That was one of the several questions debated online during Cruz's two-year absence following a pair of ACL surgeries.
But this was never a question in the champion's mind. On Monday's edition of The MMA Hour, Cruz explained that his comeback fight against Barao, which is the co-main event of UFC 169 on Super Bowl weekend, was the only one he wanted.
"That's the fight I wanted since I hurt myself," Cruz said. "That's a fight I wanted before I hurt myself. He brings a so much to the table, he's done so much in the sport, he's done so much for the division. That's why I'm in this. I'm in this to challenge myself, not to go back to the No. 10 guy in the division and take a step back. If I was cpming off no fights and they offered me the best guy on the planet, I'd take it. Because what's the point of taking steps backwards in the sport?"
It's clear listening to Cruz talk that while he had plenty of time and plenty of opportunity to doubt his future, a positive mental attitude is what's gotten him back in the game.
"You know, you can either think about your mishaps every single day, or you could look beyond them and learn from them and say everything happens for a reason," said Cruz, who has held the belt since winning what was then the WEC title from Brian Bowles in 2010. "It's a cliche term, but it's true. Everything did happen for a reason."
Cruz knew that every time a consequential fight happened in the bantamweight division while he was gone -- whether it be Barao winning, then twice defending, his interim belt, or Urijah Faber's impressive win streak in 2013 -- attention was inevitably going to turn to Cruz's situation.
And while Cruz admits that at first, it was difficult to tune out the noise, eventually, he learned not to let it affect him.
"At a certain point, when you're injured," Cruz said. "And you know you're coming back and coming back strong, you have to turn your brain off to all the outside noise because there's nothing I could have done about it with my standing in the situation.
"Me and Dana had talked, me and Lorenzo had talked, that was the most I could do to rest my brain and prepare for my comeback, because you know, they're the bosses. When it all comes down to it, no matter what media says and no matter what fans say, what Dana and Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta says, goes. ... They've had my back this whole time in the sense of being supportive and knowing I was coming back."
In the interim, Cruz distinguished himself as one of the sport's most incisive analysts in the FOX studios. Cruz had to admit, though, that it got a little awkward critiquing fighters he may one day face.
"That was very weird and very interesting perspective to be a part of," he said. "I had to give both the positive and negative things to the guys in my division I could be fighting. It took a definite amount of focus and tenacity to sit through the whole process and give my best at breaking it down. ... The position I took was, this division is bigger than myself. The division as a whole, we can bring the pay rate up. We can always be doing better, not just money but growing the sport. That's everyone in it. On FOX, I look like i'm doing my best to help grow the sport."
Cruz was asked to analyze last weekend's hot topic of conversation, the Bellator lightweight title fight between Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez. Alvarez won the title on a split decision, taking two 48-47 scores. Cruz, of course, has a rooting interest in the fight, since they are teammates at San Diego's Alliance MMA.
"I think the number one thing wrong is, judges don't know how to score wrestling," he said. "We've got boxing judges in there, and they don't know how to score a takedown, they don't know what control is and what grappling is. They don't score it. They only score damage being done on what they know, which was boxing."
"I think [Chandler] won, I think it was an extremely close, competitive fight, but I think that the deciding round is round 2, where everyone is in limbo. Did Mike win? He got five takedowns and he got outpunched by three punches. And you lose the round? I don't understand how that works whatsoever. You're not counting the grappling, you're only counting a three-punch punching rate that is higher than Mike Chandler."