Forget the belt; Faber, Barao battle for Cruz

Urijah Faber is a respected former mixed martial arts champion. For a time, he deserved to be thought of as the world's best featherweight. If anyone appreciates the sacrifices and rewards associated with wearing a title belt, it's "The California Kid."

So it surprised me at first that Faber (who says exactly what he believes) is operating as though Saturday's interim title contest in Calgary against Brazilian Renan Barao is as legitimate as his previous championship bouts (when it’s really not).

What's going down at UFC 149? Nothing more than a glorified title eliminator.

Suggesting this weekend will herald a second UFC bantamweight champion, even if Zuffa records the result this way, is insulting to the legitimate champion Dominick Cruz, who is recovering from a torn ACL. Cruz described interim title riches as the No. 1 contender belt, and that sounds right to me.

Faber and Barao will fight for an "interim" championship because the UFC train stops for no man. There are pay-per-views to sell, and it helps to have a belt attached.

At the end of the night, presuming a draw isn't in the offing, UFC president Dana White will gleefully button a heavy strap around the waist of the veteran American or the young Brazilian. In appearance, pomp and circumstance, this will look like a historic moment; the emergence of a new champion always is. But pretending either 135-pounder is a champion is like cruising Rodeo Drive in a Ferrari when it’s a shiny, loud, expensive rental.

Muddling the point even further is confusion about whether the belt will actually be defended. Barao said if he wins, he’ll be inclined to wait for Cruz like interim champ (i.e., No. 1 contender) Carlos Condit has done with the true welterweight king, Georges St. Pierre.

Faber left the door open to defending his top contender status, which is admirable and, for fans, the best option available. But it still won’t mean he’s holding a meaningful title, especially in light of the fact that Cruz defeated him just one year ago. One might even say it would be the least important title he’s won. The feat would stand well behind WEC, which made him a star, and King of the Cage, which put him on the map.

But none of that matters to Faber. He sees symbolism where the rest of us absorb heavy leather and gold. This fight matters because it leads to the next one, and the guy who earns that right also gets a belt. It’s more a trophy than anything else. A 33-year-old ex-champ who looked great last time out, taking just his fifth win in nine bouts, is fighting to return at the top. Barao, 25, is fighting to get there for the first time.

That’s true in the presence of a belt or not.

Barao (28-1) told MMAJunkie.com this week, "To me, interim or not interim, it's very important. It's a belt, and I don't care if people don't like it or think it's not the real belt. ... It's a dream come true if I get it. I'm very excited about it."

Understandable. The title doesn’t make Barao a UFC champion, but it would secure his chance.

Back when UFC didn't promote five-round nontitle main events, there was an actual benefit to creating an interim belt. Under extraordinary conditions it made sense to make championship belts like the Federal Reserve mints dollars. And, hey, we saw two extra rounds for good measure. But now? Just call them what they are and have an opponent ready when the champion returns. That’s interesting enough for me without the hardware.

Cruz is the only person to hold a bantamweight title in the UFC. He'll wake up Sunday morning knowing whether it's Faber or Barao who gets next.