It’s no secret that the UFC bantamweight division has underachieved in the four years it has existed.
Due in part to an injury-riddled king, as well as prospective contenders being unable to cash in on his absence, the 135-pound division has struggled to escape promotional limbo.
That’s not to say that the division doesn’t possess talent because it most certainly does. Instead, its mediocre tread has been fueled by a lack of aligning stars. No cosmic collisions or peerless pile-ups. The division has been without these necessary anomalies and has been held back from escaping the clutches of obscurity when paired alongside the likes of lightweight, welterweight, and light heavyweight factions.
But like most things that don’t last forever, unless we’re talking about Conor McGregor‘s moving lips, the neglected bantamweights will soon begin their rise to prominence, both in popularity and pay-per-view appeal (much like Notorious and his fellow featherweights).
Leading the way will be a highly anticipated title fight between current champion T.J. Dillashaw and king-without-a-crown Dominick Cruz, set to take place at UFC Fight Night 81 in January for free on Fox Sports 1.
Their match-up, long-awaited and volatile, should instantaneously revitalize a division often left scrambling for marketable personalities and worthy contenders. It is a clash of near-parallel entities that possess world-class footwork, hand speed, counter movement, and conditioning. It is a fight fan’s dream come true.
But beyond sheer skill and conflicting similarities in the striking department, Dillashaw vs. Cruz further represents an evolution at 135 pounds. It is the fight that needs to happen in order to march the bantamweight movement in the right direction; one that will shatter every divisional encounter before it.
In other words, this is the Bantamweight Big Bang.
In the past, a handful of uncontrollable Octagon tenants have laid their opponents to waste. From polarizing stars like Urijah Faber to pound-for-pound standouts like Renan Barao, the weight class has seen its fair share of flare.
But when it comes to cementing legacies and transcending the division, these short bursts of light have dissipated in short order. Faber never truly cashed in on his obvious potential after losing three UFC title bids and Barao’s excellence is nearly a forgotten achievement after getting pummeled twice by Dillashaw. They are the only two fighters in UFC history who can hold a candle to either Dillashaw or Cruz at the bantamweight level.
With that said, their time has simply come and gone. And even though Cruz has fought merely once in the past four years due to countless injuries, the 30-year-old’s time is still now. Just look at what he did to former rising contender Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 178 nearly one year ago.
For Cruz, this title fight with Dillashaw is about more than just a shiny gold belt. It represents a long road of treachery and recovery that will come full circle at UFC Fight Night 81. It will also be his opportunity to debunk Dillashaw’s rapidly evolving offensive scheme, which many have pegged Cruz to be the creator of.
As for the champ, who has riddled the masses in absence of Cruz, fighting the division’s uncrowned king is the only way to solidify his legacy. Because if Cruz were not part of this equation then Dillashaw would never be able to garner the appeal and overall allure that he will come January. Without The Dominator, Team Alpha Male’s lone titleholder would be left to forge his bequest on the remains of contenders like Raphael Assuncao, Aljamain Sterling, Bryan Caraway, and John Lineker.
While well-rounded and dangerous as the next guy, these are not the names that Dillashaw should be concerned with. Cruz is the only meaningful option at this point, and a degree of competition within the 135-pound realm that is like no other.
With unorthodox striking, crisp footwork, strong takedown defense, and a surging flow of bad blood, Dillashaw vs. Cruz is as good as it gets. It is easily the biggest title fight in UFC bantamweight history. Add in Cruz’s storied battle with jarring injuries, and Dillashaw’s recent destruction of Barao, and you have a slam dunk at 135 pounds.
For the UFC, this is a win-win situation. The fight will certainly deliver for free on FS1, which in turn will open eyes to a weight class that has struggled to grasp hold of the spotlight. And whether Dillashaw beats Cruz to solidify his reign or Cruz returns to glory to defeat Dillashaw, the division will have the ambassador it needs in order to ascend in fashion.
Of course, everything hinders on an impending training camp for Cruz. If, and only if, he can remain healthy during the division’s pronounced time of need, then we’ll witness one of the most intriguing story lines in recent memory play out inside of an unforgiving cage.
(Follow Daniel Hiergesell @DH_MMA on Twitter)