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Featherweight division is up and running again, and hey — it’s not bad

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The UFC’s featherweight division is mobile again, or at least it seems to be. Max Holloway, operating on an exclusive, one-way interim title deal, made the most of it by finishing Anthony Pettis in the third round on Saturday night at UFC 206 in Toronto. If Pettis had prevailed, my god — we’d be carrying our lanterns high through the fog on Monday morning, trying to make out shapes. But Holloway made it easy. He won it, and he’ll be having brunch with Dana White and matchmaker Sean Shelby to figure out #WheresJoseWaldo is in the next little bit.

Clarity! Mimosas! Eggs Florentine! At last, at last.

After a year of riding The Conor Whims, it’ll be Holloway and Aldo whether you like it or not. Last year at this time Frankie Edgar knocked out Chad Mendes and was promised the winner of Aldo-McGregor. That fight was conditional, too, especially if McGregor won (which he did). Since that moment it might as well have been the opening credits of The Twilight Zone, with all the detached images tail-spinning through space — Aldo losing a decade’s work in 13 seconds; McGregor dodging pool noodles; an hour glass; Rafael dos Anjos; an X-ray; Nate Diaz; a horse’s eye; Frankie Edgar in a padded cell; white mink coats; a cornucopia spilling out beetles; Dana White’s head turning slowly, like a ventriloquist dummy come eerily to life.

Meanwhile, the featherweights languished for a full year through these other dimensions until Saturday night. Holloway, winner of ten in a row, has a belt that’s just as real to the touch as McGregor’s. And everyone else now has stationary bull’s-eye. Including Cub Swanson, who put on a Fight of the Year Candidate against Doo Ho Choi. All the bitching can finally stop. Holloway actually wants to fight people in the weight class.

His unifying title fight with Aldo could happen at UFC 208 in Brooklyn, but, as "Blessed" said in the wee hours on Saturday night, that might be too soon. Holloway who wants to enjoy Christmas and his son’s birthday, and doesn’t want to gamble those things against Aldo’s flakiness. But it’ll happen at some point.

And you know what? The division feels like it’s in good hands with Holloway’s emergence. The fight between he and Aldo is actually something fun to contemplate. For starters, Aldo’s only had one true foil in his long career, and that was McGregor. As soon as the rivalry became unrequited, he didn’t even feel a need go on competing. Now Holloway, who diagnosed Aldo with "pussyitis" recently, presents himself as someone Aldo might like to punch. Motivation goes a long way in something like that. Perhaps Aldo needed his bolts tightened.

It’s also a great stylistic match-up. For years Aldo didn’t have anybody to challenge him. He took the McGregor loss on the chin, but he’s been otherwise dominant — including in his Interim A title win against Edgar at UFC 200 in July. Holloway is a very real threat to Aldo. That’s a 50/50 kind of fight, which is all you can ask when attempting to merge titles.

It helped that Swanson and the "Korean Superboy" took each other to the brink for three rounds of tempestuous back-and-forth, thrill-a-minute chin-hunting. Choi, who came in as a media darling for his three first-round finishes, emerged a bigger name having endured through everything Swanson threw at him (which was a lot). And Swanson, the challenger of old, fought perhaps the gutsiest fight of his life. It turns out the hearts are still beating in the featherweight ranks, that guys are still coming up. Swanson said he was happy to see McGregor go. He didn’t want a "red panty night," he just wanted to have definitive place to be headed.

All the featherweights do. After a year, the division is finally back in business. Things are moving again. And even with the knowledge that McGregor isn’t coming back, it’s refreshing to note that it feels more Holloway than hollow.