It must needle Dominick Cruz to know the latest episode in his seemingly endless, excruciating series of injury setbacks opened another door for Urijah Faber.
Anyone who has followed MMA’s lightest weight classes long enough to have seen either of their past meetings (in the WEC in 2007 and UFC in 2011) knows that Cruz and Faber don’t like each other.
By default, their feud stands as the most acrimonious in the short and otherwise fairly cordial history of the UFC bantamweight division. Even after Cruz avenged his earlier loss by thoroughly outpointing Faber at UFC 132, their business felt unfinished. We’ve always assumed their rivalry would be renewed one day, so long as Cruz wasn’t forced into early retirement by his own body.
Now, the two rivals are unexpectedly back in the news together, as both of them face different uphill climbs.
When word spread on Monday that Cruz had suffered a torn groin, he was vacating his 135-pound championship and Faber would replace him against Renan Barao in UFC 169’s bantamweight title unification bout, it must have gone down as a very bitter pill.
Recall that Cruz and Faber were originally slated to have a third fight at UFC 148. The fight company intended to use the first season of The Ultimate Fighter on the FX Network to build toward it, but Cruz blew his ACL during filming, and instead Faber lost to Barao in an interim title bout.
Next month’s main event was supposed to be Cruz’s opportunity to reclaim his belt from Barao, but now he’s out. Again. And who is in? Probably the last guy Cruz would want to replace him.
For the time being, though, Cruz will have enough on his plate without worrying about what happens to Faber. Cruz hasn’t fought since October of 2011, owing to a spate of knee injuries. Even before this week’s revelation, there had already been questions about his future in the cage.
To its credit, the UFC seemed to wait for him as long as it possibly could. Nobody likes interim champions (least of all the two guys with dueling belts), and we dread seeing a champion vacate his title due to injury.
When it happened to Cruz on Monday, however, it was especially hard. As Dana White made the announcement on an afternoon edition of SportsCenter on ESPN News, it felt like a pit had opened in the bottom of our hearts. One we wanted to climb inside and wallow in for a good, long while.
Cruz can take some measure of solace that this time it wasn’t his knee. There’s nothing (that we know of) about the groin tear that seems career threatening. But make no mistake: After the last two-plus years on the I.R., his career is indeed threatened.
We all want Cruz to come back. We all want to see him get a shot at reclaiming the top spot in the 135-pound division and for him to enjoy the long, successful career he appeared destined for when he began it on a 19-1 roll.
At this point, though, everybody—including Cruz’s bosses—must have their doubts. If he is able to return this year, fight successfully and even recapture his title, it’ll go down as one of our sport’s great comeback stories.
His nemesis, too, faces a pivotal 2014, though the set of long odds confronting Faber are more conventional in nature.
He has to beat Barao.
Faber just stepped in to face the newly minted champion on three weeks’ notice, which is a heck of a way to start your Monday. Frankly, it would be a tall order for anyone, especially a guy who already lost to Barao in July of 2012.
Dating back to 2008, Faber is 0-5 in title fights, and that stat threatens to follow him to the end of his career if he can’t undo it, and in a hurry.
The former WEC featherweight champion who remains perhaps the most popular fighter under 155 pounds is 34 years old now. In a way, it seems like an incredibly bold gambit for him to step in against Barao with such limited warning, in what might conceivably turn out to be his final shot at UFC gold.
At least this time you can’t say Faber doesn’t deserve it. His 2013 rivaled anyone in the sport for good vibes, as he cruised to 4-0 and re-established himself as the obvious No. 1 contender. He advanced his overall record in non-title fights to an astounding 30-0 and proved he’s far more than just the bantamweight division’s prettiest, best-known face.
Yet his bout against Barao will be Faber’s fifth in the Octagon in approximately 11 months. It’s been a breakneck sprint back to the top for him and—from the outside looking in—the Barao fight looks like an enormous obstacle with very little time to prepare.
Win it, and Faber could set a course for a new rivalry with his old adversary Cruz.
Lose it, and Cruz might not be the only one facing a long road back to the top.