Cruz absence sets stage for Barao, Faber and rest of the bantamweight division

Through all the trials and tribulations of Dominick Cruz’s fall from champion status, the division has been ready to move on for quite some time. Coming in from the WEC, Cruz was the promotion’s bantamweight champion as they merged with the UFC, and he continued to tear through the competition as the UFC champ.

Cruz absence sets stage for Barao, Faber and rest of the bantamweight division

Cruz is one of only two men to ever defeat current flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, and if that’s not enough, he avenged his only loss to Urijah Faber as a featherweight at UFC 132, defending his UFC bantamweight crown for the first time (the UFC and WEC titles merged at WEC 53 when Cruz beat Scott Jorgensen in his previous fight).

Cruz may not have been the best finisher or the most exciting fighter, but similar to the now absent Georges St-Pierre, he knew how to win. Interestingly enough, both fighters missed significant time due to leg injuries and were borderline threatened with their titles being stripped. Fighters need to fight, and they are given an extended period of time to get healthy. Fact of the matter is both fighters were taking too long to recover and seemed to be re-injuring themselves while training. Sadly, after suffering another injury, this time to the groin, Cruz was forced to vacate the bantamweight title.

Now that respect has been given where respect is due, it is finally time to move on, so let us take a look at the rest of the bantamweight division.

Renan Barao

One of the most incredible fighters to watch today, Barao is the clear beneficiary of Cruz’s injury. However, if you ask Barao, this is not how he wanted it to go down. In my interview with Barao at UFC 165, he stated that he felt like the champ already, but beating Cruz would be the ideal way of earning the belt. Regardless of that fact, Barao has been deemed the undisputed UFC bantamweight champion and will have his first unified title defense against Urijah Faber at UFC 169. This will be the second time both fighters meet, with Barao winning their first encounter via unanimous decision to become the interim bantamweight champion.

How good should Barao be considered if he beats Faber at UFC 169? He has not lost since his very first MMA fight and has a record of 31-1. He is currently ranked as the 6th pound-for-pound fighter by the UFC and Faber is the 13th, with Cruz falling to 15th. Dana White has been quoted by many sources saying a Barao finish at UFC 169 would make him the #1 pound-for-pound fighter. This is a bold statement from the outspoken UFC promoter, and there are a few other fighters who deserve to be mentioned whether Barao wins or not.  

Ahead of Barao in the UFC rankings are only fellow champions. With a win against Faber,  Barao will have successfully defended his title three times, which would give him two more title defenses than Chris Weidman,  one more than Cain Velasquez and tie him with Johnson. His MMA record is simply outstanding in comparison to the other fighters as well, but the major difference is the level of competition. This is why the top two fighters should not change, as Jon Jones has demolished the light heavyweight division while Jose Aldo is well on his way to do the same as the UFC featherweight champion. Jones currently has six title defenses (most in light heavyweight history), while Aldo has five and is fighting this Saturday as well. Aldo also holds the record for most consecutive wins in the WEC with eight. Considering the top two fighters in the world have accomplished a lot more and have fought tougher competition, it seems a bit far-fetched to give Barao the reigns as number one pound-for-pound fighter.

Barao has the skill to become the pound-for-pound best, but the competition at numbers one and two make it an extremely difficult feat. With that said, even with a win against Faber, it would be more plausible to slip Barao into third, with Jones maintaining the number one spot and Aldo, unless he loses on Saturday, sitting comfortably at number two.

Urijah Faber

If there is any fighter who has felt the wrath of the Nova Uniao camp it’s Urijah Faber. Faber was a dominant featherweight fighter in the WEC, holding the belt for five fights before losing it to WEC great Mike Brown. He was able to earn another chance at the title but fell to Brown a second time. While Brown’s run in the WEC was impressive, it all came to end when he fought current champion Jose Aldo. This opened the door for Faber to get another chance at the featherweight championship, but things did not get any easier for the California Kid.

Faber beat Raphael Assunçao to get another shot at featherweight gold, but fell to Aldo in unforgettable fashion. Faber demonstrated incredible heart at WEC 48, but the devastating leg kicks of Aldo proved to be too much. After losing two championship fights at featherweight, Faber decided to make the drop to bantamweight and go after a fighter he had already beaten in the past.

Unluckily for Faber, Cruz was ready. Faber won two fights as a bantamweight before getting a shot at the title. He went five rounds with the champion but lost via unanimous decision. With Cruz going down with multiple injuries and unable to fight, Faber got another chance to fight for a title after submitting Brian Bowles via guillotine choke. This lead to the first Barao-Faber meeting for the interim bantamweight title, with Barao walking away as the champion via decision. With a little bit of determination, and little bit a luck, Faber finds himself in yet another title fight at UFC 169.

This will be the second time they meet, the third time he fights the Nova Uniao camp, and a fifth title opportunity in less than five years.  To say Faber is one of the best in the game is an understatement, but he will need to prove himself against Barao if he hopes to wear another belt again.

Rest of the Bantamweight Division

One thing that should be noted is, between Faber and Barao, most of the bantamweight division has been defeated. With that said, this fight becomes even more important for the rest of the division, as the next in line will be heavily decided on who wins this bout.

Though Assunçao lost to Faber back in the WEC days, he holds a record of 5-1 in the UFC and seems to be the likely candidate to fight for the belt if he wins his next bout. After losing his first fight in the UFC to Erik Koch, he has gone on a five-fight win streak and has beaten top contenders like Mike Easton and T.J. Dillashaw. Interestingly, the UFC has him schedule to fight Francisco Rivera, an up-and-coming fighter who recently beat George Roop. If Assunçao defeats Rivera, there is very little stopping him from getting the next title shot, especially if Barao wins.

The most interesting bantamweight contender is Michael McDonald. McDonald holds a record of 16-3 and has proven ability after beating some of the best bantamweights in the world. The biggest problem with McDonald is his only UFC losses have come against Faber and Barao, which will not help his title chances in the near future, regardless of who wins. He lost both fights via submission, but was put into that position after taking devastating blows from both fighters. At the ripe age of 23, McDonald can take the time to improve his game and will surely be in title contention sometime down the line.

Moving down the list, Eddie Wineland, though ranked fourth in the division, was the most recent number one contender and lost to Barao via TKO. He fought on the UFC on FOX 10 prelims and won his fight swimmingly. He will have to fight a few more times before getting into title contention again, but a Faber win could get him into the title picture a lot sooner. The biggest question is can he hang with the elite-level fighters in the division, but the time will come for him to prove that.

Last but certainly not least, Cruz will surely be making his comeback at some point this year and his opponent will be someone closer to his rank. Ranked 10th, Cruz could see someone like Ivan Menjivar or Luri Alcantara for his first bout, or Brad Pickett if the UFC is feeling generous. If Cruz can return to form, he seems to be the most interesting and competitive candidate to challenge Faber or Barao for the bantamweight title.

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