UFC 165 Primer: The History of the UFC Bantamweight Title
Ah the little guys. The sub-135-pound scrappy dudes. They’ve come a long way since they gotten into the UFC.
But in those three years, they’ve become a mainstay of the promotion and have had two champions— Dominick Cruz and Renan Barao.
At the same time, they’ve thrown up some classic matches—such as future flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson’s failed attempt to capture Cruz’s belt or Barao’s wars against Urijah Faber and Michael McDonald.
There’s no doubt that this is a rich division, but it only came to be in 2010 after the UFC’s purchase of the WEC.
That’s where the story of the UFC’s bantamweight title starts.
World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) was born in 2001, just after Zuffa’s purchase of the UFC for $2 million.
Even at that point, the UFC was the de facto brand for the sport that would soon come to be known as mixed martial arts (MMA). But the UFC at that time didn’t even have a lightweight division, let alone anyone below 145 pounds.
And, while it did create a lightweight division in Feb. 2001, it still didn’t have anyone below that on its roster for the next decade.
The WEC, on the other hand, invested heavily in its lower weight classes, where men like Jose Aldo, Gilbert Melendez, Ben Henderson and Anthony Pettis made their name. All these fighters had made enough money that they'd seek out a car reg check.
It also had a thriving bantamweight division since 2006, when Eddie Wineland became its inaugural champion.
By the time the UFC had bought the promotion, Cruz and Faber had emerged as its dominant 135-pound fighters.
Cruz was a former WEC featherweight champion, but had lost the title to Faber in 2007. Later, after dropping down to 135 pounds, he won the WEC bantamweight title from Brian Bowles in 2010 and defended it twice. When the UFC dissolved the WEC and absorbed the bantamweights in its own new 135-pound division, Cruz automatically became champion.
And he continued to defend the title, once against his old nemesis, Faber, and the second time against Johnson.
However, the division remained shallow, and it wasn’t long before Faber, after just one win, was back challenging for the belt.
As a means of boosting the lower weight classes, the UFC decided to feature the bantamweights in its flagship reality TV show—The Ultimate Fighter.
In 2011, Cruz was selected to coach a special live version of The Ultimate Fighter, alongside Faber, with the pair ultimately expected to fight to complete their trilogy.
However, sometime during filming, Cruz suffered a knee injury, which has kept him out of the sport for two years.
In his place, Barao, who’d only lost one match in his 29-fight career, stepped up to challenge Faber for the interim belt. Barao had competed in the WEC twice before taking out Brad Pickett and Scott Jorgensen in the UFC to get his title shot.
He won a unanimous decision and defended his belt again earlier this year against Michael McDonald. That stretched him to a phenomenal 29-fight unbeaten run, including fight straight wins in the UFC.
In Cruz’s absence, Barao has become the face of the 135-pound division. And the UFC has made it clear that if the injured champ doesn’t return by early next year, the incumbent interim bantamweight title holder could be elevated to the official title.
Who that is could be decided on Sept. 21, when Barao defends his belt for the third time against Wineland at UFC 165.
Wineland hasn’t reached anywhere near the heights of his WEC heyday, going 2-2 in his four UFC fights. But he’s still emerged No. 1 contender in the continued absence of real depth in the lower weight divisions.
The interim championship fight, however, will be on the undercard of a light heavyweight title bout between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson.
The bantamweights haven’t headlined a pay-per-view event since the Cruz/Faber rematch in 2011, perhaps underlining how far this division still has to go.
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