The UFC bantamweight division has been in limbo in some form or fashion for the past two years as champion Dominick Cruz has been sitting on the sidelines recovering from two surgeries to repair a torn ACL in his knee.
In his absence, the UFC crowned a new interim champion in Renan Barao last year, and while Cruz is still clasping onto his belt hoping to come back in early 2014, the Brazilian on an incredible win streak is certainly doing his part to claim the top spot in the weight class.
Barao has been pretty much spotless between his WEC and UFC career, but on Saturday night at UFC 165 from Air Canada Centre in Toronto, he took on a fighter who knows what gold feels like around his waist.
Eddie Wineland was the first WEC bantamweight champion, and he had the kind of power in his hands and the killer instinct to give Barao problems if the champion wasn't careful.
In the early going of the fight, Wineland showed Barao that he had to respect his power as he uncorked a big punch in the first half of the opening round that cracked the champion flush on the jaw. Barao came back later in the round, however, and probably made it a tough call on the judges' scorecards who won the five-minute session.
Barao had no intention of the judges even getting involved because in the second round he spun around with all of his weight and launched a kick that put his heel right up against the side of Wineland's face. The former WEC champion crashed backward to the mat, and Barao pounced on him with a few more punches until the referee swooped in for the save.
The knockout victory marks Barao's second title defense since winning the belt in 2012, and now he awaits word about his next fight, which should be a unification bout with bantamweight champion Cruz.
Renan Barao Is the UFC Bantamweight Champion
It's time to remove interim from Barao's championship because winning the belt and two title defenses matches the same total of fights that Cruz has had inside the UFC. Cruz is in an impossibly tough position because prior to his injury there was no question about who was the best bantamweight on the planet, but the division has changed dramatically since he last appeared there.
Three out of the past four opponents that Cruz faced are now flyweights, and while the injury should certainly not be held against him, it's been two years since he defended the belt. It's just unfair to Barao and the rest of the division to keep using the term interim.
Hopefully, Cruz can come back in early 2014 and unify the belts with Barao, and this entire conversation is null and void, but right now there's no way to know for sure that the two champions will actually fight next year or not. Cruz is still rehabbing his knee after two major surgeries, and if he pushes things too much, he could come back just for the sake of defending his belt and potentially get injured again or just not be ready for a fighter the caliber of Barao.
Barao has been nothing short of dominant, and he's earned his spot and the distinction to be called UFC bantamweight champion.
Eddie Wineland Will Become the Measuring Stick at Bantamweight
It's hard to imagine with the kind of record that he possesses that Wineland is only 29 years old, but that's a fact. He's now put a total of 30 fights on his record, but his loss to Barao might be his last run at a UFC title. Now that's not to say Wineland can't make another run to get back there because he's capable of it, but the odds aren't in his favor.
What's more likely is Wineland becomes the man who decides the next contenders at 135 pounds. He's an incredible strong fighter with bricks in both fists and a huge heart to stick around in any fight he's involved with.
Wineland will stick around the top 10 for at least a few more years, and he's going to be a problem for a lot of the 135-pound fighters hoping to make it to the title. Wineland may not get another shot at the gold, but he's probably going to derail a lot of other fighters' dreams along the way.
We May Be Headed for Barao vs. Faber 2
If Cruz can't return in early 2014, UFC president Dana White has already promised that the time for the champion to hold onto his belt would come to an end. Hopefully, Cruz is recovered and can unify the titles against Barao.
The fact is Cruz's health is still a question, and if he's not able to return on time the most likely candidate to fill the slot is still former WEC champion Urijah Faber. Sure, he lost to Barao the one time they fought, but he's won his last three fights in a row, and he's never lost in a non-title fight in his entire career. Add to that, Faber now has a head coach in Duane "Bang" Ludwig who has kept Team Alpha Male undefeated since his arrival.
Faber faces Michael McDonald next at UFC on Fox 9 in December—if he's victorious and Cruz is 80 percent by early 2014 and can't make the title fight with Barao, there's a rematch brewing in the division.
Barao Should Stick to Fighting
Post-fight celebrations are always fun. Some fighters are lifted onto the shoulders of their coaches. Others are draped in the flags of their home countries. Benson Henderson even proposed to his girlfriend after a win in the UFC.
On Saturday night, Barao decided to bust out his best dance moves. Let's just say, Justin Timberlake has nothing to worry about. Barao is one of the best fighters on the planet, but when it comes to his dance moves he's wandering into Elaine Benes territory.