Contender or Pretender for the UFC's Top 10 Bantamweights
The UFC's bantamweight division is a hard one to sort out. First, you've got champion Dominick Cruz, but he's injured. So, in his place, you've got interim belt-holder Renan Barao. But now he's injured, too.
What are we left with? Well, you could put the whole division on suspended animation, or you could sort out the contenders in as orderly a fashion as possible so that the line is ready to move when one and/or both titlists get back to action.
These are the 10 guys in that line, and an assessment of whether they are a contender or a pretender. To avoid unnecessary digressions, I'm using the official UFC rankings, as voted on by a panel of selected media members. Got a problem, take it up with them.
10. Ivan Menjivar
Ivan Menjivar has a lot to be proud of. Still only 31 years old, he's racked up a 25-10 record and has a venerable status in the sport as a pioneering submission grappler for the lighter-weight divisions.
After losses to Mike Easton and Urijah Faber in his last three bouts, though, the Tristar teammate is mired on the novelty circuit. He faces Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto in September in an interesting but implicationless matchup.
9. T.J. Dillashaw
The 27-year-old Dillashaw (8-1) suffered his only pro loss to John Dodson, who is now arguably the second-best flyweight in the world.
Dillashaw may not be ready to challenge for the title this minute, but he has a tried-and-true wrestling base and dangerous kickboxing, which may be getting even more dangerous thanks to his work with new Team Alpha Male coach and world-class striker Duane Ludwig. Dillashaw should find himself in the mix with a couple more good wins.
8. Mike Easton
I hate to say it. Mike Easton is a bastion of the D.C. MMA scene, a charismatic figure and one hell of a great interview. But his game in the cage is defensive to the point of tentative, and after an impressive (if dull) winning streak, he has now dropped his last two. The facts simply don't hold up in this case.
7. Scott Jorgensen
Scott Jorgensen has one of the most exciting wins in the division's recent history: that Submission- and Fight-of-the-Night-winning chokeout of John Albert, which came literally at the last second of the first round. He's an indomitable competitor. He also has some of the best ink in the UFC, and don't kid yourself: that's very relevant.
Unfortunately, he's dropped three of his last four and has shown throughout his career that he isn't strong enough in any one phase to defeat the elite of the elite.
6. Raphael Assuncao
Raphael Assuncao has ripped off four in a row, though the submissions ace hasn't really earned them over the cream of the crop.
No offense to a good fighter in Assuncao, but in my opinion he reached this high ranking by default. Submitting Vaughan Lee doesn't make him Demian Maia, and his decision over Easton was positively uninspiring. Furthermore, whenever he's faced an elite (Erik Koch, Urijah Faber and, if you like, Diego Nunes), he has come up well short.
5. Brad Pickett
"One Punch" Pickett is a popular and likable bantamweight. But like Assuncao, he hasn't gotten over the hump against top guys.
The 34-year-old veteran is experienced and well-rounded, though. If he can upset Michael McDonald in August, I'll gladly eat my words. I'll call him a pretender for now, but will add a metaphorical asterisk.
4. Eddie Wineland
Eddie Wineland is Chris Lytle reincarnated: the consummate journeyman who almost never fights a boring fight. That will get you places in the UFC, where shiny objects are at a premium.
But in his last two contests, the 28-year-old Wineland has looked better than he ever has. In defeating Pickett, he showed outstanding cardio and terrific takedown defense to go with his boxing. Wineland was scheduled to face Renan Barao before Barao got injured in the runup to UFC 161. Here's hoping he gets another high-profile shot soon. He's earned it.
3. Michael McDonald
The hard-hitting bantamweight submitted to Renan Barao in his last fight. But he looked very good at times and is still only 22 years old. There may be no brighter future in the division than McDonald's. He has a legitimate test in Pickett, but if he can take care of business there, he should shoot right back to the front of a relatively short line.
2. Urijah Faber
Urijah Faber has always been the real star of the division. And with rival Cruz out of the picture for almost two years now and Barao not yet breaking into the national consciousness, Faber is something of a one-man band at the moment.
At the head of the rejuvenated Team Alpha Male, Faber reminded everyone against Ivan Menjivar and Scott Jorgensen that he is one of the best MMA wrestlers ever. He'll try to make it three in a row this August against Yuri Alcantara, and there's no reason to think he won't. True, he did lose to Barao, but who wouldn't want to watch that one again? I'd watch that one again.
1. Renan Barao (Interim Champ)
Renan Barao is the interim champ and probably the best fighter in bantamweight MMA right now, including Cruz. The Nova Uniao product is dangerous in all phases, though his pinpoint Muay Thai is probably his calling card. Whenever he and Cruz can finally get in the cage together, I'd have to give the edge to Barao. So, yeah, I'd say he's a contender.