Renan Barao is the UFC bantamweight champion.
The words may flow easy, and the idea is one fans are starting to grasp, but the subject itself has become a complex matter where an explanation is required.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the situation is that it has very little to do with Barao himself. The Nova Uniao product has lived up to his end of the deal every step of the way by doing the one thing required of a fighter who hopes to become a champion—win—and he's done that at every turn.
The 26-year-old Brazilian phenom has been a wrecking ball since joining the Zuffa banner via the WEC back in 2010. He's won all eight of his showings inside the cage, and in the process has collected and defended the interim title on two occasions.
In the eyes of some, he's the reigning and defending champion of the bantamweight division, but being the "interim champion" is just one tricky detail in a string questionable decisions made by the organization he champions.
The biggest obstacle in the figurative—and what could prove to be the literal sense, as well—is the original 135-pound champion Dominick Cruz. "The Dominator" was blitzing through the opposition in the bantamweight division until an unfortunate knee injury suffered during his preparation to face Urijah Faber at UFC 148 forced him to the sidelines. Such was the severity of his injury that the UFC decided to put an interim title in play, and put that belt up for grabs when Barao squared off with Faber at UFC 149 in 2012.
Barao defeated Faber via unanimous decision to claim the strap and figured to meet Cruz in the short term to handle the matter of title unification. The situation sounded ideal, but Cruz's body rejected the repair, and the story carried on.
While the belt he had in his possession was of the replacement variety, it had zero bearing on Barao. In his mind, he was the bantamweight champion and went about the business of defending his title. As for Cruz, his return to action continued to be delayed, and Barao's performances began to put Cruz's status as top dog at 135 pounds in serious doubt.
Adding to the matter was the stance of Dana White. For the first year of Cruz's absence, the UFC President was adamant about the Team Alliance fighter's position as the legitimate champion of the 135-pound collective. There was no sway in White's opinion on the matter. Cruz was the outright champion, and he wouldn't be stripped of the title under any circumstance.
Nevertheless, after the Brazilian fighter's win over "The California Kid" and an impressive submission victory over young upstart Michael McDonald at UFC on Fuel TV 7 back in February, the UFC head honcho was peppered with questions regarding which of the two fighters held claim as the divisional champion.
White held steadfast to his original sentiment that Cruz would not be stripped under any circumstance, and once again Barao simply carried on. It was again proposed Cruz would return later in the year and a unification bout would take place, but further complications with his knee injury erased such possibility, and the interim champion would put his title on the line against Eddie Wineland.
The questions about the bantamweight title would once again return in the lead up to Barao versus Wineland at UFC 165, and even more so in the aftermath. Barao scored a highlight reel knockout over the Indiana native in the second round of their tilt, doing so on one of the biggest cards of the year.
Following Barao's victory in Toronto, there was a change in White's tune regarding the bantamweight title. Where he once touted Cruz being the promotion's top 135-pound fighter, now he was holding Barao in equal light. Even further to the point, White began to set the framework of circumstances for Cruz to return.
During the post-fight press conference for UFC 165, White told the media in attendance Cruz would have to face Barao some time in early 2014 to unify the titles, and if he was unable to do so, a decision would have to be made. At that time, Cruz was just shy of being out of action for two years, but that mark has since come and gone.
And it doesn't stop there.
White has addressed the topic several times in recent weeks and shared his thoughts on the matter, but none were more poignant than what he said on Monday during a conference call to promote the upcoming Fight Night 29 card in Brazil. In speaking on the matter, White admitted the promotion may not have handled the situation correctly, choosing to let Cruz keep his title because of the slew of misfortunes the 26-year-old had already suffered.
"Do I think we let it play out too long? Maybe," White said. "I feel bad for the kid. It's one thing to have all these injuries and have that thing taken away from him, that big fight, plus him and Faber wanted to fight each other and then to strip him of the title too? You just couldn't kick a guy more when he's down.
"This is one of those situations where Dominick Cruz is a good kid, he's a great champion, he was supposed to fight Urijah Faber at the end of that season of The Ultimate Fighter, which he's a champion, he gets a piece of pay-per-view and that fight was supposed to be on the Anderson Silva/Chael Sonnen card. Which was the home run for him, it's literally a lottery ticket on how much money that kid would have made."
White also revealed the organization is in the process of setting up guidelines for future interim situations in the case of a champion being injured. While nothing definitive is yet in place, White did state the UFC would handle the situation in structured fashion going forward.
That being said, no matter how things have played out on that side of the fence regarding the bantamweight title, Barao has carried on impressively. With each performance, he has continued to impress. After each victory he has used his post-fight speech to mention how much he'd like to fight Cruz to unify the belts. All he can control is what happens inside the Octagon, and the rest is simply the rest until the time comes where the issue can be resolved.
Throughout it all, Barao has maintained his motivation, focus and composure; all things which have not gone unnoticed by coach and mentor Andre Pederneiras. The Nova Uniao leader has been extremely impressed with how his fighter has handled his journey to the top of the sport and believes it is a place he will remain for years to come.
"Since his first training at Nova Uniao, I could see a kid that has a great potential to be a champion," Pederneiras told Bleacher Report. "Barao is amazing and deserves the place he is now. I'm sure he will stay on the top for a long time. This kid is young, strong, and already had a great MMA experience. He will be one of the greatest MMA fighters."
As the road to unification of the bantamweight title shapes up, the focus will become Cruz's recovery and return to action. Prior to his injury, the San Diego-based fighter was on his way to establishing a dominant hold over the 135-pound division. His performances inside the cage were so impressive, his name began to pop up on "pound-for-pound" lists throughout the sport.
That being said, his last showing under the UFC banner came in a successful title defense against Demetrious Johnson back in October of 2011. In the two years that have passed, the 28-year-old Californian has been forced to deal with the disappointment and frustrations which have come as the result of his body refusing to comply with the demands of what his rigorous trade requires.
Where setbacks of this nature would have been enough to sink most, Cruz has been largely optimistic about his return to the cage. The bantamweight title holder has provided updates on his rehabilitation via his personal Twitter, all in hopes of facing Barao for title unification in early 2014.
Nevertheless, should Cruz suffer another setback and be unable to face Barao next year, the questions regarding the interim title will dissolve. While White is also optimistic about the champion's return and the two champions squaring off to determine supremacy would be ideal, he also understands the time to make a firm decision is rapidly approaching.
"He's training. He's very confident he's going to be back at the beginning of the year," White said on Wednesday's conference call. "I think we've made it pretty clear what's going to happen if he's not."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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