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UFC’s bantamweight division could get even blurrier after Raphael Assunção vs. Marlon Moraes 2

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

In commissioning T.J. Dillashaw to carry out the execution of the flyweight division, the UFC — somewhat carelessly — left its bantamweight contenders in a bottleneck situation at the top. Making matters worse, Dillashaw freaking went out and lost to Henry Cejudo in Brooklyn, meaning he didn’t so much shut things down at 125 as he did breathe new life into it. Making matters worse still, he lost in 32 seconds…and proceeded to make it very public that he felt robbed…and, at least initially, began insisting on a rematch at flyweight, to hell with ever enjoying a slice of pizza again.

Now it’s a fine mess we’re in.

What the hell does tonight’s main event between Raphael Assunção and Marlon Moraes out in Fortaleza mean? At first glance it looked like an obvious No. 1 contender’s bout. What does Pedro Munhoz’s bout with Cody Garbrandt mean early next month at UFC 235? At second glance it looked like a fail-safe No. 1 contender’s bout, in case something didn’t work out from the other scenario. The stakes are never really definitive in the UFC, but right now at 135 pounds it’s a bunch of abstract shapes, with little birds circling those shapes like in the cartoons, those concussion canaries.

The most likely scenario — the logical one that would get the UFC out of its bind and keep the other contenders in a state of play along — is to have Cejudo come up to bantamweight and challenge Dillashaw for his title next. It’s not ideal, but it’s tidy. Cejudo defended his title against Dillashaw at 125 and it ended controversially (at least in some minds), so doing it at Dillashaw’s more natural weight carries a twist into the sequel. Was it a diminished version of Dillashaw we saw a couple of weekends back? One way to find out. Besides, that fight — under those specifications — still effectively kills off flyweight and gives Cejudo a natural segue to his new weight class.

(Sorry Joseph Benavidez).

Of course, the logical extension of the Dillashaw-Cejudo series means a guy like Assunção becomes chopped liver, yet again, even though he’s done nothing but win since 2011. A quiet yet thoughtful contender — remember, Assunção has a tattoo of a baboon on his side because he knows a baboon will stand up to a lion in the unsanctioned wild — he just can’t seem to catch a break. Even if he shuts down a small-frame marauder like Moraes in Brazil for his fifth straight win (and his 11th win in 12 fights), he would find himself in a game of wait and see.

Reader, I begin to fear for Assunção’s sanity. The views from behind the eight ball take a toll on a man after so many years. It’s not humane what circumstance is doing to him, nor that the UFC is ever compliant in granting circumstance final say. What difference does it make to Assunção if Cejudo beat Dillashaw in another division, in a lark fight he never approved of to begin with, especially when he himself is 1-1 against the bantamweight champ? For chrissakes, when did wind shifts begin to blow away the meritocracy? WHEN?

Anyway, all of that personal turmoil is on the line if Assunção wins in his rematch with Moraes, to prove himself ready for a title shot for the thousandth time.

But let’s say Moraes wins tonight, thus vindicating himself of the split-decision loss against Assunção at UFC 212. Suddenly that series is tied at 1-1 and a trilogy fight, even if it has zero fanfare, becomes an option. Maybe it becomes a mandate. This is the only scenario in which Assunção wouldn’t have a gripe. Moraes could argue for a title shot, and by all means have earned it by avenging the Assunção loss, but Cejudo’s case would be stronger.

If anybody’s happy to see Dillashaw flailing it’s Garbrandt, whose own path back to the title didn’t open up completely…but at least turned towards the first sliver of light. Garbrandt is on his low-key bounce-back fight against Munhoz, the one where he re-compiles his mojo and waits for outside factors to take care of themselves. Factors like Dillashaw, the bane of his existence, getting bounced out. If Cejudo comes up to bantamweight and beats Dillashaw again, guess who’s an intriguing fight for this coming fall?

Garbrandt. The original sinner. Mr. “No Love” who got caught in the eddies of hype and had to dig deep to find his greatest self.

That is, if he beats Munhoz.

Anyway, if Munhoz beats Garbrandt, the scenario is easy. Hope that the UFC opts to make Dillashaw-Cejudo II at flyweight, and fight whoever won the Moraes-Assunção rematch for the interim bantamweight title. Same would apply for Garbrandt if the UFC grants Dillashaw his wish to fight Cejudo down at 125 pounds again. Actually, any of the winners in that jumble of four — Moraes, Assunção, Garbrandt, Munhoz — could fight for the interim title if Dillashaw moonlights further in lighter class. Don’t like interims? Well, take it up with the group that commissioned Dillashaw to go carry out the execution of the flyweight division.

That backfire in Brooklyn made things a little complicated. When the bantamweight champion loses to the flyweight champion, it’s an unnatural set-up for whatever is to come. Cejudo came away looking like a stud at the UFC on ESPN show, and has bragging rights; Dillashaw lost some shine heading into his next title defense, making himself a hard sell for his next title defense.

Pairing them again is the best resolution, if the most digressive, which sucks for the other bantams who are vying for a shot. As for Assunção and Moraes, two hopefuls who are right at the cusp of title shots but find themselves at the mercy of the matchmaker’s ongoing dilemma?

Nothing to say other than to keep fighting the good fight, hollow words that mean something different each time the wind blows.

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