Really quick, let’s lay out the doomsday scenario for T.J. Dillashaw.
It’s the sort of booking that can only be justified by the fight company’s constantly increasing menu of live events and its subsequent need to furnish them all with headliners—even if those headliners don’t seem marquee-worthy or remotely defensible from a competition-based standpoint.
Dillashaw beat Barao in every imaginable fashion just three months ago at UFC 173, pummeling the former pound-for-pound poster boy for more than 20 minutes before finally finishing him off in the fourth round.
It was surprising, but this wasn’t a fluke knockout or one-in-a-million submission. This was total destruction. If Barao deserves a rematch in the wake of such a thorough, long-form beatdown, then every MMA champion who has ever lost a title deserved an immediate chance to get it back.
So, what’s the worst that could happen?
For starters, Dillashaw could lose—and if he does, it’s possible he might not get the same immediate rematch consideration the UFC afforded Barao.
The 28-year-old Team Alpha Male product was a 7-1 underdog headed into their first fight. Though he’ll enter Saturday’s rejoinder as a slight betting favorite according to BestFightOdds.com, we’d be fools to count out the previously dominant Barao.
In hindsight, a lot has been done to discredit the former champ’s nine-year, 30-fight win streak. But can anybody be sure the Barao who’d gone 9-0 in WEC/UFC bouts won’t show up, smoke Dillashaw, do his bizarre victory dance and take the belt back to Nova Uniao?
Such an ignominious fate would be a bummer for Dillashaw. Among other injustices, it would stick him with the shortest title reign in UFC history, at 98 days. It would make his initial win seem like lightning in a bottle and further our suspicions that we still know very little about this weight class in general.
On the bright side, it’s impossible to imagine a defeat so earth-shattering that the UFC wouldn’t owe him a trilogy with Barao, right?
Probably. Maybe. But Dillashaw wouldn’t be the organization’s only option.
Keep in mind, we’re still a few days away from the second installment of this matchup, and the public already seems weary of it. The UFC 177 main event isn’t drawing many complimentary reviews, and if the pay-per-view buyrate turns out to be as low as some are projecting, would the company be itching to sign up for Round 3?
It might do it. In fact, it might be likely, but it's hardly a guarantee UFC 177 clears the 100k ppv buyrate hurdle: http://t.co/jhU8nMr5gB— Luke Thomas (@SBNLukeThomas) August 25, 2014
Certainly, part of what forced the UFC’s hand in making Dillashaw-Barao II is the fledgling 135-pound division’s relative lack of depth. Perhaps matchmakers felt they just didn’t have a better option for Dillashaw’s first title defense. Or, perhaps they felt they’d spent so much time building Barao into a “monster,” they needed to squeeze as much out of him as they possibly could.
In the wake of this weekend’s bout, however, that might not still be the case. There might be more attractive options for whoever emerges as the champion.
That's because the return of Dominick Cruz lurks right around the bend at UFC 178.
Cruz became the UFC’s first ever 135-pound champion when he beat Scott Jorgensen in Dec. 2010. He never lost the belt, successfully defending it twice before a terrible run of injuries took him out of action and forced him to vacate in January.
Now he’s scheduled to meet Takeya Mizugaki on Sept. 27 in a long-awaited comeback fight. Mizugaki is riding a five-bout win steak, but he’s spent most of his Zuffa career losing to top-level competition. He’s the guy the UFC used to ease Urijah Faber into the bantamweight division back in 2010, and this booking gives every impression he’ll play a similar role in Cruz’s return.
If Cruz manages to re-enter the UFC looking like the “Dominator” of old, if he blows Mizugaki’s doors off the way we think he should, he’ll immediately be the 135-pound class’ most interesting player.
And yes, that includes both Barao and Dillashaw.
Imagine for a moment that Barao dusts Dillashaw in the first round this weekend and Cruz walks circles around Mizugaki next month.
If the UFC has the chance to essentially set up a “unification” bout between the division’s two most dominant champions—which was its original plan at the beginning of this year, remember—would executives really pass that up for another unsellable meeting between Dillashaw and Barao?
Let’s put it another way: If you were the UFC and your job was to make money selling PPVs, which fight would you make?
There would be a certain amount of public outcry on Dillashaw’s behalf, but it also might not be too hard to shuffle him to the side—especially if UFC brass has Raphael Assuncao at its disposal.
Assuncao has won six in a row and defeated Dillashaw in a bantamweight contender bout less than a year ago. He was also briefly rumored to be Barao’s opponent at UFC 173, before a lingering rib injury made that booking impossible. In his place, Dillashaw filled in and pulled the upset.
Assuncao will take on Bryan Caraway in early October. If he’s victorious, he could conceivably be Dillashaw’s next opponent, no matter what happens at UFC 177.
Long story short: If Dillashaw loses and everybody else keeps winning, somebody is going to get left out in the cold.
It could be Cruz, being forced to take a second comeback fight before getting the opportunity to regain the title he never lost. It could be Assuncao, who already missed out on one championship chance and whose massive seven-fight win streak would give him understandable claim to No. 1 contender status.
Or, it could be Dillashaw.
That doesn’t seem right.
That doesn’t seem fair.
But it doesn’t seem impossible, either.