Eight hundred and fifty-five days. Assuming UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz is able to hit his target return date and step back into the Octagon this upcoming February, 855 days is the minimum amount of time that “The Dominator” will have spent outside of competition. That’s a little over two years away from the cage. To call this situation unprecedented would probably be a bit much, but while we’ve seen champions forced to spend significant time away from the Octagon before, no one has been given more time to recover than Cruz.

When former heavyweight champion Frank Mir suffered multiple injuries in a motorcycle accident after he won his first heavyweight belt in 2004, the UFC decided to strip him of the title. Mir was back inside the Octagon after 20 months, but not only was he no longer the heavyweight champion, he didn’t even receive a shot at the championship upon his return. Meanwhile, less than 10 years later, Cruz is still the champion after missing over two years of action.

To be fair, the UFC did recently give another one of its champions, Georges St-Pierre, a sizeable chunk of time to recover from an injury comparable to the one that Cruz suffered. GSP went 19 months between his title defense wins over Jake Shields and Carlos Condit, and although there was a small push from fans and media to strip “Rush” of his belt, it never seemed like a realistic possibility. Part of that may have been due to the amount of time GSP has spent at the top of the heap in the welterweight division, but it also helped tremendously that Condit felt no need to defend his interim belt before meeting with St-Pierre.

With Cruz, it’s becoming more and more clear that the UFC’s patience with his recovery time is shrinking by the day. Since Cruz last defended his UFC bantamweight title on Oct. 1, 2011, his division has been utterly decimated by his replacement, interim champion Renan Barao. While the champion has been stuck on the sidelines, Barao has been doing work. The young Brazilian has dispatched Urijah Faber, Michael McDonald and Eddie Wineland with relative ease over the last 18 months, and his dominance has propelled him into the No. 6 spot in the UFC’s pound-for-pound rankings. Cruz, who is still ranked above Barao in the bantamweight division by default, is absent from the pound-for-pound list.

Now that Barao has established himself as a more-than-worthy replacement for “The Dominator,” it’s obvious that if Cruz can’t return on time and fight in February, then he’s going to end up having his belt taken away. After a two-year absence, it’s a move that the UFC is going to have to make. Holding up a division for a few months is forgivable, but when a few months becomes a few years, it turns into a serious problem. As devastating as it will be for Cruz, the UFC can’t afford to allow one of its growing divisions to sit in limbo any longer, especially when Barao already has as many interim title defenses as Cruz has UFC wins.

After all of the headaches the situation with Cruz has caused, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that UFC President Dana White recently said the promotion is going to hash out an amount of time that a champion can sit on the sidelines before getting stripped of their belt. With many fans now starting to consider Barao the best fighter in the 135-pound division, it’s clear that Cruz has been away for a bit too long and the UFC is going to need to make sure this doesn’t happen again in the future. Barao has been an interim champion for longer than five of the true UFC champions have held their belts, and he’s had the UFC title wrapped around his waist more times than Cruz has inside the Octagon. There comes a point where the interim champion just can’t be considered interim anymore, and Barao has exceeded that.

Despite probably letting Cruz hold onto the belt for more than a few months too long, things won’t be a complete disaster as long as “The Dominator” is able to return on schedule early next year. For better or worse, the amount of hype the UFC has allowed Barao to build during his interim title run has made the eventual title-unification fight perhaps the most anticipated bout in the history of the bantamweight division. As long as the UFC is able to capitalize on the opportunity to promote one of the most enticing fights it can put together at the moment, the entire Cruz saga will have been worth it.

Still, the Cruz/Barao match-up is nothing more than an incredible bright spot on an otherwise horrible situation. The fans have spoken, and they have a serious dislike for interim titles. When a fighter like Barao holds one of those belts for a significant period of time, it only serves to drive the MMA community crazy. The UFC can’t bank on another long layoff for a champion working out as well as the situation has with Cruz, and the promotion can’t afford to get bitten by this problem again. That means the UFC is going to have to create some sort of time frame that exists before an interim champion becomes an (un)disputed one.

Photo: Renan Barao (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.