Dominick Cruz was antsy as Renan "Barao" Pegado entered the Octagon and defended his interim UFC bantamweight title. Sitting on the set back in Los Angeles, broadcasting live on Fuel TV, Cruz was shadow boxing throughout the four-round fight.
You can forgive him.
After all, the man in the cage who took on rising star Michael McDonald shouldn't have been Barao. In a perfect world, it would have been a happy and healthy Cruz, the rightful champion who has never tasted defeat in nine fights as a bantamweight.
We don't, alas, live in a perfect world. Cruz, unfortunately, tore his ACL preparing for a fight with Urijah Faber last May. In December, we learned that his body rejected a cadaver's ACL, setting his recovery back another six months or more.
That left Barao to pick up the pieces and the bantamweight belt, first beating Faber to earn the interim title and now defending that belt against McDonald, utilizing a combination of raw athleticism and startling skill that reminded many of teammate Jose Aldo.
"(McDonald) had the same problems I thought Barao would give him," Cruz said on Fuel TV's UFC Postfight Show. "He can’t take down Barao, which gave him more chances to win and he could go for the takedowns. He can stay on the outside and strike. On top of that, McDonald was looking for the power shots, and was not looking to set them up. He was looking to counter them or force them. And, as I thought, Barao was able to keep the distance and keep McDonald from landing the big shot. He was able to dictate the range, keep the distance and score the takedowns that won the fight.”
Cruz's analysis, as always, was spot-on. Of course, with his broadcast partners Jay Glazer and Chael Sonnen egging him on, Cruz couldn't resist explaining why fighting Barao is an entirely different proposition than fighting McDonald.
“I fight differently than anyone else," the champion said. "I’m not going to stand in front of you. I’m not just going to counter you and I mix things up. You take away range with angles. I can wrestle. I’m not going to just stand in front of him and strike the whole time. Feints ruin the entire game of Barao, in my opinion. You take away the range by taking away the jab. He’s going to be confused when he gets in there looking for me.”
Barao, to his credit, recognizes that he will never truly be the champion as long as Cruz lurks outside the cage with his own version of that shiny gold belt. He called Cruz out immediately after the fight and wished him a speedy recovery.
“I will train very hard," Barao told Fuel TV. "I’m looking forward to the fight and I want to give a great show and beat him. I wish Dominick a quick recovery so he can come fight and give a great fight to the fans.”
The bantamweight division, featuring fighters who weight just 135 pounds, has struggled to create demand among any but the most hardcore MMA fans.
But with two different dominant champions, the upcoming Cruz vs. Barao fight could be something the division has never seen in its short history—a legitimate box-office and television attraction.