It’s a sign of a healthy division that Renan Barao, once a shrewd interjection to the raging pound-for-pound conversation, was forced to flee his bantamweight kingdom in search of reinvention. It didn’t quite work out for him in his featherweight debut at UFC Fight Night 88, either, as he lost a unanimous decision to Jeremy Stephens.
As far as career trajectories go, the fight game is full of such sharp left turn cruelty.
Yet that bantamweight division that he once ruled has become a deep and colorful flowerbed for competitive matchmaking, as evidenced on Sunday night in Las Vegas. Aljamain Sterling, one of the key names on the "watch out for that dude" list, was stalled in his first fight back after signing a new contract. It turns out the man who beat him, Bryan Caraway, has more than a diverse troll game — he has his own ambitious plans for the weight class. With no better explanation for such perseverance, the best everybody could do after Sunday night was nod Caraway through as a "seasoned veteran," and stick him full of "wily" adjectives.
Just like that, Caraway’s in the top five space in what could be the UFC’s most compelling weight class.
But the true future of the division played out in the main event between 24-year old Cody Garbrandt and Brazil’s 24-year old Thomas Almeida, two dystopian strikers who carried that youthful feeling of invincibility to the Octagon. Similar to how Jon Jones’ headlining spot against Brandon Vera felt like a glimpse of an inevitable champion ready for the role in 2010, Garbrandt needed less than three minutes to take Almeida out with punches. It was a virtuoso performance in his biggest test to date. Garbrandt, now 9-0, vanquished his fellow prospect as if he himself were anything but. "No Love" Garbrandt announced his arrival on Sunday night.
And it’s a good time to arrive. The banty world is Garbrandt’s oyster (and you can't help but feel happy for him, given all he's done).
The top of the division is as healthy as it’s ever been, and as dramatic — everything is deliciously laden with back-story. Dominick Cruz will defend his title against Garbrandt’s Team Alpha Male campmate Urijah Faber at UFC 199 next week, and should he be victorious you’d have to believe Garbrandt will feel like his vindicator. Much like T.J. Dillashaw was when Faber lost to Barao at UFC 169, right before the [expletive] hit the fan and Dillashaw set Barao on his spiral, bolted TAM, and everybody began feuding in the media.
Dillashaw fights Raphael Assuncao at UFC 200, a fight that could well produce the next contender at 135 pounds. Garbrandt views Dillashaw as a kind of modern day Benedict Arnold, and would love to lay hands on him just for the satisfaction of saying he did. That’s another future rumble.
Not that there are any bad match-ups for Garbrandt in that top 10 space. Imagine Garbrandt fighting the winner of Michael McDonald and John Lineker, who square off in July. That would make for a hell of homecoming to his native Ohio, when the UFC visits Cleveland in September. There’s also Takeya Mizugaki hovering out there. Stylistically, that’s not bad. And John Dodson is coming off a 37-second annihilation of Manny Gamburyan. That, too, could be fireworks.
At some point, and perhaps at some point soon, Frankie Edgar could trickle down.
In other words, matchmaker Sean Shelby’s bantamweight roster is stacked like never before, and Garbrandt just became the most compelling dance partner for any of the aforementioned. A Garbrandt fight has its own ring to it. People will tune it to watch him compete. Even if it’s against the seasoned veteran himself, the wily Bryan Caraway, who can keep up with Garbrandt in one of the most important elements in matchmaking: Timing.
Whatever the case, Garbrandt's future is now. And given the present state of things, that's a fun thought.