frankie Edgar, an injury would leave Holloway without an opponent for his December 2017 bout. Stepping in of course would be Aldo, the man that Holloway had just ‘dethroned’ on his hunt for redemption. Just like last time, Holloway would win in the 3rd round and this time, his victory would come with less scares too. Now officially past the Aldo chapter, Holloway’s next challenge remained the same: that elusive Edgar fight that promised to ask some new questions of him.
As is often the case though, things wouldn't quite go as planned or expected. Nonetheless, one week after Holloway’s first title defense, Brian Ortega once again stepped foot inside the octagon. This time in the main event, ‘T-City’ scored a career-best win, submitting Cub Swanson in a fight that very much highlighted what had made him so highly touted throughout his steady ascent. Now a genuine contender, timing would finally be on Ortega’s side and with an injury side-lining Holloway, an opportunity had emerged out of nowhere for the Californian.
Stepping in to fight the revered Edgar on just one month’s notice, Ortega shocked the world. With one standing elbow and a follow-up uppercut, Ortega had become the first man in history to finish Edgar, all in the very first round. After over three years of climbing the UFC ranks in somewhat stop-start fashion, Ortega had catapulted to the top in just three months. More than that though, this was the continuation of a symbolic changing of the Featherweight guard.
It feels as though it’s happened overnight but over the last year, a once established elite ‘group’ has been shaken to its core. For good or bad, Aldo and his revolving contender door is well and truly a thing of the past and now with Holloway at the throne, it’s time for him to meet a challenger of his own ilk. When Max Holloway takes on Brian Ortega this Saturday night, it’ll symbolize the start of a fresh chapter within the Featherweight division. That’s not to say that the ‘old guard’ won’t rise again but as of right now, it’s the leaders of a new era that’ll battle for UFC gold.