When bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz was forced out of his scheduled bout at UFC 148 against Urijah Faber, the promotion moved quickly to introduce an interim titleholder.
The UFC knew at the time that Cruz would be out for the better part of a year after tearing the ACL in his knee, and reconstructive surgery plus rehab equaled a lot of time that the 135-pound title would not be defended.
So with Cruz on the shelf, Renan Barao claimed the interim bantamweight belt with a dominant win over fellow contender Urijah Faber in July 2012. The plan was for Barao to then unify the belts with Cruz when he returned from knee surgery.
The only problem is Cruz suffered another setback and had to undergo another major reconstructive surgery on the same knee, which sidelined him for another long stretch of time.
In the meantime, Barao stayed busy and successfully defended his belt against Michael McDonald earlier this year, winning by fourth-round submission. Now on the cusp of yet another title defense against Eddie Wineland at UFC 165 on September 21, Barao is faced with the prospect of potentially facing Cruz in early 2014.
There are still no definitive plans, however, so if Barao can defend his bantamweight title for a second time, should he be considered the true king at 135 pounds?
"Certainly, Dominick's been out awhile. It's going to be two years now," Barao said on Tuesday. "I mean no disrespect to him, but from the moment I won this belt, and I have defended it once, I've considered myself champion for certain."
With a win next weekend over Wineland at UFC 165, Barao will match the number of title defenses that Cruz had as UFC bantamweight champion. Cruz has been the recognized No. 1 fighter at bantamweight for much longer, however, as he was also the champion in the WEC, where he defended the title twice.
Still, with Cruz not expected to return until the first part of 2014, which would mean he's been out of action for well over 24 months, it's hard to ignore Barao's work in the division.
The expectation is that Cruz will come back and face Barao to unify the titles, but the Brazilian is happy to call himself bantamweight champion, whether that happens or not.
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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