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Renan Barao vs. Dominick Cruz unification match next - if champ can get healthy

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Dominick Cruz is on the mend. The UFC bantamweight champion has suffered through two knee surgeries and parts of two rehabilitations, and hopes to be cleared to begin running in the next week. If all goes well, he can move on to more strenuous activities that will, he hopes, eventually result in his return to the octagon.

That's exactly what the UFC hopes for, too.

On Saturday night, Renan Barao won again. It was his fourth win just since Cruz has been put on the shelf, and it was the second time he won with an interim bantamweight title on the line.

That puts him just a notch below Cruz, option 1B to the champ's 1A. But the gap is closing fast in the eyes of many, and only a match between them could decide who's truly worthy of holding the gold. Earlier in the week, UFC president Dana White said that stripping Cruz of the belt due to inactivity is a last resort, and indeed, the hope is to set up a unification match.

For now, that's just a hope, something to cling to.

In the moments after his arm triangle win, Barao looked into the camera and implored Cruz to get healthy, saying in his native Portuguese, "I'm waiting for you. Please come quick." It was almost a plea.

Later on, Barao gave a more promoter-friendly response to the question of what he wanted to do next.

"My objective is to fight Dominick but I’m an employee of the UFC," he said. "I'm a fighter and I'll fight whoever Dana White and the UFC says I should fight."

The UFC president wouldn't tip his hand about a possible second interim title defense for Barao, but of course, the company's preferred route would include a unification match between Barao and Cruz.

For his part, Cruz, speaking on the UFC on FUEL after-show, says he'd be up to the task of facing Barao, a 25-year-old Brazilian who hasn't tasted defeat in his last 31 fights.

"Nothing really concerned me [about Barao]," Cruz said afterward. "I fight different than everyone else. I'm not going to just stand in front of you, I'm not going to look to counter you. I'm going to mix things up. On top of that, you take away range with angles, that beats range everyday of the week. And I can wrestle -- I'm going to wrestle this guy. I'm not just going to stand in front of him and strike all the time. I'm going to mix it up, keep him guessing. Feints ruin the entire game of Barao, in my opinion. And you take away the range by taking away the jab. Those are all things I understand and I'm going to break this down in my head when I have to fight Barao. He's going to be confused when he gets in there and tries looking for me."

Of course, Cruz has to get there first. For now, the health of his knee remains the only thing separating Cruz and Barao from determining which one of them is the division's best.

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