Who is the bantamweight GOAT? We began our discussion previously, which can be found here. Now we will conclude it.
Our previous article looked at the fighting styles and levels of competition of three of the bantamweight GOATs. In this piece, we conclude who truly is the best bantamweight to have competed in the UFC.
Dominick Cruz is the original king of the bantamweights in the UFC and is a true OG of the sport. His impressive performances in the WEC as well as UFC established him as the best fighter at 135lbs in the world from winning the WEC belt in 2010, before losing to Cody Garbrandt in December of 2016. We did see Cruz face Dillashaw in what was a very close encounter yet Cruz did enough to get the victory.
There is a feeling that the prime years of Cruz’s career were lost due to injury however and many have lamented that the much talked about fight between him and a prime Renan Barao never materialised as their paths would have certainly crossed, likely numerous times if not for the injuries. Overall, with five defences of the most prestigious bantamweight belt in the world counting both the WEC and UFC titles and undefeated as a champion for nearly seven years Cruz should certainly be considered strongly for the title of GOAT.
While he has displayed mixed form in recent years, picking up various wins and losses he is almost 40 and a physical decline was inevitable. His achievements in the Octagon are nearly overshadowed by how he achieved them with Cruz creating one of the most iconic styles in UFC history and being the example that many fighters such as Dillashaw, attempted and succeeded in emulating with their elusive movement and sustained volume. His resume is filled with excellent top levels names such as Demetrious Johnson, TJ Dillashaw and Urijah Faber and he always delivered a top tier performance whenever he fought. He will truly go down as a pioneer of not only his division but all of the lower weight classes in MMA.
Unfortunately, the paragraph TJ Dillashaw will not be as optimistic and complimentary as what was written about Cruz. While possessing one of the greatest resumes that the sport has seen and producing one of the most iconic, greatest title fight performances ever against Renan Barao, TJ’s career took a massive hit in 2019 when he tested positive for banned substance EPO following his loss to Henry Cejudo in an attempt to win the flyweight championship.
EPO is a performance-enhancing drug that is noted for dramatically increasing the stamina of the user and has been used for several years in horse racing to supplement the horses. After being caught for EPO Dillashaw was banned by USADA for two years, a suspension which he served. Displaying some remorse for his actions, Dillashaw maintains that the only bout in which he took EPO beforehand was his fight at flyweight against Cejudo. Yet since he utilised his stamina and impressive cardio to such a great degree throughout his rise and championship runs at bantamweight as well it is impossible for this to not factor in and call into question his entire career pre-Cejudo.
What once was considered to be a surefire contender for greatest Bantamweight ever has been thrown into disrepute due to a failed drugs test. For many fans, they can not give Dillashaw credit for the wins over Barao and Garbrandt while the cloud of EPO hangs over him.
The most recent addition to this conversation and one that many feel is a shoe-in for the debate in the current champion, Aljamain Sterling. For example, Jon Anik has stated on numerous occasions how he believes that even without a win this Saturday against Sean O’Malley, Sterling is already the greatest bantamweight to ever live. Indeed it is easy to see why this conclusion may be reached when simply looking at his record.
Wins over former champions Cejudo, Yan and Dillashaw look extremely impressive as does a win over Cory Sandhagen, Pedro Munhoz and possibly Sean O’Malley. Yet the main criticism of Sterling’s record and wins will always be how he actually got them. Being the first fighter to be awarded a championship by disqualification did not start his reign well with many fans accusing him of playing up the effects of Petr Yan’s illegal knee to a downed opponent. In the rematch Sterling would win a fairly unconvincing split decision over Yan which while not being a robbery, was a fight that many fans and pundits felt could have been given to Yan.
Sterling would then make a defence against TJ Dillashaw who had returned from his suspension with a win over Cory Sandhagen and had now been awarded a title shot. Sterling would defeat Dillashaw via TKO in the second round, however, Dillashaw dislocated his shoulder very early in the first essential rendering one of his arms useless. It was later revealed that it had happened numerous times in training camp and he was suffering an ongoing shoulder issue. This win was deemed as having an asterisk due to the fact that Sterling’s opponent was so badly injured for the majority of the fight.
Finally, his most recent fight against Henry Cejudo resulted in another split decision for Sterling that again, many people feel he did not win or at least drew. Despite the continued wins against top opposition in the division, Sterling’s performances as a champion are not blowing people away as they were as a contender and he is yet to have a clear-cut win that the entire MMA community can agree upon. This is no fault of his own, particularly in the DIllashaw case, yet is just an unfortunate reality that despite now attempting four defences as a champion, many feel that he doesn’t even deserve the belt to begin with. If he kept the same CV as he does now, yet put on a more dominant performance in each of the fights and had actually beaten Yan by finish or decision for the belt in the first place, Sterling would likely be viewed as the GOAT by the majority of MMA fans, yet the manner in which he is achieving these wins is preventing this.
Conclusion: GOAT = Dominick Cruz
Ultimately despite the impressive resume of Sterling, the manner and controversy surrounding his wins is too much to unanimously declare that he is the GOAT. Dominick Cruz ultimately possesses more title defences of the premier bantamweight belt, possesses a win over a possibly performance-enhanced TJ Dillashaw and ultimately created one of the most iconic styles and skill sets seen in Mixed Martial Arts. He fought in a way that no one had ever really seen done in MMA before and has arguably faced competition as tough or tougher than Sterling.
While Sterling is certainly an excellent fighter he has not had the same level of domination as Cruz during his title reign and career in general with Cruz being on top for almost seven years, admittedly more like five due to extensive time off for injuries. Cruz had excellent masterful performances against the likes of TJ Dillashaw, Demetrious Johnson and Urijah Faber and this ultimately gives him the edge in the GOAT debate with the lack of numerous split decisions as well as strange controversies surrounding the fights such as Yan’s DQ and the dislocation of Dillashaw’s shoulder.
Bantamweight is still a young division in the UFC and is still yet to see a truly dominant champion emerge the same way other weight classes have done. Cruz can maintain the title now, as he has done for likely 10 years or so yet may lose the crown in the future to one of the current crop of bantamweight contenders. With Aljamain Sterling confirming that he will be moving up to 145 lbs regardless of the outcome this Saturday, there will be a new face in the division. Whether that be Sean O’Malley, Cory Sandhagen, Umar Nurmagomedov or Merab Dvalishvili and all will be looking to reign at the top for the foreseeable future.