Things have been a veritable mess in the UFC's bantamweight division.
With champion Dominick Cruz being on the sidelines due to injury for the past two years, and interim strap holder Renan Barao recovering from a setback as well, the bantamweight division has looked like a busy stretch of interstate under construction.
That being said, the Brazilian wrecking machine is set to return to action this Saturday night against Eddie Wineland at UFC 165, and the state of disrepair the division has been locked in for the past year, will finally fade away.
And in truth, it couldn't come at a better time.
Outside of Barao and Cruz, there is another wave of potential contenders looking to make their runs toward a future title opportunity. Top-level fighters like Urijah Faber and Michael McDonald have been storming through the competition, but with the championship tier in shambles, there was no way to travel up the ladder.
Both have remained busy by wrecking shop in the bantamweight ranks, but with Barao's interim title returning to play this weekend, the action will begin to ramp up at 135-pounds.
While depth of talent is ultimately what matters most in a weight class, a heated divisional title race is crucial to keeping fighters motivated and generating fan interest. With the bantamweight division being one of the more recent additions to the UFC roster and fans being slow to grab on, the 135-pound collection needs all the excitement they can bring to the table.
The division has all the key elements to become one of the most exciting weight classes under the UFC banner, but those moving parts need to start firing on all cylinders. Barao versus Wineland will kick things off on Saturday night in Toronto, but they are going to need some help from their peers to ensure the division gets back on track.
A 135-Pound Firefight in Toronto
Bantamweights are known for being scrappy fighters who get right down to business and Renan Barao and Eddie Wineland are perfect examples.
Barao is the most well-rounded fighter in the 135-pound fold and has the ability to finish a fight at any moment, from any position inside the cage. The 26-year-old has one of the longest and most impressive winning streaks rolling to date, as the Nova Uniao product has collected 30 consecutive victories.
While Barao's versatile stand up has made him one of the most dangerous strikers in the bantamweight division, his skill set when the action hits the canvas has been equally formidable. Of the seven victories he's earned while competing under the Zuffa banner, four have come by way of a finish, all of which have been submissions.
With so many tools to chose from, Barao is a threat at every moment of the fight.
Yet, what is perhaps the most impressive element to his game is the measured aggression and patience he's shown during recent outings.
Where the Andre Pederneiras-trained fighter has blitzed and overwhelmed opponents in the past, his most recent outing against Michael McDonald at UFC on Fuel TV 7 in February showed he has the ability to bait his opposition into making crucial mistakes.
When he steps into the Octagon this Saturday night, his opponent will be looking to bring the fight directly to him. If Barao can continue to show the skills that have made him a champion, there is a good chance he'll exit the Octagon at UFC 165 that way as well.
Things look much different on Wineland's side of the table. The 29-year-old former WEC bantamweight champion's recent success has been dependent on his ability to turn fights into gritty affairs. The Indiana native has solid boxing skills and solid takedown defense which has allowed him to keep the action exactly where he wants it to be.
In recent showings against Scott Jorgensen and Brad Pickett, the Chesterton-based fighter used his technique and power to pick apart the opposition. Wineland scored a knockout victory over Jorgensen UFC on FX 3 in June of 2012, then defeated "One Punch" on the judge's score cards at UFC 155 in December.
While Wineland's striking made the difference in those fights, he'll face a much different challenge against Barao.
Jorgensen and Pickett both brought a hard-charging, straight forward approach into their fights with Wineland. And while Barao has no issue keeping a fight standing, his movement and Muay Thai skills are on a different level.
Whether the matchup between Barao and Wineland will be guaranteed excitement, the most important element to the bout will be the divisional "restart" their co-main event tilt in Toronto will provide. They were originally set to collide at UFC 161 in June, but a foot injury put Barao on the sidelines and bumped the fight back to September 21.
The two fighters will scrap it out on Saturday night, and for the first time in six months, there will be movement in the championship tier at 135-pounds.
Here Come the Contenders
With the interim title on the line this weekend at UFC 165, traffic will resume in the rest of the bantamweight division, and there will be several potential contenders gunning for a title opportunity.
Easily the most notable of this group will be Urijah Faber. "The California Kid" has been on a tear since dropping his previous title bid to Barao at UFC 149 in July of 2012, as the Team Alpha Male leader has racked up three consecutive victories—all of which have come in impressive fashion.
The 34-year-old has looked reinvigorated of late as he's steamrolled top competition the likes of Ivan Menjivar, Scott Jorgensen and Yuri Alcantara. His most recent victory over Alcantara at Fight Night 26 in August was his toughest of the bunch as he overcame early adversity to secure the unanimous decision victory.
Following his win in Boston, a title shot would have been in line had the opportunity been available. Nevertheless, there was no title opportunity available, and the only option for Faber was to keep rolling. He's expected to face Michael McDonald at UFC on Fox 9 on Dec. 14, and the winner of that bout will have a strong case for a championship bid.
While the former WEC poster boy will certainly have more momentum coming into the bout, McDonald will have just as much on the line in Sacramento. "Mayday" also fell short in his quest to dethrone Barao, but he bounced back strong when he snuffed Brad Pickett in the second round of their bout at Fight Night 26 in August.
His performance against the heavy-handed Brit showed just how much the 22-year-old has in the resilience department.
With Barao snapping his eight-fight winning streak and handing him his first loss in four years, McDonald proved he can return with fire as he drubbed Pickett from pillar to post during their tilt in Boston. And he will certainly have his hands full with Faber in December.
Since losing his WEC featherweight title to Mike Brown in 2008, the only fights Faber has come up short in have been when there is a title on the line. Throughout his decade-long career he's never lost a non-title fight. McDonald will be looking to end that impressive run and earn himself another shot at Bantamweight gold in the process.
While the winner of Faber vs. McDonald should be considered as the next title contender, the long-awaited return of Dominick Cruz could throw a wrench in those plans.
The Clock is Ticking for Dominick Cruz
When October 1 rolls around, it will mark two years since Dominick Cruz last stepped foot inside the Octagon. The bantamweight champion has been plagued by a torn ACL which was suffered while preparing for his third showdown with Urijah Faber.
While his recovery time was originally figured to be a six to nine month stint, Cruz's body rejected the cadaver ligament used to repair the knee. He was force to undergo the surgery again which pushed his projected return date into limbo.
However, that status has changed in recent weeks.
UFC President Dana White told the media earlier this month that the bantamweight champion is set to return in early 2014 with a title unification bout figured to be the first action he sees upon resuming his championship reign.
Where Cruz was dominant as the bantamweight king prior to his injury, the lengthy layoff has created some doubt where his top status in the division is concerned. In his absence, Renan Barao has collected four consecutive victories which includes winning and successfully defending the interim bantamweight title.
If Barao is successful on Saturday against Wineland, he will only pick up that much more momentum heading into a potential unification bout with Cruz. While "The Dominator" undoubtedly deserves to return high in the divisional hierarchy, facing an opponent on a red-hot tear like Barao is a steep order for even the most talented of fighters.
On the other hand, should Cruz suffer another setback in his attempt to return to action, the UFC would absolutely be forced to make a decision on his title status. Where the organization has implemented interim titles on multiple occasions, White and Co. have been slow to strip away titles their champions have earned.
This has certainly been the case where Cruz is concerned, as White has dismissed the matter for the past two years. Nevertheless, the UFC head honcho has stretched the matter out about as far as it can be taken. And if Cruz can't return early next year as projected, making the interim champion the official title holder would be a move White needs to make.
That being said, Cruz is confident his comeback is right on schedule.
While his return to the bantamweight throne would slow things up for a short stretch, having the best 135-pound fighter in the world back in the mix would only serve to crank up the intensity on the divisional title race in the long run.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report.
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