ANAHEIM, CA — Two Saturdays ago, UFC on Fuel 7 featured two of the youngest and most exciting bantamweights in a main event that had everyone in Wembley Stadium on their feet. With champion Dominic Cruz missing more than a year of action due to two ACL injuries, Renan Barao and Michael McDonald showed why they are the future of the division. Based on their performances, the future looks bright at 135 pounds. But it takes more than two fighters to make a division, so here’s a look at the UFC’s top 10 bantamweights:
UFC Bantamweight Champion: Dominick “The Dominator” Cruz
It’s been a rough couple years for the world’s most dominant 135-pounder. The first UFC Bantamweight Champion, Cruz has been on the shelf since October 2011 after suffering two ACL injuries in training. To put it into perspective, his last opponent Demetrious Johnson has fought four times since facing Cruz and will likely fight one more time before “The Dominator” makes his much anticipated return to the Octagon. But when he is healthy, Cruz is on another level compared to other Bantamweights.
With a stellar record of 19-1, including a 10-1 record under the Zuffa banner, Cruz’s only career loss came against arch rival Urijah Faber back in the WEC’s featherweight division. Since then, Tucson’s favorite fighting son has dropped down a weight class and hasn’t looked back. Riding a 10-fight win streak and erasing the only blemish on his record with a win over Faber in his first UFC title defense, Cruz has cemented himself as perhaps the greatest Bantamweight fight in MMA history. While injuries may have deprived fight fans of Cruz’s greatness as of late, the Alliance MMA product and his trademark uppercut will remind everyone what they’ve been missing the past year and a half when he returns.
1. Renan Barão (UFC Interim Bantamweight Champion)
Before his scheduled title defense against Faber set for UFC 148, Cruz was forced to pull out of the bout with an injured ACL, forcing him to put his fighting career on hold for the rest of the year. In stepped Brazilian phenom Renan Barao. Dominating Faber for five rounds, Barão emerged as the UFC interim Bantamweight champion. With the longest winning streak in MMA at 30 straight victories dating back to 2005, Barão said he was willing to wait for Cruz to heal up in order to unify the two belts. But after a second injury to Cruz’s ACL, Barão decided to put his title on the line against Michael McDonald at UFC on Fuel TV 7. With a fourth-round submission win over the American kick boxer, Barão solidified himself as the best active Bantamweight in the world. With a sensational ground game and equally devastating stand up, the Brazilian has not only proven to be a threat to knock Cruz out of the top spot, some call him the favorite in their inevitable showdown. But until then, I don’t see anyone at 135 lbs. with the tools to snap this unbelievable win streak.
2. Urijah “The California Kid” Faber
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Urijah Faber is one or two wins away from earning yet another shot at the championship. Whether at featherweight or bantamweight, long time fan favorite Faber has been at the top of his division for as long as I can remember. But unfortunately he’s been in the same boat as Kenny Florian and Frankie Edgar (as of late) in that he can dominate everyone in his weight class, but when it comes to the winning the belt, he comes up short. Forever a bridesmaid, never the bride. Even though he is winless in his last five title fights, the former WEC Featherweight champion is far from being on the downside of his career. With a fantastic wrestling game, cardio for days and a nasty guillotine choke, the Sacramento native will find himself among the elite for many years to come. His next fight is schedule for UFC 157 this Saturday against Ivan Menjivar. If Faber can come out on top like I expect he will, he won’t jump right back into a title shot but he will be one step closer to an unprecedented third shot at the belt in only two years.
3. Michael “Mayday” McDonald
At only 22 years old, Michael McDonald had the chance to become the youngest champion in UFC history last Saturday against Barão. But even though he came up short in his quest for gold, the young kick boxer proved he was more than ready for the main event. With dynamite in his hands and superb footwork, McDonald holds some of the most underrated stand up in the division as Miguel Torres found out with one strong fist to the jaw. “Mayday” can only get better, which should send chills down the spines of everyone at 135 pounds, and if he can perfect his ground work and increase his cardio I see many more championship fights in the future for this young MMA prodigy. The sky is the limit for him and we will all watch him grow as both a man and fighter in the octagon.
4. Eddie Wineland
Eddie Wineland reminds me of a 135-pound Chuck Liddell. In other words, he packs one punch knockout power in both hands and is nearly impossible to takedown. With finishes in 15 of his 20 victories, the 28 year-old Texan has emerged as one of the most exciting fighters no one is talking about. With wins in his last two bout against former WEC number one contender Scott Jorgensen and MMA veteran Brad Pickett, I expect a big name opponent is in store for the first ever WEC Bantamweight champion’s next fight. If he can continue to impress, he will most certainly be in line for a title shot by the time 2014 comes around.
5. Brad “One Punch” Pickett
The sport of MMA has begun to pass Brad Pickett by. His last fight against Eddie Wineland at UFC 155 perfectly sums up where the American Top Team product is in his career. With his takedowns stuffed and his opponent dancing around him slowly picking him apart with lightning fast punches, Pickett came off as the old and frustrated fighter desperately trying to stay in the fight. The fifth spot is the perfect ranking for “One Punch” as he will never be a champion but he is still better than the majority of his colleagues at 135 pounds. With a 3-3 record in his last six fights with three “Fight of the Night” honors, Pickett has proven he will always be able to put on exciting fights with his endless cardio and strength few 155 pounders can compete with. Even if he never earns his elusive title shot, I can guarantee Pickett’s opponents will know they’ve been in a fight when they’re done with him and for that reason alone he deserves everyone’s respect.
6. Rafael Assunção
After a disappointing UFC debut that saw him on the wrong end of knockout punch against former top featherweight contender Erick Koch, Ragael Assunção has found new life and a new home at 135 pounds. With superb counter striking in his last win over Mike Easton, showed patience and excellent cardio as he slowly picked apart his opponent. What’s even more impressive is the fact that Assunção broke his arm early in the first round. With a win over a big name like Easton and three straight victories, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter is going to have to prove he can do more than just out-point an opponent if he wants to contend for a title. If he can show this aggression against another big name like Pickett, he will no doubt find his name propelled into the top five.
7. Brian Bowles
Over the last 12 months, Brian Bowles has been an absolute enigma. The American Top Team product tore onto the MMA scene with wins in his first eight fights en route to winning the WEC Bantamweight championship and handing Miguel Torres his first loss six years. This not only propelled him to the top of the 135 pound division, but into the top 10 pound-for-pound fighters in all of MMA. But unfortunately for him he ran into the freight train that is Dominic Cruz in his very first title defense back in 2010. Since then he has fought only three times, amassing a record of 2-1 with his last appearance coming in November 2011, in his loss to Faber. With no known injuries, Bowles has been MIA as of late, which is a shame because he is blessed with some of the best grappling in the division and superb submission game. If anyone knows the whereabouts of this phenomenal fighter, I’m sure fight fans would love to know.
8. Scott “Young Guns” Jorgenson
I have a hard time deciding where Scott Jorgenson belongs in these rankings. I can’t think of any other fighter in the UFC who has gone from fighting for the championship to Facebook preliminaries like Jorgenson has. Facing Cruz for the title in the last ever WEC event put Jorgenson on the map and wins in his first two fights in the UFC have made fans feel like it was only a matter of time before he earned another title shot. But with two lopsided losses in his last three fights, Jorgenson has seen himself unceremoniously drop in the minds of the fans. The only problem is his last two losses came to Barão and Wineland, two fighters who have been on fire as of late. Following these two losses, “Young Guns” absolutely destroyed John Albert and won both “Fight of the Night” and “Submission of the Night” in the process. While Albert was far from a legit test for the fan favorite Jorgenson, it proved he’s anything but a fluke. A strong outing in his next fight will only help Jorgenson get back to where he was, but a loss will prove him to be nothing more than a very exciting fighter.
9. Mike “The Hulk” Easton
A few months ago Mike Easton was on top of the world. With eight straights wins, including impressive performances over John Dodson, Ivan Menjivar and Jared Papazian, Easton was ranked as high as number four on some lists. But an incredibly underwhelming performance over Assunção saw the Easton hype train come to a screeching halt. Win or lose, “The Hulk” needs an impressive performance in his next bout if he wants to jump back into the top 10. But another lackluster performance would drop the Alliance MMA product out of the title contention he was once on the verge of and out of the top 10 altogether.
10. Ivan “The Pride of El Salvador” Menjivar
The most experienced fighter on our list has seen it all in his 12-year career. Fighting in four different weight classes, Menjivar welcomed welterweight kingpin Georges St. Pierre into the sport, gave former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra all he could handle, submitted lightweight Jiu-Jitsu ace Joe Lauzon and dropped a controversial disqualification loss to Faber in a featherweight bout. These were just a few of the big names he’s stood up to. But with wins in four of his last five bouts, “The Pride of El Salvador” has never looked better. A first-round arm bar victory over Azamat Gashimove in his last fight was impressive enough to earn a rematch with Faber at UFC 157. He’s going to have to bring the performance of his life he wants to stay relevant in the bantamweight division. While a well-rounded game has gotten Menjivar this far, he’ll need to pull out all stops if he wants to prove he’s more than just a gatekeeper at 135 pounds.
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