Dominick Cruz has not defended his title since October 2011. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
At the conclusion of UFC on Fuel TV 7 on Saturday, Renan Barao did not take much time to target his next opponent -- perhaps only slightly longer than he needed to transition from Michael McDonald’s back to a fight-finishing arm-triangle choke in the fourth round of their headlining bout at Wembley Arena in London.
“Dominick [Cruz], I’m waiting for you. Please come quick,” Barao said shortly after successfully defending his interim bantamweight strap against McDonald. Considering the circumstances, moving quickly is probably the last thing Cruz should do.
At the post-fight press conference, Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White was cautiously optimistic regarding Cruz’s recovery from multiple knee surgeries, saying he hoped to put together a title unification bout sometime this summer. Tentatively speaking, that would be at least 13 months after the 135-pound king first tore his anterior-cruciate ligament while training for a proposed UFC 148 meeting with Urijah Faber.
However, the Alliance MMA representative underwent a second major knee surgery in December after his body rejected the cadaver’s ACL he was originally given. Recovering from one knee surgery is difficult enough, but two? No matter what his heart and mind might tell him, Cruz would be wise to avoid rushing the process until his body acknowledges that it is ready to move forward.
Let us step outside the MMA realm for a moment and briefly examine the statement Chicago Bulls superstar Derrick Rose, who tore his ACL during the NBA Playoffs in April, gave to USA Today last week.
“I don’t have a set date,” Rose said. “I’m not coming back until I’m 110 percent. Who knows when that can be? It can be within a couple of weeks. It could be next year. It could be any day. It could be any time. It’s just that I’m not coming back until I’m ready.”
Cruz would be wise to heed those words. Granted, these are two different athletes with two different body compositions competing in two very different sports, but both are burdened by the weight of others’ expectations. With his team playing surprisingly well without him so far, it would be understandable if Rose felt obligated to return as soon as possible to spearhead a run deep into the playoffs, but instead, the former MVP sees the big picture: come back too soon, and an entire career of postseason appearances could be threatened.
So it goes for Cruz, who looked comfortable in his analyst’s chair as he broke down the matchup between two men who both have designs on succeeding him as undisputed champion someday. Still, it has to be difficult for someone in the prime of his career to be transplanted to the role of educated spectator, especially when welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre looked so good at UFC 154 and Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson nearly shattered the NFL’s single season rushing record after suffering similar injuries.
“I tell you the difference -- I fight different than anybody else. I’m not going to stand in front of you, I’m not just looking to counter you and I’m mixing things up,” Cruz said on Fuel TV. “On top of that, you take away range with angles, and that beats range every day of the week. I can wrestle. I’m going to wrestle this guy. I’m not just going to stand in front of him and strike the whole time. I’m going to mix it up and keep him guessing. Feints ruin the entire game of Barao, in my opinion, and you take away the range by taking away the jab. He’s going to be confused when he gets in there.”
Fully healthy ligaments are crucial to such a hypothetical game plan. So much of the champion’s skill is predicated upon confounding movement that even a slight dropoff in speed, agility or quickness could alter Cruz’s in-cage results significantly. Which is why, come June, July or August, if “The Dominator” feels even the slightest twinge of doubt -- in his mind, in his knee or in both -- he should postpone his return until he feels, as Rose would say, 110 percent.
In the meantime, if Cruz is unable to make a summer return to the Octagon, it is time to remove the interim label from Barao’s title. While Cruz does not necessarily deserve the ignominy that comes with being stripped of a belt he never actually lost, the move would not be unprecedented. Before Barao turned the trick in England, Andrei Arlovski was the only fighter to successfully defend a UFC interim title, besting Justin Eilers at UFC 53. The promotion eventually installed the Belarusian heavyweight as the undisputed champion due to then-champion Frank Mir’s struggles to recover from a motorcycle accident.
Barao is not a perfect fighter, but his ability to capitalize on the smallest of openings has surfaced again and again in his bouts, and a resume that includes wins over McDonald, Faber, Scott Jorgensen and Brad Pickett makes him worthy of assuming the mantle of champion until Cruz is able to try and take it back. That benefit is twofold: Barao can defend the belt against another contender such as Eddie Wineland, and Cruz can brush off some ring rust with a tune-up fight if he so chooses. While not likely, he should at least have the option.
In a division where the always-marketable Faber never seems to be more than two fights away from another title shot, it is Cruz-Barao that shapes up to be the best bantamweight championship fight in UFC history. However, that only remains true if Cruz is feeling no ill effects from two separate knee surgeries when he eventually stands across the Octagon from Barao.
“This guy is so good. He has so many different tools and is such a different challenge than I’ve ever faced,” Cruz said of the Brazilian. “I’m sorry that I’m making you wait for me. You deserve to get to fight me and you deserve to get that loss.”
Even if it takes a little longer than expected.