The UFC bantamweight division is going through an awkward phase these days. With champion Dominick Cruz's injury keeping him on the sidelines until late 2013, the title will remain in the interim stage for the time being.
Currently holding that belt is Brazilian wrecking machine Renan Barao, who will square off with talented young star Michael McDonald this weekend at UFC on Fuel TV 7.
One fighter who will be watching how everything plays out is Eddie Wineland.
The former WEC bantamweight champion is experiencing a career resurgence and is riding the momentum of back-to-back impressive performances.
The Chesterton, Ind. native scored a knockout victory over the always gritty Scott Jorgensen at UFC on FX 3, then furthered his case for contention by lighting up Brad Pickett at UFC 155. In both showings Wineland's striking made the difference as he turned away two of the division's best in stunning fashion.
The question now becomes what's next for Wineland?
With Barao and McDonald set to do battle this weekend in London and perennial contender Urijah Faber back in action at UFC 157, Wineland's next opponent will most likely appear in the aftermath of the high-profile bantamweight matchups.
Nevertheless, Wineland believes he belongs in the title conversation, but whether or not the opportunity will come in the near future is not his decision to make.
"I think I'm in the Top 5 for sure," Wineland told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "I even think I stand in the top three in the division. But I have to fight one of those guys in the top three to get there first. With where I'm at now, my mindset, and my body the way it is, I think I'm doing nothing but getting stronger and better. I think that is dangerous for anybody in my division.
"I figured with a win like Pickett it would get me a shot at one of the top three guys or even the next in line. I don't think it is going to play out that way but I could always be wrong."
Not only were his victories of Jorgensen and Pickett solid showings, they also allowed Wineland to bounce back after a rough start under the UFC banner.
In his Octagon debut, Wineland lost a unanimous decision to Faber and suffered the same fate in his next bout against Joseph Benavidez. Following his loss to Benavidez in Milwaukee, Wineland realized he needed to rediscover his aggression and reconnected with the way he used to handle business inside the cage.
The 28-year-old has always possessed put away power, but his recent displays prove the adjustments made are paying off.
"I went back to my old mentality of not letting anyone beat me anywhere," Wineland said. "The mindset that I'm going to win every battle and I'm going to come out on top every time. That, coupled with strength and conditioning, has made a difference.
"My hips are about four-times as strong as they were a few years ago because of the program that we use. Anybody who is a boxer or fighter knows power comes from the hips. It doesn't come from the arms. It doesn't matter how big your arms are chest are—those things don't mean you can punch harder. It's all in your hips and mine have always been strong. I have wrestler hips. They've continuously gotten stronger and that has made my punching power become stronger as well.
"I think those two fights [Faber & Benavidez] are fights I should have won," Wineland added. "But being that I lost them, I don't see that as a bad thing. It opened my eyes that I needed to put my nose to the grindstone, grind it out, and make it an ugly fight. I needed to be in my opponent's face like I used to be and obviously it worked because I just took two Top 10 guys and knocked one of them out and beat the other decisively."
As the lighter weight classes in the UFC continue to develop, the more likely it becomes that more fighters will drop down to test their skills. The trend is has become a popular move in the featherweight division, as former champions and contenders have decided to enter the lighter waters.
Wineland welcomes any fighter who decides to come down in weight. That being said, he also believes there are a few things people fail to realize about the process.
"I'll fight anybody," Wineland said. "A name is a name and it is what it is. If they want to come down and fight in our division I'm not going to get super-excited because a guy has a big name. At the same time, a big name does put my face out there, get me some exposure, and media time. That being said, a lot of guys don't realize how different it is.
"Right now I'm 156 pounds. I could potentially be a 145-pounder but I cut down to 135. I think a lot of people take that for granted and don't realize how big I really am. When I'm in camp I'm 152-pounds and I think I'm one of, if not the biggest, 135-pounders out there.
"If on fight night I'm 151 pounds and the guy I'm fighting only weighs 145-pounds, people think five pounds isn't much of a difference but it is. At 205-pounds, five pounds doesn't matter all that much. It is like saying a guy fighting at 205-pounds is fighting a guy that weights 230. In my weight class, five pounds makes a difference and it weighs on you. For the lighter guy trying to support the weight of the bigger guy makes it tough."
While the tide is high for Wineland at the moment, just how long his career will last is something of an uncertainty. 10 years of trading leather in the cage and long training camps in the gym have left their marks on his body.
Nevertheless, Wineland feels he is still improving with each and every step, and wants to make the most of every opportunity that arises before the doors close for good on his career.
"I absolutely think the best is yet to come," Wineland said. "I'm only getting better and stronger as I go. That being said, I don't know how many more years I have left. My body does hurt and I've been doing this for 10 years now. I'm 28 years old now and I started fighting at age 18. I kind of started fighting back in the wild west days of MMA.
"In some of my first fights it was legal to knee and kick to the head of a grounded opponent. It was kind of a free-for-all. I plan to fight as long as my body will allow me to and I hope that I can get another 10 years. That would be awesome but that is not very realistic. We'll have to wait and see what happens.
"My goal is to get a title shot in 2013. But I don't know how likely that is because of Dominick being out. I've heard possibly the beginning of October as to when he comes back but it's still unclear. I guess the only way a title shot is possible is if I get the interim belt and when Dominick comes back later in the year I get a shot at him."