Last Saturday at UFC 165, Renan Barao made history. The Brazilian became the first fighter in the history of the UFC to successfully defend an interim championship twice. While he may outwardly say what the promotion likes to hear, deep down inside one must infer that Barao wants to get his hands on champion Dominick Cruz and his title belt. The problem here is that Cruz and his championship have been out since October 2011 due to a torn ACL. One week from today, it will be the two-year anniversary of Cruz’s last fight, where he defended the title against Demetrious Johnson.

While nothing has been officially announced, a match-up between Barao and “The Dominator” has to be on the map of the powers to be at the UFC offices. UFC President Dana White has made statements claiming that the promotion would have a decision to make if the champion does not return to the cage by the beginning of 2014. He suggests that the promotion, at that point, will strip Cruz of his championship and declare the Brazilian the outright champion.

However, the interim champion hasn’t exactly had a perfect bill of health either. He had to be pulled from the top of the billing at UFC 161 with a foot injury, stalling his title defense against Eddie Wineland to this past weekend. Injuries always have been and always will be a part of the game. Because of that fact, it wouldn’t be extremely shocking to see a championship-unification bout between the two titleholders put on hold due to an injury to Barao.

If for some reason either Cruz or Barao is unable to enter the Octagon, it opens the door to who should then get the next title shot.

The first name that comes out of people’s mouths more often than not is that of “The California Kid,” Urijah Faber. Not only is the Team Alpha Male fighter riding a three-fight winning streak, but he has a bit of history with each fighter. The only blemish on Cruz’s record came at the hands of Faber. Cruz got his revenge at UFC 132, defending his title against Faber. That leaves an opening for a rubber match as the final installment in a trilogy fight. That third fight was already scheduled once, but fell apart due to Cruz’s ACL injury. In its place came the interim title fight that saw Barao defeat Faber. A rematch between those two would be appealing as well.

However, “The California Kid” already has a fight booked with another top 135-pounder. It’s a bout that may quickly become a No. 1 contender match. Faber will take on Michael McDonald. Both men are coming off big wins at UFC Fight Night 26. Since signing on the dotted line with Zuffa, “Mayday” has gone 6-1, with the lone defeat coming at the hands of the current interim champion. The two are scheduled to link up at UFC on Fox 9 on Dec. 14, and whoever emerges victorious would likely put himself in the driver’s seat for the next title shot.

Defeating McDonald would give Faber four straight wins. The history he has with both champions creates a great storyline for what would be another crack at the title. On the other hand, a victory for McDonald would give him two straight. By knocking off Faber, he would have defeated the fighter who took out all of the bantamweight contenders, making him the clear choice for the next title shot.

The UFC really makes its money in the realm of pay-per-view shows. Jumping on network television is a big opportunity to cash in, make new fans and reach a wider base of viewers. With the lightweight championship already on the line at the event, UFC on Fox 9 already features a reason to tune in, but adding an official No. 1—or “next line for gold”—bout between Faber and McDonald would make this big event even bigger.

While the rest of the division continues to pick and chew at one another and jockey for position, two fighters have emerged ahead of the pack. It is convenient that they are already set to fight, while the two champions are projected to square off in the near future. Whether the scenario arises where one of the champions gets injured or the title-unification bout goes down as planned, the winner of the Faber versus McDonald fight needs to get the next title shot.

Photo: Renan Barao (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Brian McKenna
Staff Writer

Brian McKenna was born and raised in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. A sports nut from as long as he can remember, he came to be a fan of Mixed Martial Arts from a roommate watching The Ultimate Fighter while attending Westfield State College. Brian came to writing by starting his own blog, Four Down Territory, which focuses on Boston based sports, life, and of course MMA.