Summer is here, the schedule is packed and the UFC has its foot on the gas pedal.
Big-name fights and star-studded cards checker the calendar, and the fight for position across all eight UFC divisions is about to heat up.
Like no other time in recent history, nearly every weight class is packed with potential contenders. Even in divisions with dominant champions, such as Anderson Silva at middleweight and Georges St-Pierre at welterweight, there is a class of fighters scrapping to clear out a spot in their respective divisional hierarchies. And while this process is pumping fuel into the fires of a great summer stretch for the UFC, one division sits broken down and lonesome on the shoulder of the expressway.
To put it in simple terms: The bantamweight division is crippled at the current time. To make matters worse, while there is certainly enough working parts to get the machine up and running, the key elements to put the weight class back on track are absent and a legitimate repair is nowhere in sight.
With champion Dominick Cruz having been on the sidelines for the better part of two years and the timeline for interim champion Renan Barao's return uncertain, the 135-pound division currently has two titles, neither of which are active at the present time.
This may be the biggest issue facing the weight class, but it's far from the only problem plaguing the bantamweight ranks.
To keep a division in a healthy state, there needs to be a continuous movement up and down the ladder. Even in other weight classes where title shots have become mired in shades of gray, there are still fighters rising and falling in the title picture.
Make no mistake about it, the bantamweight division does have legitimate stars and fighters who have the potential to make big waves. But with the current state of affairs at 135 pounds, the road to repair is going to be a grueling affair.
Someone Needs to Put a Cape on Urijah Faber
With all the chaos hampering the upper tier of the bantamweight division, Urijah Faber is keeping things alive at 135 pounds, and "The California Kid" has been handling business in a major way in 2013.
The Team Alpha Male leader made quick work out of veteran Ivan Menjivar at UFC 157, then turned around less than two months later and put away Scott Jorgensen via rear-naked choke in the fourth round of their tilt at The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale.
The victories over Menjivar and Jorgensen should have earned Faber another go at the 135-pound crown, but with the champion's tier of the division locked up, the 34-year-old had no other choice but to keep things moving. And that's exactly what he's done by signing on for an August dust-up with scrappy prospect Yuri Alcantara at UFC on Fox Sports 1 1.
Taking the fight with the surging Brazilian is a risky move by all accounts, but Faber is as game as they come in mixed martial arts, and without a title shot to fight for, his options are limited. In facing Alcantara, the former WEC featherweight champion will look to keep his momentum thriving while things get sorted out at the top of the division.
With a decade logged competing inside the cage, Faber has never lost a fight where there wasn't a title on the line. This is an incredible feat by any standards, and he will certainly be the favorite going into his bout with Alcantara in Boston.
In normal cases, where an established star faces an upcoming prospect, a promotion runs the risk of having a future name snuffed out, or vice versa. But with the mounting problems facing the bantamweight division, keeping their highest-profile fighter active is an absolute necessity.
Truth be told, should Alcantara lose to Faber in their upcoming showdown, the downside would be minimal. Despite not having a belt around his waist at the current time, Faber still carries the torch for the lighter-weight fighters in mixed martial arts, and if recent displays are any measure, he's very much on top of his game right now.
Stars Need a Push to Get into Orbit
There is no doubt that Faber, Cruz and Barao are the biggest names on the 135-pound roster. In fact, no other fighters carry a profile remotely close to what those three bring to the table. Nevertheless, there is a collection of talent—both veterans and prospects—that have the potential to break through into the next level of recognition.
Despite coming off a loss to Renan Barao at UFC on Fuel TV 7 back in February, 22-year-old Michael McDonald's stock is still riding high. "Mayday" could very well be the future of the bantamweight division and he will be looking to get back on that particular track when he squares off with Brad Pickett later this year.
The biggest issue with McDonald and a handful of other rising talents comes in the lack of promotional push they are receiving from the UFC.
Going into his title fight against Barao in Nottingham, MMA fans were having a hard enough time getting excited about a champion on a 29-fight winning streak, let alone a talented young title contender. Granted, this issue could simply be a side effect of having so many fighters and events to promote, but MMA fans need to know why they should care, and it certainly didn't feel like many of them did about the interim title bout at UFC on Fuel TV 7.
The same can be said bout other fighters on an upswing. This past weekend at UFC on Fuel TV 10, Raphael Assuncao put on a blistering performance and defeated Vaughan Lee. It was the WEC convert's fourth consecutive victory since dropping down into 135-pound waters and the win should move him further into the title picture.
But just as Faber can't move forward with the current title dilemma, Assuncao's championship aspirations are going to face similar issues. With far less star power than what Faber holds, the Brazilian powerhouse will need to face high-profile opponents in his next few outings in order to keep solid momentum behind him.
Based on the level of skill he displays in the cage, Assuncao certainly has what it takes to be one of the best fighters in the bantamweight division, but it is going to take more than his work inside the cage for fans to understand this.
One fighter who does have a bit of promotional push behind him is former TUF finalist T.J. Dillashaw. Since losing to John Dodson at The Ultimate Fighter 14 Finale, the Team Alpha Male fighter has been on a red-hot streak, steamrolling through four consecutive opponents.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Dillashaw's current run comes based on the fact that the talented young wrestler is putting away the opposition using other facets of his skill set. "The Viper" submitted Vaughan Lee, then stopped both Issei Tamura and Hugo Viana using his striking.
At 27 years old, Dillashaw's best years as a mixed martial artist are still ahead of him. And while he's yet to break into the divisional upper tier at 135 pounds, he has the potential to be one of the future stars of the bantamweight division.
Fixing the Title Picture
The bantamweight division absolutely has the potential to get back on course, but it will be impossible to accomplish if the title picture is not sorted out. Having two champions in one weight class is difficult enough, but when neither are fighting, the division will fall stagnant.
Interim titles are never an easy situation to work through, but other divisions have handled the issue gracefully and continued to thrive. For example, the welterweight division lost its reigning king Georges St-Pierre for an extended amount of time, and not only did a title race remain, but fighters continued to move in and out of contention in his absence.
While the bantamweight division does not enjoy the depth of talent the 170-pound weight class holds, the process is still largely the same. In order for things to move and fighters to rise up the divisional ladder, there has to be something for them to move toward. At the current time, there is no pulse at the top of the bantamweight division, and that simply has to change.
Dominick Cruz has been a great champion and deserves the right to keep his position. That being said, "The Dominator" has been out of action for nearly two years, and if he doesn't make his return soon, the UFC will have to make a tough decision.
Cruz is rumored to be working for a fall return and if that is the case, then the title picture can be worked out. But if the champion cannot get healthy by October, making it a firm two years since he last competed inside the Octagon, the organization should eliminate the interim strap and make it the legitimate belt in the division.
Personally, I would hate to see Cruz stripped of his title, but two years is one more year than most champions get in this situation.
Another question mark in this equation is Barao. The Brazilian phenom was slated to face Eddie Wineland this weekend at UFC 161 before a foot injury forced him to withdraw. The bout was eventually scrapped entirely with Wineland's title opportunity hanging in uncertainty.
While it would be a slight to Wineland, the best possible turn for the division would be to have both Cruz and Barao return to action this fall and unify the titles. With one true champion sitting atop the division, the rest of the process will fall into line. Wineland would still hold his spot as a top contender and potentially face another rising talent like Assuncao to determine the next title shot.
Then again, this could all be just wishful thinking. If neither Cruz nor Barao can make a strong return, and the UFC doesn't put its foot down and make tough decisions, the division will continue to roll on the downturn.
The bantamweight division has the potential to get back up and firing, but there is much work to be done by everyone involved.