The last time Dominick Cruz fought there was no such thing as a flyweight division in the UFC. There was no women’s division, either. Alistair Overeem hadn’t yet fought Brock Lesnar, and -- indeed -- there was still a version of Brock Lesnar competing without his shoes. Frankie Edgar was still the champion, and J. Edgar Hoover was still the director of the FBI.
This last part isn’t true, but, you know, hey -- it’s been a long freaking time since Cruz defended his bantamweight strap. And it’s been a blur of passing frames in those nearly two years. Lots has happened. Renan Barao crawled out of the lagoon and licked every man put in front of him. He is the "interim" 135-pound champion, filling in for Cruz as the man to beat. It’s one of the longest tenured interim titles in the history of the concept.
Interim is the meantime. Meantimes aren’t meant to go on indefinitely (though, realistically there’s nothing to say they can’t).
Now we’re coming around once again to the question of what happens when Cruz returns to action in 2014? Will he be saddled against Barao, who will (more than likely) have defended his placeholder belt twice since winning it a year ago? That seems cruel and unusual for a guy who went through two separate rehabs for an ACL, one in which a cadaver tendon didn’t take, and one in which his legacy began to recede unceremoniously into the backdrop of a bygone day.
We have no idea how Cruz will look upon his return. We can only bank on his work ethic, which we know is as compulsive as it is preternatural. We have hunches that Cruz at 29 will look like he did at 27 -- which is of course a flickering old-timey speed reel style made up of bobs, weaves, dekes, feints and blurry bangs (usually in a single sequence).
But the truth is, nobody really knows. We only know that the UFC has kindly allowed him to hold onto his belt while the time-lapse takes its toll.
As for Barao, he feels he’s the real champion based on this same statute of limitations. Half the fans feel that way too. He carries around a gold accessory that weighs exactly the same as Cruz’s, and that burden is his to protect. Instead of Barao challenging Cruz, it’ll feel like the other way around when they "unify" the belts. Barao should be a betting favorite. It will be a big fight once -- and if -- it finally materializes.
But if it doesn’t come together when Cruz wants it to in early 2014, you get the feeling that what Dana White means by "we’re going to have to make a decision" is they’ll be forced into stripping him of the belt. That seems inevitable. A sport based on the here and now can’t continue marketing something as non-urgent as a "placeholder." It needs to promote Barao as the champion, and go into a campaign of Cruz coming back as a challenger trying to reclaim what’s rightfully his.
There are silver linings for Cruz if things don’t go according to plan. And, after being out of the cage for so long, silver linings are the next best thing to gold.