Should Dominick Cruz be stripped of his UFC bantamweight title?
It's been nearly 18 months since he won a decision victory over Demetrious Johnson. Since that fight, Johnson has fought four times and captured the inaugural flyweight belt.
Johnson has been -- to use fight game vernacular -- "circulating." That's the preferred method for UFC titlists. Keep that belt dangling over the whole clumsy gang of lunging, outstretched arms.
As for Cruz, he has gone through one rehabilitation stint to repair his blown out ACL and is halfway through another. He explained in excruciating detail the spiral of events on "UFC Tonight." There was the cadaver tendon that didn't take the first time (costing him a year), and now the second procedure, where part of his own patella tendon has become his ACL. That has sidelined him for that extended period of horizonless time we've come to call indefinitely.
It's hard not to feel for Cruz. Though he's swiftly making a name for himself as one of the best television analysts going, the date Oct. 1, 2011 keeps getting smaller and smaller in his rear-view window. That was the last time he stepped in the Octagon. In MMA, that feels like a lifetime ago -- for Cruz certainly, but particularly for the promotion.
Forget vague notions of ring rust, we're now breaking into concepts of urgency. It might be Oct. 2013 before we see Cruz again. It might be later. As much as we like to delude ourselves otherwise, life goes on without us. All of us. Even top 10 pound-for-pound fighters. The UFC, as an event-based promotion with its strongest moorings in the pay-per-view business, has to move on. To be vital, things have to be current. Things have to stay active.
That's why there's such a thing as interim titles in the first place -- though they are make-believe, they function well enough as winking placeholders. They keep things rolling, and the idea of the belt stays intact. But everybody knows that interim titles are only half-satisfying. Even when the UFC wraps a symbolic belt around somebody, we can't keep from nudging each other.
Why? It's not quite real. It's a mirage.
And after a while, that belt has to mean something. If Renan Barao, the interim bantamweight champion, is headlining a pay-per-view card in June -- which he is, UFC 161 in Winnipeg against Eddie Wineland -- wouldn't it be better to knock the adjective from the equation? Instead of "interim champion Renan Barao" -- with the interim label a constant reminder that he's a dynamic, hard-striking stopgap but not really number one -- shouldn't it be simply: bantamweight champion Renan Barao?
That sort of takes the surrogacy from things and raises the pitch to makes things seem bigger and more dire and marquee worthy. An actual champion makes it more legit. Cruz's shadow won't sell that PPV.
Which brings back the question: Should he be stripped of his title? At this point, probably, but we're dealing in asterisks either way.
It's not a Randy Couture situation where contracts are in dispute. Couture retained his belt through the whole money/Fedor Emelianenko fallout anyway. There isn't any acrimony here. Cruz's situation is closer to the Frank Mir case back in 2004. Mir, after winning the UFC's heavyweight title against Tim Sylvia at UFC 48, was in a motorcycle accident that sidelined him for 14 months. When Andrei Arlovski won the interim title against Sylvia at UFC 51, the idea was to marry up the belts in a fight with Arlovski and Mir. Same as with Barao and Cruz.
Only, Mir (knee, leg) wasn't ready when the time came. As a result, he was stripped of his title to keep the heavyweight belt in play. Not the less meaningful placeholder title, but the newly made legitimate real McCoy.
Heavyweight is a lot more glamorous than bantamweight -- particularly at that time, back when there were only a few divisions -- but the situations are similar. It wasn't Mir's fault that he couldn't recover in a timely fashion, and it's not Cruz's either. But if Barao is going to headline a PPV, he can't be masquerading as a champion. He should be one.
So what happens next?
In London a few weeks back, after Barao's first interim title defense against Michael McDonald, Dana White said he'd have a meeting with Cruz to discuss all this. White told ESPN.com on Thursday that he hasn't yet had a chance to have that meeting.
That day is coming, though, and relatively soon. When that discussion happens it will likely center on this: Barao has defended the interim title once, and Cruz isn't quite ready. Make Barao the champion ahead of his next title defense, and let Cruz work his way back towards him. After all, once Cruz finally does make his way back, how fair would it be to stick him in there right away to defend against Barao?
That's a tall order for a guy coming off a lengthy rehab with so many affiliated question marks. Might be better to cede now, and take back what's rightfully his when momentums have had a chance to align.