Now that International Fight Week is over, we have a lot to talk about.
UFC 200 became the largest event in MMA history, three new champions were crowned, Brock Lesnar won in his return and the UFC was sold for $4 billion. With all the excitement that has taken place over the last week, it is important to take stock and see where the sport stands. Here is the state of the UFC's men's bantamweight division.
Dominick Cruz is one of the most impressive champions in the UFC. He is 5-0 inside the Octagon and has a professional record of 22-1. He may have the best footwork and head movement in the UFC and knows how to avoid taking damage. His last fight against Urijah Faber proved once again that he is the deserving champ of the 135-pound weight class. Luckily for UFC fans, it appears as though Cruz's injury woes are behind him and he may finally have a long run in the organization. At only 31, he has plenty of years to cement himself as one of the best that has ever stepped foot inside the Octagon. So where does he go from here? How can the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter in the sport improve his legacy?
The likely next opponent is T.J. Dillashaw, who Cruz reclaimed his belt from. Dillashaw fought at UFC 200 and looked good against Raphael Assuncao. His performance jumped him to No. 15 on the P4P rankings as well. However, Cruz is not looking to square off against TJ any time soon. He believes that it is not a fight that the fans want to see. He has already beaten TJ and wants a new opponent.
If Dillashaw does not get the title shot, then it will probably go to No. 4 Bryan Caraway. Both No. 2 Faber and No. 3 Assuncao are coming off losses and Caraway had an impressive win against previously undefeated Aljamain Sterling. Caraway would also have some extra motivation since his long-time partner Miesha Tate lost her belt at UFC 200. Any other opponent for Cruz beside Dillashaw or Caraway would not make sense at the moment.
So who is one fight away from a title shot? Faber will likely never get a shot at the belt as long as Cruz holds onto it. But, if Cruz does lose to Dillashaw or Caraway, one marquee fight could keep Faber in conversation. Though 37, he is still competing at a high enough level to make one final run for the belt.
Assuncao would be a great challenge for Faber and would likely set Assuncao up for a title shot. Prior to his loss to TJ, Assuncao had a seven fight win streak. But, after nearly two years outside the Octagon he couldn't get it done. Had he won at UFC 200, there would be no question that he deserves his title fight. Now questions of if the layoff has hurt him too much or if he is the same fighter have emerged. A fight with Faber would be competitive and a win would set him up for a fight with Cruz or a newly crowned champion early next year. Unfortunately, he will have to wait until Faber faces Jimmie Rivera at UFC 203.
Jon Lineker may also be one or two wins away from a fight with Cruz. He finished Michael McDonald in impressive fashion for the UFC Fight Night in Sioux Falls' main event. His power is devastating and he lands a solid punch on anyone they could go down. Cruz's movement would really come into play as he would have to avoid a majority of Lineker's punches to not pick up serious damage in the fight. He may want to call out anyone in the top five who doesn't get the next title shot to show that he can compete with the best.
Cody Garbrandt's recent rise through the rankings cannot go unnoticed either. He is undefeated as a professional fighter and has four wins in the UFC. He will next fight Takeya Mizugaki in August, but I am sure he would like to face a top 10 or even top five opponent afterwards. A win against Mizugaki could lead to Garbrandt facing T.J. or Caraway. Garbrandt trains at Team Alpha Male — TJ's former gym — with Faber and the bad blood that surrounds Dillashaw's departure would make for an interesting fight. Garbrant versus Caraway would also be exciting considering they both recently defeated undefeated fighters, Thomas Almeida and Sterling, respectively. His popularity and marketability will likely see him to a title shot soon as long as he keeps winning.
The rest of the top 10 are multiple fights away from a five-round championship fight, but could be serious contenders. McDonald, Sterling, and Almeida are all coming off their previously mentioned losses. They will need to prove that they can win big fights in order to move up the rankings of the bantamweight division. No. 9 John Dodson did win his last fight against Manny Gamburyan, but he is unranked and that was Dodson's first fight at 135 since the TUF finale. While he has dominated in the flyweight division, he is still unproven at bantamweight. These four should fight, with Sterling squaring off against Almeida and McDonald and Dodson fighting each other. Any four of these fighters winning would be impressive enough to earn them a top five fight in their next bout.
The rest of the ranked fighters sees a significant drop off in talent. The No. 11 through No. 15 ranked fighters are 11-8 in the UFC and do not have any highlight wins among the five of them. However, they are primed to play spoiler for many of the top 10 fighters in the 135-pound division. Both Mizugaki and Rivera will be facing top 10 opponents — Garbrandt and Faber, respectively — and wins would shake up the landscape of the bantamweight division. Though their victories are unlikely, you are never more than one punch away from a win in MMA.
Cruz seems to be sitting pretty as the top dog in the bantamweight division, having beaten both the No. 1 and No. 2 contender previously. However, he has some serious talent heading his way trying to take his belt. The bantamweight division is stacked with veteran talent at the top, and has plenty of young stars to round out the top 10. Bantamweights always make for exciting fights so keep your eyes on them UFC fans, they are sure to not disappoint.
(Image via MMAWeekly.com)