MMA: Dominick Cruz

Dominick Cruz: This injury is last obstacle

December, 23, 2014
Dec 23
8:37
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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CruzDave Mandel/Sherdog.comDominick Cruz is confident he'll return stronger than ever from his latest injury.
Dominick Cruz will visit a physician on Jan. 15 in Los Angeles, at which point he'll schedule the third ACL surgery of his career.

The former UFC bantamweight champion has battled nagging hand injuries in the past and has underwent ACL surgery on his left knee twice. He suffered a quad injury at the beginning of this year, after which the UFC stripped him of his title for inactivity.

The latest blow: a torn ACL in his right knee. Cruz, 29, sounded relatively upbeat describing the injury on Tuesday, however, calling it a "quick fix" compared to the other setbacks he has overcome. He will be back -- count on that.

Slowly but surely, I am rebuilding my body from over a decade of wrestling. My [repaired] knee feels stronger than it did before I got surgery. I truly believe after I get my right knee fixed, it will be stronger than ever.

-- Dominick Cruz, on recovering from an ACL injury

"I swear on everything, I truly believe this will be my last obstacle," Cruz said. "Slowly but surely, I am rebuilding my body from over a decade of wrestling. My [repaired] knee feels stronger than it did before I got surgery. I truly believe after I get my right knee fixed, it will be stronger than ever."

Injuries limited Cruz (20-1) to just two appearances from September 2001 to September 2014. He returned from a near three-year injury absence at UFC 178, knocking out Takeya Mizugaki in just 61 seconds.

Cruz (20-1) said he suffered the latest knee injury during a drilling session on Dec. 9. He felt his right knee slide on him as he threw a left head kick.

"I wish I could tell you I was doing something stupid," Cruz said. "I wish I could tell you someone fell on it. I was training. I sparred the morning before I left for a Fox Sports [appearance]. I was drilling at the end of a live session, threw a left high kick and my knee slid out. I knew right away."

Cruz was unable to get an MRI on the knee until the following week, as he was scheduled for analyst duties during The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale on Dec. 12. He received confirmation of a torn ACL moments before leaving the country for Brazil the following week.

While obviously disheartened by the news, Cruz said he refuses to allow it to drop him "into a funk." On a media call on Tuesday, Cruz, just before the call ended, asked reporters on the line what each felt about the news and whether or not he could return.

It was clear during call Cruz is well-aware there will be those who doubt his ability to return to top form on two surgically repaired knees.

"There are people on Twitter asking, 'Why don't you just retire? You're too fragile. You can't do it,'" Cruz said. "The general public doesn't understand what your mindset can get you through.

"I know people can say, 'You're crazy. You're just trying to be positive. You can't really believe that.' I truly do believe that. It's not a question of 'if,' it's a question of 'when.'"

Cruz believes a return to the Octagon within the 12 months is realistic. He was expected to face T.J. Dillashaw for the 135-pound title in early 2015. While he wouldn't commit to an immediate title shot in his return fight, Cruz seemed open to it.

"I haven't gone in for surgery yet," Cruz said. "As long as surgery goes well, I could definitely see myself coming back to a title shot. I don't think the UFC would have a problem with that. That's all 100 percent wishful thinking right now, though. I have to go through surgery."

Cruz said despite what any naysayers might think, he believes he has five to six years of professional fighting left in him. Although this latest setback seems more devastating than the others, Cruz sees it somewhat differently.

"The big problem [with the first torn ACL] was I chose a cadaver tendon," Cruz said. "I didn't know the research and the rehab like I do now. I'm basically an ACL expert now. I know the process. Conor McGregor came back very quickly from an ACL [injury] and that's because his surgery was correct.

"I look at this in the same terms. A quick fix compared to what I've been through. Obviously, there are no 'quick fixes' with ACLs, but six to nine months. I'm not happy about this, but I'm also not going to drop into a funk. I'm not going to allow it to stop me."

Assuncao willing to wait for title shot

October, 2, 2014
Oct 2
9:50
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Raphael AssuncaoAl Powers for ESPNRaphael Assuncao, right, squares off with Bryan Caraway on Saturday at UFC Fight Night 54.
Raphael Assuncao is not angry. Upset? Yes, a little. Frustrated? Trying hard not to be.

Assuncao (22-4), who fights Bryan Caraway on Saturday at UFC Fight Night 54 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has to be a candidate for unluckiest fighter of the year.

He is currently riding a six-fight win streak, which is the longest active streak in the UFC bantamweight division, and he was the last man to beat the current champion, TJ Dillashaw. But unless something drastic happens, you won't see him in a title fight anytime soon.

Assuncao was offered a chance to fight then-champion Renan Barao at UFC 173 in May but couldn't accept due to a fractured rib and was replaced by Dillashaw. He was ready to take on the winner, but the UFC booked an immediate rematch between Barao and Dillashaw instead because of Dillashaw's shocking upset in Las Vegas.

Then at UFC 178, seven days before his scheduled bout with Caraway, Assuncao watched his title hopes take another hit as former champion Dominick Cruz returned from a near three-year injury layoff to smoke Takeya Mizugaki in 61 seconds. The UFC immediately announced Cruz would get the next title shot at 135 pounds.

What that means, presumably, is that even if Assuncao goes out and beats the brakes off of a very tough opponent in Caraway this weekend, it doesn't much matter. His number is unlikely to be called.

"I want to think there's still an opportunity [to earn a title shot]," Assuncao said. "I don't want to try and match what Dominick did, though. He was nearly perfect. He beat the No. 6 guy in one minute. I'm not trying to match that, because it puts me in a situation where I might not be as cautious.

"I'm not angry about what has happened. Being upset is different than being angry. Frustration can build up in your heart, but I'm trying not to let it. I'm just upset. Everybody gets upset."

The 32-year-old Brazilian, who lives and trains full time in Atlanta, Georgia, spoke to ESPN.com about his fight and the landscape of the division below:

ESPN: To be crystal clear, the UFC did offer you the Barao fight at UFC 173 before they offered it to Dillashaw?

Assuncao: "I was offered the fight, yes. It's funny, people forget that. I was talking to Brazilian press and they forget. Maybe it's because of my persona, people misread it. I was offered the fight on four weeks and I couldn't take it. My chest was a mess. I had talked to [UFC matchmaker] Sean Shelby and he offered me the fight. I had just [extended] my UFC contract. Obviously, I was interested, but it didn't work out for me. One day they called, Lorenzo Fertitta was on the line, Dana White was there, and they said, 'We need this fight signed now.' I couldn't do it."

Do you think the average UFC fan is aware that you are on a six-fight win streak heading into this fight?

"Yeah, I think more people know now. My Twitter, a lot of times I'll say something and fans are retweeting it. International fans, too, are telling Dana White, 'This guy's on a six-fight win streak. Put him in a title fight.' I do think more people are aware, yes."

You had said before Cruz came back that if you beat Caraway, you would wait for a title shot and weren't interested in any other fight. Is that still the case?

"As of right now, I'm not interested in fighting anybody else except a title fight. It's not the best circumstances to wait that long, but it has been eight months since my last fight in February and I feel great. I got to heal up, and nothing took a toll on my body during that time. We'll see what happens. I just want to get this fight over with."

A Dillashaw-Cruz title fight might not happen until February at the earliest. You will have only fought twice this year. Financially, will you be all right to be that inactive?

"Yeah, if I manage my money correctly. Twice a year, I can maintain a living. I've just got to be careful going off and buying cars."

Who would you favor in a Dillashaw-Cruz fight?

"It's an interesting fight as a fan. Cruz has the footwork. Dillashaw kind of moves at different angles and goes [southpaw] sometimes. I'd probably go with Cruz, because he's my buddy."

After winning the belt and defending it once, Dillashaw has started to gain recognition as a top pound-for-pound fighter. Do you see him that way?

"No, I don't. With all due respect, I don't think so. I just don't think he should be up there. Yeah, he's a champ. He's holding a belt. But I think there are other athletes out there that should be in the pound-for-pound."

You fought Dillashaw last October in Brazil. The fight went your way via split decision. You've exchanged words since. Would a second fight between you be personal?

"Not emotionally charged at all. We just know each other's style a lot. He has used the same style in his last two fights. I will take some time off, change my style a little and wouldn't go into a second fight with the same style."

Johnson's goal: To be best in MMA history

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
9:03
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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video
LAS VEGAS -- Between the comebacks of Dominick Cruz and Cat Zingano to the continuing emergence of Conor McGregor, Demetrious Johnson's fifth title defense seemed like a UFC 178 afterthought.

Really, it was probably destined for that. The fight only headlined UFC 178 because Jon Jones withdrew from a mega-fight against Daniel Cormier due to injury. Johnson was an absurd 16-to-1 betting favorite over Chris Cariaso, the highest in UFC title fight history. His win over Cariaso felt like a foregone conclusion.

Something very special is happening in the 125-pound division, though. And before we go any further, this isn't one of the many "Why you should pay attention to the flyweight division" articles, of which there have been many since the UFC debuted the weight class in 2012. This article is about Johnson, the quest for perfection in mixed martial arts and how close he already is to claiming it.
[+] EnlargeDemetrious Johnson
Ed Mulholland for ESPNDemetrious Johnson, top, has set his sights on becoming the best in MMA history.

Johnson (21-2-1) has now finished three of his last four opponents -- and the one he didn't finish was later found to have been on performance-enhancing drugs. Through five title defenses, he's outlanded his opponents 361-135 in total strikes and finished 18 takedowns, while giving up four. During this stretch, he's won 13 of the 15 rounds judges have filed scores on.

"Any criticism of Demetrious is not valid," said Matt Hume, Johnson's head trainer. "He finished John Moraga with an armbar from his back. Moraga is a collegiate wrestler with a great ground game. Then he fights Joseph Benavidez, a knockout artist, and DJ goes and knocks him out. Then he out-conditions Ali Bagautinov, a guy who was on PEDs for the fight. He wins every round. So, I just don't see any criticisms being valid."

Not that there is much criticism of Johnson these days, but at the same time, there doesn't seem to be a lot of attention on him, either.

At the UFC 178 postfight news conference on Saturday, featherweight contender McGregor fielded dozens of questions, donned in a custom "elephant trunk suit," as only he could put it.

At one point, he spoke about how nice a UFC title would look in front of him. Meanwhile, Johnson sat 10 feet to his right with the belt alongside. He was asked one question, as the card's main event.

Here is the unfortunate truth about Johnson: His greatness might be acknowledged but few seem to want to revel in it. A first-round knockout by Johnson isn't going to set the world on fire. We know it won't. He did it against Benavidez, in Benavidez's hometown, in December -- and there was no fire.

That lack of fire is clearly not affecting Johnson's performances, though. It was obvious he came well-prepared against Cariaso, who, respectfully, was way out of his league. In stark contrast to McGregor's ivory threads, Cariaso wore a suit to fight week that appeared three sizes to big for him. In his prefight video package, where he's supposed to talk about winning the fight, he provided a generic one-liner -- unconvincingly.

Johnson didn't train for Cariaso; he trained to fight a perfect fight. Like McGregor refers to his opponents as basically faceless stepping-stones to something greater, Johnson treats his opponents the same.

"For me, I always try to go out and put on a perfect fight," Johnson said. "That's a challenge in itself. Just because a lot of people didn't give Chris Cariaso recognition, I trained like he was the best fighter in the world. For me, there are always challenges out there, and that's for me to be a perfect mixed martial artist."

Perfection can only go unnoticed for so long. According to Hume, there is a long-term plan for Johnson. It includes an eventual move back to bantamweight (where he once fought for the title) and ends with him being considered the greatest fighter of all time. That's the team's goal, and it realizes it's a long-term one --- which is maybe why it seems OK for now being in the shadow of attractions like McGregor.

"I always have a game plan and goals in the back of my mind," Hume said. "When he got in the UFC, the goal was to make him the best fighter in the history of mixed martial arts. It would have sounded super arrogant to say that back then, but now it doesn't. We want to do some more damage at flyweight and secure that legacy.

"We've got our eyes on Dominick Cruz as he makes his comeback. That's a fight [Johnson] lost and it would be great to see him again. After DJ cements what we want at flyweight, though, we will definitely go for bantamweight and take on whoever is there. Of course, those kinds of things are in the back of our minds. Just like him being where he is now was on the backs of our minds years ago."

Benavidez pulling for (but not betting on) Cariaso

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
6:37
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Joseph Benavidez would love to believe 9-1 betting underdog Chris Cariaso has a chance to dethrone Demetrious Johnson at UFC 178 next weekend.

Oh man, would he love to believe that.

Benavidez (20-4) is in one of the more unfortunate spots in mixed martial arts. He is arguably the No. 2 fighter of his division, but he’s lost twice to the man (Johnson) ahead of him -- in September 2012 and last December.

To get back to a UFC title opportunity, Benavidez needs one of two things to happen: A long, impressive win streak (his guess is it would need to reach four in a row) or a Johnson loss. He’s operating under the assumption it will have to be the first option.

"It's funny," Benavidez told ESPN.com. "I’m not really wishing for [Johnson] to lose and I don’t necessarily get excited when he fights because as of late, honestly, I know he’s going to win. They get announced and I go, 'Oh. Another title defense.'
[+] EnlargeDemetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez
Al Powers for ESPNJoseph Benavidez, right, realizes he'll need to pull off another win streak if he's to earn a third title shot.

"I guess I just don't see another threat out there besides me and [John] Dodson and I had my chance to beat him. Every time he has a fight, I'm usually just, like, 'Damn. I messed this up. That should be my title defense.'"

Unfortunately for Benavidez, this is actually the second time in his career he has been in this position. Prior to the UFC's addition of a 125-pound weight class, he fought former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz twice in the now-defunct WEC.

Like Johnson, Cruz defeated Benavidez both times and went on to hold the title until the UFC stripped him of it earlier this year due to injury. After losing to Cruz the second time in August 2011, Benavidez sort of wandered at bantamweight. He fought just three times in the next 19 months with no real rhyme or reason to the matchmaking.

The flyweight division finally debuted in early 2012.

A little more than two years later and Benavidez is in a similar spot. No fights seem to make sense. He hasn't fought since he submitted Tim Elliott at UFC 172 in April, even though he has been healthy and asked for a fight.

A UFC pay-per-view event came and went in Benavidez's hometown of Sacramento in August, but he didn't make the card. The UFC couldn't find the right opponent.

“I know I’m in an odd position,” Benavidez said. “I think I'm the next best guy in the division after Demetrious, but I can't fight him. And on the other side, we're short on flyweight contenders and the UFC doesn't want me knocking off the few we have.”

Benavidez might be forced into waiting for fights longer than usual, but the UFC actually has booked him two meaningful ones since the loss to Johnson in December.

Elliott (10-5-1) was on the fringe of a top-10 ranking when Benavidez tapped him in the first-round and anyone who follows the sport knows his next assignment, Dustin Ortiz on Nov. 22, is a legitimate test as well.

Ortiz (14-3) is 3-1 in the UFC and arguably should have been declared the winner of a split-decision loss to John Moraga in January.

“It's awesome that hard-core fans know how tough [Ortiz] is,” Benavidez said. “I have to beat him in a way that makes a statement. We've seen him fight top-level guys, so I think there's something to gain in this fight.

“See the competition he's fought and how those fights went -- and now compare that to how my fight will go with him. There is pressure on me to beat him worse than anyone else has.”

Ortiz, in fact, has never been finished in his professional career. If Benavidez can be the first to do so, he will have helped his cause in regards to a third UFC title shot. If he had to guess, no one else is going to help him with it.

Cruz's trainer unsold on "tune-up" fights

May, 14, 2014
May 14
6:19
AM ET
By brettokamoto
ESPN.com
CruzDave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Eric Del Fierro doesn’t know whom Dominick Cruz will fight when he returns to the UFC later this year -- and right now, that’s exactly how he prefers it.

Most important, Cruz doesn’t know his next opponent yet. And that’s good, because when Cruz gets the name of an opponent, Del Fierro says, he thinks of little else. And pretty soon, he’s going 100 percent in the gym when he should be going half that.

“The problem with Dominick is he trains too hard,” Del Fierro said. “I don’t want to give him a date or an opponent. He’ll go 100 percent. For the next 10 weeks, we’re letting his body get back to 100 percent. When his body is there, we’ll book a fight.”


Currently, Del Fierro estimates Cruz (19-1) is “about 75 to 80 percent” healthy.

The former UFC bantamweight champion hasn’t fought since October 2011, due to a series of injuries. In the past three years, Cruz has undergone two ACL surgeries and was forced to pull out of a fight in February due to a serious quad injury.

Del Fierro, head trainer at Alliance MMA in San Diego, says Cruz has actually been able to participate in light sparring. He’s implemented a new rule for Cruz for the time being though: Whatever his schedule is for the day, he should do a third of it.
"

If Dominick is programmed to run 10 miles, he says he's running 10 miles, I tell him to divide that workout by three. We're literally building his body up from scratch.

"

-- Alliance MMA trainer Eric Del Fierro, on Cruz's long road to recovery


“If Dominick is programmed to run 10 miles, he says he’s running 10 miles, I tell him to divide that workout by three,” Del Fierro said. “We’re literally building his body up from scratch.”

Del Fierro says he doesn’t care one way or another who the UFC pairs Cruz up with in his return, but admits he doesn’t see an issue in fighting for the title immediately.

Cruz was officially stripped of the 135-pound belt in January due to his latest injury, which involved a muscle tear in the groin. The UFC then crowned interim champion Renan Barao its official title-holder. Barao (32-1) will seek his second defense of the title later this month against TJ Dillashaw at UFC 173.

Chances are high Cruz would take a “tune-up” fight before fighting Barao. The UFC has said the decision is his -- to which, Cruz responded it was up to the UFC.

Del Fierro says he’s only interested in getting Cruz healthy, but has never been much of a believer in “tune-up fights.”

“I think tune-up fights are psychological,” Del Fierro said. “Let me put it to you like this: If you have three tune-up fights and then face Renan Barao, is it an easier or a tougher fight? It’s the same. It’s a tough fight regardless.

“If the camp is run the way it’s supposed to be and Dominick is healthy, it doesn’t matter who they give him. I don’t necessarily believe in the whole tune-up thing.”
[+] EnlargeRenan Barão vs. Urijah Faber
Ed Mulholland for ESPNFormer titlist Dominick Cruz isn't interested in taking a tune-up bout before facing current champion Renan Barao.

Few have been more frustrated by Cruz’s injuries than Del Fierro, who says he has actually lost a little bit of faith in the medical community when it comes to dealing with high-level professional athletes.

One thing he’s certain of, however, is that Cruz can still be the same bantamweight he was when he last fought. Plenty have speculated as to how much Cruz would have to change his style due to the leg injuries. Del Fierro isn’t concerned.

“We have a lot of top guys at our camp and Dominick at 70 percent or so is still sparring these guys,” Del Fierro said. “I see what he can do everyday. I’m not overly concerned. My only concern with Dominick is his body being healthy.

“I would say he’s improved in the time off. His body has gotten stronger. The biggest thing is psychological. Does a two-year layoff hurt his psyche? We’ll see. There’s only one way to find out.”

UFC 169 by the numbers

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
10:23
AM ET
By Joe Kilduff
ESPN Stats & Information
Archive

UFC interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao became the undisputed champion when Dominick Cruz vacated the title due to injury. Barao must now defend the title against the man he beat to win the interim title at UFC 149, Urijah Faber. Faber has won four in a row since the unanimous decision loss to Barao and will be making his third attempt to claim a UFC title. In the co-main event, UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo will defend the title against Ricardo Lamas, who is undefeated in four UFC fights.

Here are the numbers you need to know for the fights:

85: Number of significant strikes landed by Barao in his previous fight with Faber. Although Faber landed a higher percentage of significant strikes attempted (34 percent) than Barao (29 percent), Barao was the more active fighter as he attempted 290 significant strikes to Faber’s 178.

0: Number of times Barao has been taken down by his opponents in all six of his UFC fights. In Barao’s previous fight with Faber, he was able to defend all six of Faber’s take down attempts. In all 20 of Faber’s UFC and WEC fights he has been successful on 36 percent of his takedown attempts.

4: Barao and Faber are both 4-0 against their common opponents Cole Escovedo, Scott Jorgensen, Michael McDonald and Eddie Wineland.

2: Number of times Faber has lost by KO/TKO. Neither Faber nor Barão has been prone to being finished as Barao’s only loss came by decision and Faber has not been stopped since 2008 by Mike Brown at WEC 36.

31: Barao’s winning streak since losing his professional debut in 2005. His 31 wins include 14 by submission, seven by KO/TKO and 10 by decision.

19 minutes, 24 seconds: The average fight time for Aldo in his UFC fights. At almost 19 and a half minutes per fight Aldo’s average fight time is the longest in UFC history among fighters with at least five fights in the promotion. While Aldo has a tendency for long fights, Lamas has only been past the second round once in his four UFC fights.

90: Percentage of takedowns defended by Aldo in all five of his UFC fights. Among fighters with a minimum of five UFC fights and at least 20 takedown attempts by opponents, his 90 percent takedown defense is the best in the featherweight division and fourth best in UFC history. In all 10 of his UFC and WEC fights, Lamas has been successful on 38 percent of his takedown attempts.

72: Percentage of significant strikes defended by Aldo in his UFC fights. Among fighters with a minimum of five UFC fights and at least 350 strikes attempted by opponents his 72 percent significant strike defense is the second best in the featherweight division (Chad Mendes, 77 percent) and sixth best in UFC history.

1: Aldo and Lamas have both fought 1 common opponent, Cub Swanson. In 2009, under the WEC banner, Aldo defeated Swanson by TKO with a flying knee just eight seconds into the first round. Lamas submitted Swanson with an arm-triangle choke in the second round at UFC on FOX 1 in 2011.

Statistical support from FightMetric

Faber not sweating title pressure

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
7:25
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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I’m not calling it Urijah Faber's last chance at a UFC title -- but I get it if you do.

Let's just get this out in the open, right? We're all OK with Faber getting first crack at newly minted UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao because "The California Kid" had a monster year in 2013. A crazy, monster year. Way to go, Urijah.

If he doesn’t get it done this time, though -- stop. No more. That would be six failed title bids in a little more than five years. Enough is enough.

This is not my opinion. Whoever is the best in the world should fight for the belt. There is an element of entertainment involved, yes, but should Faber lose early next month to Barao, I won’t campaign to forever ban him from UFC title shots.

But as I said, I know many of you would (or will). So considering that, you think he might hesitate a little when the UFC asked him to fight Barao on three weeks' notice? Wouldn't he want a full training camp for title shot No. 6?

The answer is apparently "no" and it's part of the reason Faber has earned more opportunities at a world title than most fighters dream about.

"I'm not going to learn any secret trick in a six-week camp," Faber told ESPN.com. "I'm not into that. I'm going to go out and fight this guy.

"I didn't get into this sport because I thought if I was prepared, I might be pretty good or hang with the best. I got into this sport because I was like, 'Dude, nobody in the world is going to beat me up.'"

This rematch between Barao and Faber is already different from the first. As much as Faber is seemingly immune to the different circumstances from fight to fight, he wasn't up to face Barao when they met in July 2012.

That summer, Faber (30-6) held what UFC president Dana White has constantly referred to as a "winning lottery ticket," in that he was scheduled to fight Dominick Cruz at UFC 148 and take a piece of the revenue pie from the event.

When Cruz went down with a torn ACL, Faber went from the Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen II card in Las Vegas to a Calgary-based UFC 149 later that month, which had been decimated by injury.

By the time Faber and Barao walked out, the Canadian crowd was delirious over what was unquestionably the worst UFC card top to bottom I’ve ever witnessed in person. To this day, White, sometimes unprompted, apologizes for that event.

"

I pride myself on always being mentally prepared, but just my moral -- my excitement -- wasnt there. It was actually the opposite. I think there were more people at the weigh-ins for [UFC 148] than there were at my fight.

" -- Urijah Faber, on his first bout against Renan Barao

"I pride myself on always being mentally prepared, but just my morale -- my excitement -- wasn’t there," Faber said. "It was actually the opposite. I think there were more people at the weigh-ins for [UFC 148] than there were at my fight.

"I was supposed to be a big part of that and instead I felt like the red-headed stepchild in Calgary. Then I had a crappy performance. The fight was boring, in my opinion. It wasn’t an exciting fight."

None of this talk about mentality, of course, changes the stylistic challenges Faber will have to overcome to achieve a different result from that first fight.

Barao (31-1) is still incredibly difficult to take down or move inside on. He's not highly responsive to feints, which Faber's stand-up relies heavily on. He's a strong counterpuncher and he's never been finished in his career.

He's young and (technically) attempting his first title defense, so you expect he'll be hungry -- although, he's likely in for an exhaustive three-plus weeks of answering 1,000 variations of the same question: What about Dominick Cruz?

Barao was thousands of miles away and speaking in another language when I interviewed him Monday night, but he sounded agitated when forced to talk about Cruz and whether he was disappointed about not fighting him.

"There is no need to face or beat Dominick Cruz," Barao said. "I don’t need to do that to be seen as the champion. I’m already the champion."

It's hard to imagine Barao coming out flat for his first title defense, but he better erase any remote possibility of it. Faber knows exactly what's at stake Feb. 1, but he's not desperate about it as you might expect him to be. That feels dangerous.

Which champs stay (and go) in 2014?

January, 1, 2014
Jan 1
11:03
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Johny HendricksStephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY SportsA second chance: Johny Hendricks, right, is staring the UFC welterweight belt in the eye this year.

In 2013, the UFC crowned two new champions at 185 and 155 pounds. It also lost its 170-pound champion, Georges St-Pierre, to semiretirement.

In 2014, we’ll see at least two new UFC champions in the record books. Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler will contend for the vacated welterweight title, and a female strawweight champion will emerge from "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series.

Which fighters are destined to be champions come the end of 2014? I’ll tell you.

Heavyweight: Cain Velasquez

Velasquez is shelved for the foreseeable future, following surgery on a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The heavyweight champ is so tough he was actually practicing with the injury before undergoing surgery, according to teammate Daniel Cormier.

It looks as if Velasquez will face the winner of a fight between Fabricio Werdum and Travis Browne -- and if I had to guess, that will be the only time Velasquez fights in 2014. Maybe he mows through one of those guys and gets booked again immediately, which is entirely possible, but I would lean to just one Velasquez fight in the next 12 months.

Prediction: Browne knocks out Werdum in early spring, only to be a hungry Velasquez’s first meal upon his return.

Light heavyweight: Jon Jones

With the heavyweight belt tied up due to injury and no Anderson Silva superfight on the books, there’s nowhere else Jones needs to be than 205 pounds. This works twofold. With no Silva and no St-Pierre, Jones needs to go out and be the UFC’s breadwinner in 2014. Expect him to stay busy.

Relying on predetermined outcomes of fights is never a good idea in this sport, and I feel that’s a huge transgression in this division right now. Jones versus Glover Teixeira. Alexander Gustafsson versus Jimi Manuwa. Daniel Cormier versus Rashad Evans. Those fights aren’t over yet -- and don’t jump to assumptions on matchups before they are.

Prediction: Jones fights three times in 2014. He beats Teixeira and then Gustafsson more convincingly than the first meeting. Then he wins one more fight … but I’m not entirely convinced it’s against Cormier, who could lose before that.

Middleweight: Ronaldo Souza

The middleweight and welterweight divisions are about to have a really fun year. With Silva gone (for the foreseeable future, at least), the middleweight division looks entirely different.

The Spider’s buddies, Ronaldo Souza and Lyoto Machida, have nothing to prevent them from gunning for the title now. An old friend, Chael Sonnen, suddenly has a path back to a title shot. The bull's-eye on Weidman’s back is about as big as there is right now in all of mixed martial arts.

Prediction: Weidman-Belfort in Brazil. Does Weidman win that? Oh man … yes. He does. On the same night, Sonnen outpoints Wanderlei Silva and calls out Machida. But it’s Souza who earns a title bid with big wins in early 2014 and then takes the title late in the year.

Welterweight: Johny Hendricks

On the way to St-Pierre, it seems that Hendricks beat every welterweight in the division, but if he wins the belt he’ll have plenty of challengers. It starts with Robbie Lawler in March, who just might be the most terrifying man in the UFC right now. This guy was born to hurt people.

You think we hear a peep from St-Pierre in 2014? Gut reaction says no, right? He wanted time off, so he’ll take his time off. On the other hand, when you are as competitive as St-Pierre is, one month away from the cage might feel like three or four. Carlos Condit just pulled about the worst opponent he could in Tyron Woodley, a guy ranked outside the Top 10 but extremely dangerous.

Prediction: Hendricks wins the vacated belt in March, and then beats the winner of Condit-Woodley. Then Hendricks defends the title again … in a fight the UFC books in Montreal, sending front-row tickets to St-Pierre’s address every day leading up to it.

Lightweight: Jose Aldo

Anthony Pettis just needs to stay healthy. The 26-year-old Milwaukee product has been so good when healthy -- which, unfortunately, hasn’t been very often. He hopes to return to the cage by July.

In the meantime, I think Aldo’s days as the 145-champion come to an end. He is a potential star for the UFC and “two-division champion” is a title that would help his drawing power. He will get an immediate shot when he moves up. He and the UFC will argue about his vacating the featherweight belt -- and that’s finally a fight Aldo will actually lose.

Prediction: Aldo defends his featherweight title over Ricardo Lamas in February and then hangs out until Pettis is healthy, narrowly beating him in a Fight of the Year candidate in August, before going on to one title defense late in the year.

Featherweight: Chad Mendes

Aldo moving up to 155 pounds just looks like a no-brainer to me. He has wanted to do so for a long time and the UFC likely wants it to happen, too. It will look as if he’s leaving the keys to the car in the hands of Chad Mendes.

A potential wrinkle in that script is Frankie Edgar. Edgar has to feel good heading into a third meeting with BJ Penn, who hasn’t fought since December 2012. Penn is a warrior and a legend, but Edgar is a tough style matchup, especially at 145.

Prediction: Mendes continues his reign of terror and earns a shot at the vacated 145-pound title against Edgar, who defeats Penn for a third time. It’s a good fight, but Mendes takes a decision and the belt.

Bantamweight: Renan Barao

It’s still officially Dominick Cruz’s division heading into 2014, but maybe only in writing. Barao is the UFC bantamweight to beat this year, and there are really only two 135-pounders up to the task -- Cruz and Urijah Faber.

The circumstances surrounding Cruz’s return -- he’s been on the shelf since October 2011 -- make him a near-impossible pick in his first fight back to beat Barao, but this is Cruz we’re talking about. His work ethic borders on obsessive. If Barao gets by Cruz, he goes immediately to a rematch against Faber, who looks like a pound-for-pound candidate again at 34.

Prediction: Unless Demetrious Johnson gets a little crazy and moves up in weight, this division is a three-horse race. Any one of them could finish 2014 as champion and it wouldn’t be a surprise.

Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson

Unlike Aldo, there isn’t much sense in Johnson moving up in weight in 2014. He can if he wants to, and I don’t think the UFC would forbid it, but he is a natural flyweight. He fought at bantamweight prior to the UFC's adding the 125-pound division and that was only two years ago. Why rush back to 135 pounds?

It makes more sense for him to chase title-defense records than the bantamweight champion. At 27, Johnson is improving between each performance -- noticeably. He may run into a couple opponents multiple times, but there are enough flyweights to keep him busy at least through 2014.

Prediction: Nobody in this division is beating Johnson right now. Nobody. You might read stories about a potential move to 135 pounds, but come December, Johnson will still be a flyweight and he’ll be up to at least six title defenses.

Female bantamweight: Ronda Rousey

Forget defending the arm bar, how about a Rousey opponent defending a takedown first? Occasionally lost in the shuffle of Rousey’s eight consecutive arm bars is her setup -- her takedowns. There might not be anyone in that division who can match her on the floor, so the conversation turns to: Can any of them stop her takedown?

Sara McMann is an interesting opponent, but how comfortable will she be on her back? McMann might be able to neutralize some of what Rousey does, but not all of it. Same with Cat Zingano, although Zingano has the finishing ability to catch Rousey with something, which might be the only way to beat her.

Prediction: Rousey dives headfirst into defending her title -- and makes it look pretty easy. She defends the belt at least three times, finishing at least two more opponents in the first round.

Female strawweight: Carla Esparza

You might think that in an atmosphere as unique as TUF, the best fighter on the show wouldn’t always emerge the winner. There are too many variables, right? The mental strain from being away from one’s family, not having normal cornermen, fighting several times within a short time span, etc.

Surprisingly, though, the best fighter of the group typically does go all the way. You look at previous seasons and, for the most part, the TUF champion has outperformed the vast majority of the average TUF contestants. Keeping that in mind, Esparza has been the best of this group heading into the show.

Prediction: Esparza enters the TUF season a favorite to win and does just that.

Urijah Faber: 'I'm ready to fight anyone'

December, 15, 2013
12/15/13
12:47
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Urijah Faber vs. Michael McDonaldAl Powers for ESPNAfter destroying Michael McDonald on Saturday, Urijah Faber is back in the title conversation.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In all likelihood, Urijah Faber won’t be a serious candidate for "Fighter of the year," but he’s done something incredible these past 12 months -- and I’m not solely referring to his destruction of Michael McDonald on Saturday -- although that was nothing short of awesome.

What’s really amazing about Faber right now is that within about a year, he not only built himself back into the undisputed No. 1 contender at 135 pounds -- he’s done it in such a way that we’re actually excited about it.

Dana has paid me a great compliment by saying I'm the type of guy who believes I can beat anyone. I'm ready to fight anyone, any time. I'll fight Godzilla, King Kong, I don't care.

-- Urijah Faber

When 2013 began, Faber was coming off a previous year's campaign that saw him fight only once: a lopsided, at-times tedious five-round loss to Renan Barao for the UFC interim belt. It was his fifth loss in a title fight in a span of less than four years.

The very thought of Faber (30-6) in another title fight made some mixed martial arts fans sick to the stomach. It had become clear he couldn’t win the big one anymore, having lost five consecutive title fights across two weight classes.

The craziness of this resurgence story starts right there, with the fact Faber didn’t care. After that many heartbreaking defeats, nobody would have blamed him had he come out flat his next couple fights -- in fact, we probably expected him to.

Instead, here we are in December 2013 and the idea of Faber fighting for a title doesn’t even feel all that repetitive. It doesn’t feel like an undeserved gift based on his popularity. The man has never looked better.

“A lot of people have said [the UFC] is just looking for excuses to give Urijah Faber a title shot,” said UFC president Dana White. “You can’t deny it now. You can hate. You can dislike. You can do whatever you want, but you can’t deny him.

“Faber is in like this Vitor [Belfort] zone. The older he gets, the better he gets.”

White didn’t officially call Faber the No. 1 contender on Saturday, but it’s hard to see a scenario unfold in which he wouldn’t be.

Dominick Cruz will return from injury for the first time since October 2011 against Barao at UFC 169 in February. Faber is a marketable next opponent for the winner, regardless of who it is.

He has no hesitation in raising his hand for that opportunity, either. It’s not as if he’s felt out of his league in these title losses. A cracked rib hindered him against Barao. He broke his hand against Mike Brown. He still thinks he did enough to beat Cruz.

“Dana has paid me a great compliment by saying I’m the type of guy who believes I can beat anyone,” Faber said. “I’m ready to fight anyone, any time. I’ll fight Godzilla, King Kong, I don’t care. I’m a little bit delusional about it, even.

“My losses have been to Jose Aldo, Barao, I lost to Cruz when I thought I beat him, Mike Brown with a broken hand -- what do you guys want from me?”

One sort-of-interesting part about this whole thing is that Faber doesn’t seem to see it. In his mind, he was just going out and winning fights. He expected to win all four of his fights this year, and in the manner in which he did it.

He dismisses talk about fans not wanting to see him fight for a title or his inability to win the big one as merely “people looking for stuff to talk about.” And in some respect he’s probably right: We do love our storylines in this sport.

Still, Faber’s insanely fast return to legitimate title contender was one of the most impressive things to happen in the UFC this year. For all the hate he’s taken along the way, it needed to be pointed out.

Boxing talk swirls ahead of UFC 165

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
7:23
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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TORONTO -- The craze from a blockbuster boxing event between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Canelo Alvarez last weekend in Las Vegas has followed the UFC north.

UFC president Dana White and light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who defends his title against Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165 on Saturday, were asked repeatedly about Mayweather at a media function on Thursday.

Specifically, questions zeroed in on Mayweather’s much-talked about $41.5 million guarantee for the fight and Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer’s comments regarding the pay-per-view breaking buy records set in 2007.

White, who attended the fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, said he was flattered the company he’s helped run since 2001 would draw comparisons to boxing, a sport with a much longer history.

“I’m honored we’re always looked at like, ‘Why aren’t you paying people $41 million,’” White said. “’Why aren’t you doing 2.7 million [PPV] buys?’

“What people have to realize, we just started making money in 2007. Do people understand that? This sport is still so young. We’re not even sanctioned in New York, we’ve just been on Fox [Network] for a couple years and we’re talking about doing a $41 million payday. It’s crazy.”

Jones, 26, one of the most marketable stars in the UFC, announced on Thursday he’d signed a sponsorship deal with Gatorade that would feature the brand on his fight shorts this weekend.

On Mayweather’s $41.5 million payday, which, White correctly pointed out, could ultimately become closer to $100 million when final PPV revenue comes in, Jones said he’s happy with his current pay scale but sees room for improvement.

“I’m not even close to that, but I’m grateful,” said Jones, after refusing to reveal his exact compensation for the bout. “It’s nowhere near Floyd Mayweather, but I don’t judge my happiness over somebody else’s.

“I’m really happy with what I get paid. It’s really not on the scale of other professional athletes, but there are a lot of athletes that don’t get paid as much as [UFC fighters]. I know Dana White knows that some of the fighters could be upgraded, especially his top-level guys, but maybe we’ll move in that direction.”

The largest buy-rate ever for a UFC event was reported at 1.6 million, for the landmark UFC 100 card that took place in July 2009. When asked if he thought a UFC event could one day score a buy rate near 2.7 million, White said he hopes so.

“Thirteen years ago, people were asking me, ‘Will there ever be a day UFC will get back on PPV?’” White said. “‘Will there ever be a day UFC is on free TV? Will there ever be a day you’ll be doing things in different countries?’ Here we are now so, yes, I like to believe we will.”

White chickened out on Mayweather wager
Floyd Mayweather Jr.AP Photo/Eric JamisonJust as UFC president Dana White predicted, Floyd Mayweather had no trouble picking apart Canelo Alvarez.

Ever since it was announced Mayweather was fighting Alvarez on Sept. 14, White was adamant it would result in yet another decision victory for Mayweather.

He mentioned on several occasions his prediction Mayweather would, “Box Canelo’s ears off.”

White says fans pressed him to put his money where his mouth was during a recent online chat, but admitted that ultimately, he had no action on the undefeated boxer.

“I watched all the bull---- leading up to it and I chickened out, so I didn’t bet anything,” White said. “[UFC co-owner] Lorenzo [Fertitta] did really well, though.”

Renan Barao, Eddie Wineland interim title fight will be the last

Whether UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz is healthy or not come 2014, the promotion is finished with its “interim” tag at 135 pounds.

Cruz (19-1) hasn’t fought since October 2011 due to several knee operations. The UFC has been unwilling to strip him of the belt, despite the success of interim champion Renan Barao (30-1), who seeks his second defense of the title against Eddie Wineland on Saturday.

White said he’s hoping Cruz could be ready to compete sometime near January. If he’s unable to go, the promotion will make Saturday’s winner the official title-holder.

“If he can’t fight by the beginning of the year, we’ve got to the pull the trigger,” White said.

“It’s been two years. A lot of people think we’re crazy for holding up the title this long, but it’s a tough thing to do to take a title away from somebody. It’s hard to do.”

White has no concern BJ Penn will make 145 pounds
BJ PennJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesDana White said BJ Penn is adamant he can make the featherweight limit upon his return to the cage.

Not too many were surprised when it was announced earlier this week a comeback was in store for former lightweight and welterweight champion B.J. Penn.

The surprise came when it was announced whom he would be fighting and at what weight.

Penn has agreed to coach on "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series opposite familiar opponent Frankie Edgar. The two will then square off for a third time -- Edgar won the previous two -- at 145 pounds.

Penn (16-9-2) has fallen to 1-4-1 in his past six fights, four of which took place at 170 pounds. A cut now, after nearly a year off from the cage, down to featherweight has left some scratching heads.

“No,” White said, when asked if he had any worries Penn would miss weight. “He said he wants to do it. He says he’ll do it. It’s up to him now.”

White was then asked if the fight would be a situation where a loss could likely mean the end of Penn’s career in the UFC, to which he responded, “Yeah.”

Despite little buzz, high stakes for bantams

September, 17, 2013
9/17/13
6:53
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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In 2004, Eddie Wineland basically paid money to have his jaw broken.

A 10-year career in mixed martial arts is going to come with its share of highs and lows. Wineland, 29, hopes to enjoy his best moment in the cage this weekend, when he meets UFC interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao at UFC 165 in Toronto.

If you want to talk about lows, though -- Wineland’s occurred during the winter of 2004, after he suffered a broken jaw in a loss to Brandon Carlson during a regional show promoted in Wisconsin.

Wineland remembers the hospital bills for his injury far surpassed his fight purse for that bout. In his mind, there was really no positive way to skew it. He was sipping meals through a straw -- and had paid money from his own pocket to do it.

"I quit in 2004 after I broke my jaw," Wineland told ESPN.com. "It wasn’t worth it to me anymore. I was fighting for $600. I had $15,000 in medical bills. The ends didn’t really meet there.

"I traveled four hours and ended up spending money to get my jaw broke."

I traveled four hours and ended up spending money to get my jaw broke.

-- Eddie Wineland

The "quit" Wineland refers to didn’t last long. After attending several local shows in his home state of Indiana, the itch for combat returned in full force. By August 2005, Wineland was back in the cage in a submission win that evened his win-loss record.

It makes for a good story -- an athlete willing to stick with the brutality of the fight game, purely for the love of it. As Wineland points out, he never even considered fighting for a UFC title when he started. One didn’t exist in his weight class.

The strange part is, it feels like the good story is being relatively ignored.

Wineland (20-8-1) earned a shot at the interim belt with wins over ranked opponents Scott Jorgensen and Brad Pickett, but he's about as long as long shots come when it comes to his next fight.

Oddsmakers opened Barao (30-1) as a 7-1 favorite. That almost makes Wineland seem like a hurdle (a short one) for Barao to hop over, en route to a unifying title fight against Dominick Cruz, who is recovering from knee surgery, early next year.

The line on the fight, and the fact so much focus has surrounded Barao’s tag as an "interim" title, has not dampened Wineland's spirits. He believes Barao is the division's best, which makes his belt more significant than the one Cruz holds.

"He does everything well," Wineland said. "You don’t get to the be the No. 1 guy if you’re just OK at things.

"I think Renan is the No. 1 guy in the division. He's defended the belt and he's the one fighting. If I win, I get a belt. That makes me a champion, too. It if it's interim, it's interim. It still makes me a champion."

For his part, Barao says he's not ignoring Wineland and promises to look as good as he has in two interim title fight wins against Urijah Faber and Michael McDonald.

Ranked the No. 9 pound-for-pound fighter in the world by ESPN.com, Barao admits he hasn't made a formal request to the UFC to strip Cruz, who hasn't fought since October 2011, of his title but it appears his patience is slightly running out.

That said, the Brazilian believes he's reaping all the benefits of an undisputed UFC champion. If he compares his status to teammate and UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo, the perks are the same.

"The [UFC] treats me like the champion, they treat me very well," Barao said. "I travel first class [like Aldo]. It's pretty much the same thing.

"I don’t actually mind it. I guess everyone wants to know about the [interim title], but I'm very cool about the whole thing. I just think it's important the UFC makes a decision soon and settles this. I've considered myself the champion from the first time the belt went into my hands so yeah, I feel like [Cruz] needs to take this belt from me."

Cruz shows patience, progress in recovery

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
9:45
AM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Dominick CruzDave Mandel for Sherdog.com After two knee operations, Dominick Cruz has been cleared by doctors to do some training.

An anniversary Dominick Cruz wouldn't wish to celebrate is fast approaching.

Oct. 1 will mark two years since the UFC bantamweight champion was healthy enough to defend his belt in the Octagon. That's 24 months of prime real estate for a world-class fighter, meaning rather than competing against the likes of Renan Barao, he has been forced to recuperate through two ACL surgeries.

Cruz has dealt well with various disappointments over these many months. A blown-out knee in May 2012 cost him a trilogy bout against his heated rival Urijah Faber. At the end of last year, he required a second surgery after his body rejected an anterior cruciate ligament pulled from a cadaver.

Less than three weeks after Cruz turns 28 on Sept. 3, Barao will attempt his second defense of the UFC interim bantamweight title against Eddie Wineland in Toronto. By then "The Dominator" is hoping to have progressed to the point that he won't need to nurse his knee and, instead, can spar hard as he's wont to do.

Cruz's life right now is a series of eight-week training camps, said his longtime trainer Eric Del Fierro. There isn't a timetable for a full recovery because Del Fierro is concerned if Cruz has a firm date planted in his head the 135-pounder will "start pushing too hard." Instead, the trainer has established specific goals that are met incrementally.

"He's a special kind of athlete," Del Fierro said, "so I have to control his mind sometimes."

Cruz told ESPN.com Thursday that he had just been cleared by doctors to drill grappling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu sequences. A far cry from full-on sparring, though that may not be so far away if everything falls into place as he and his team hope.

"If it were up to him he'd be going 100 percent," the trainer said. "We're just following doctors' orders."

In an interview with MMAFighting.com this week, Barao claimed Cruz told him February 2014 had been targeted for a unification fight. Cruz, however, said Barao "misunderstood due to the language barrier," and it's merely a goal at the moment.

"Right now I'm doing no weight-bearing training -- that's why I'm just getting cleared to grapple now because grappling would be considered weight-bearing exercises," Cruz said.

[+] EnlargeDominick Cruz vs Urijah Faber
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comWhen he's back in the cage, don't expect Dominick Cruz to take any tuneup fights.
In an attempt to keep things fresh, and, more important, stop Cruz from overexerting and hurting himself, Del Fierro set up a series of mini training camps "to show progress with his rehab." Cruz, a famously hard worker in the gym, bought into the "step-by-step" recovery sessions and experienced steady progress.

Next on the list is returning to the mat at Alliance MMA in Chula Vista, Calif., even if it's just to drill technique and position. Once that hurdle is cleared, live sparring should follow.

"So now I begin that portion of the eight weeks," Cruz said. "Then I get cleared to kick and add things together until I can do everything."

Cruz's extended absence hasn't caused Del Fierro to believe his charge needs a tuneup when he's finally able to return. They're not expecting or wishing for anything less than the best possible opponent.

"I wouldn't put anyone in a fight that didn't have a good camp, or wasn't 100 percent focused in camp," Del Fierro said. "Literally you're going to face every single scenario in camp that you would in a fight. If Dominick's running through a camp at 100 percent, there's no reason he shouldn't be able to face anybody in competition in the cage."

Should Cruz be stripped of his title?

March, 29, 2013
3/29/13
8:31
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Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Dominick CruzEd Mulholland for ESPN.comDominick Cruz can only hold onto his UFC bantamweight title for so long without actually defending it.
Should Dominick Cruz be stripped of his UFC bantamweight title?

It's been nearly 18 months since he won a decision victory over Demetrious Johnson. Since that fight, Johnson has fought four times and captured the inaugural flyweight belt.

Johnson has been -- to use fight game vernacular -- "circulating." That's the preferred method for UFC titlists. Keep that belt dangling over the whole clumsy gang of lunging, outstretched arms.

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After 18 months of inactivity, should Dominick Cruz be stripped of his UFC bantamweight title?

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As for Cruz, he has gone through one rehabilitation stint to repair his blown out ACL and is halfway through another. He explained in excruciating detail the spiral of events on "UFC Tonight." There was the cadaver tendon that didn't take the first time (costing him a year), and now the second procedure, where part of his own patella tendon has become his ACL. That has sidelined him for that extended period of horizonless time we've come to call indefinitely.

It's hard not to feel for Cruz. Though he's swiftly making a name for himself as one of the best television analysts going, the date Oct. 1, 2011 keeps getting smaller and smaller in his rear-view window. That was the last time he stepped in the Octagon. In MMA, that feels like a lifetime ago -- for Cruz certainly, but particularly for the promotion.

Forget vague notions of ring rust, we're now breaking into concepts of urgency. It might be Oct. 2013 before we see Cruz again. It might be later. As much as we like to delude ourselves otherwise, life goes on without us. All of us. Even top 10 pound-for-pound fighters. The UFC, as an event-based promotion with its strongest moorings in the pay-per-view business, has to move on. To be vital, things have to be current. Things have to stay active.

That's why there's such a thing as interim titles in the first place -- though they are make-believe, they function well enough as winking placeholders. They keep things rolling, and the idea of the belt stays intact. But everybody knows that interim titles are only half-satisfying. Even when the UFC wraps a symbolic belt around somebody, we can't keep from nudging each other.

Why? It's not quite real. It's a mirage.

And after a while, that belt has to mean something. If Renan Barao, the interim bantamweight champion, is headlining a pay-per-view card in June -- which he is, UFC 161 in Winnipeg against Eddie Wineland -- wouldn't it be better to knock the adjective from the equation? Instead of "interim champion Renan Barao" -- with the interim label a constant reminder that he's a dynamic, hard-striking stopgap but not really number one -- shouldn't it be simply: bantamweight champion Renan Barao?

That sort of takes the surrogacy from things and raises the pitch to makes things seem bigger and more dire and marquee worthy. An actual champion makes it more legit. Cruz's shadow won't sell that PPV.

Which brings back the question: Should he be stripped of his title? At this point, probably, but we're dealing in asterisks either way.

It's not a Randy Couture situation where contracts are in dispute. Couture retained his belt through the whole money/Fedor Emelianenko fallout anyway. There isn't any acrimony here. Cruz's situation is closer to the Frank Mir case back in 2004. Mir, after winning the UFC's heavyweight title against Tim Sylvia at UFC 48, was in a motorcycle accident that sidelined him for 14 months. When Andrei Arlovski won the interim title against Sylvia at UFC 51, the idea was to marry up the belts in a fight with Arlovski and Mir. Same as with Barao and Cruz.

[+] EnlargeRenan Barao
Martin McNeil for ESPNWith interim bantamweight titlist Renan Barao headlining a pay-per-view card at UFC 161, now would be the best time to elevate him to full-time champion.
Only, Mir (knee, leg) wasn't ready when the time came. As a result, he was stripped of his title to keep the heavyweight belt in play. Not the less meaningful placeholder title, but the newly made legitimate real McCoy.

Heavyweight is a lot more glamorous than bantamweight -- particularly at that time, back when there were only a few divisions -- but the situations are similar. It wasn't Mir's fault that he couldn't recover in a timely fashion, and it's not Cruz's either. But if Barao is going to headline a PPV, he can't be masquerading as a champion. He should be one.

So what happens next?

In London a few weeks back, after Barao's first interim title defense against Michael McDonald, Dana White said he'd have a meeting with Cruz to discuss all this. White told ESPN.com on Thursday that he hasn't yet had a chance to have that meeting.

That day is coming, though, and relatively soon. When that discussion happens it will likely center on this: Barao has defended the interim title once, and Cruz isn't quite ready. Make Barao the champion ahead of his next title defense, and let Cruz work his way back towards him. After all, once Cruz finally does make his way back, how fair would it be to stick him in there right away to defend against Barao?

That's a tall order for a guy coming off a lengthy rehab with so many affiliated question marks. Might be better to cede now, and take back what's rightfully his when momentums have had a chance to align.

Versatile Barao makes statement in London

February, 16, 2013
2/16/13
10:30
PM ET
By Matthew Freeman
ESPN.com
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LONDON -- After a night of few finishes, but a number of exciting and entertaining bouts, UFC on Fuel TV 7 ended with a solid submission win from the interim bantamweight champ Renan Barao against Michael McDonald.

Though the Brazilian didn't at first appear as sharp or explosive as he had in his previous UFC fights, perhaps in part to McDonald's speed and skills, Barao turned up the heat when he saw the chance, defending his belt like a true champion and sinking in a bonus-winning arm-triangle choke in the fourth round.

"I'm a BJJ black belt. I know I have a good ground game and I knew he was feeling the pain," Barao said, explaining why he refused to give up on the choke even though his opponent seemed to be fine.

"I learned the difference between where I am now and where I want to be," McDonald said. "Today, Barao was the better martial artist," said McDonald.

While McDonald clearly proved he belongs at the top of the division, troubling the interim champ a few times with his power, it was Barao who really made a statement at Wembley Arena.

Showing a versatile skill set and an ability to evolve his strategy as the fight progressed, Barao's win streak extended to an impressive 20 victories. His submission over McDonald acted as both a proclamation to the rest of the division as well as a sharp reminder for the still injured Dominick Cruz.

"Dominick is terrified right now," UFC president Dana White said. "All you guys have been reporting that I said he's going to have to retire and that is not what I said so I've been having to explain to him what's going on. We're hoping that Dominick will be ready for the summer so he can face Barao. That's the plan."

Barao is a tough fight for anyone, especially as he continues to add to his already impressive set of skills, but it's an even tougher fight for Cruz returning from such a long layoff. There's no doubt it'll be a fantastic clash of styles, but against a fighter as determined as Barao has been to maintain his championship gold, Cruz's return to the Octagon will be a big ask.

Swanson happy just to entertain the fans


Cub Swanson once again showed an aggression and passion for his work against Dustin Poirier as he fought his way to a well-earned unanimous decision. Sporting a pair of shades to the post-fight press conference, Swanson revealed that it's all about the fights at this point in his career.
[+] EnlargeCub Swanson
Martin McNeil for ESPNForget about rankings or title shots, Cub Swanson, who defeated Dustin Poirier by decision, believes it's all about providing entertainment.

"After my injury I realized all this could go away and be over just like that," Swanson said. "I'm not messing around anymore. Every fight I fight like it's my last.”

While many are thinking Swanson's gritty victory over Poirier likely places him near the top of the title shot pile, the Team Jackson fighter wasn't fazed by the prospect.

"I am just happy to entertain the crowd," Swanson said. "I don't care where I am in terms of the title right now. I just want to go in and give the best performances I can and be the best fighter I can be."

It's an admirable principle for Swanson, but in terms of Joe Silva's matchmaking and the fans' desire to see Jose Aldo constantly tested, Swanson's hard work and aggressive instincts definitely have him on the radar as a potential challenger.

A tough night for the Brits



It was not the best night for the British fans and their native fighters. Well, all except one.

While the hugely popular Paul Sass and Terry Etim struggled to mount much offense in their respective bouts -- both losing by unanimous decision for their second straight defeat -- Tom Watson stood up and stamped his mark on the middleweight division.

Displaying a fantastic strategy against Stanislav Nedkov, Watson took control early on in the fight. Though he was nearly stopped at the end of the first round, his reply brought the crowd to their feet. He shrugged off Nedkov's ground and pound and came out in the second with a renewed vigour, employing a brutal clinch game to take the victory deep in the second round.

"People who fight him are scared of him," Watson said. "I wanted to push the pace and show him that I'm not scared.”

After a display that earned him two bonuses, Watson then set about calling out TRT users in his post-fight interview, explaining that he felt too many fighters were using it unfairly.

"You can't put TRT on your chin or in your heart," Watson said. "I've got a big heart and I'm happy to fight any one these guys."

While Watson's opinions chimed with White's thoughts on TRT, it was the British middleweight's rugged and tough performance that earned him the plaudits from the fans and the UFC itself. Watson laid out a marker for the rest of the up-and-coming 185ers.

Bonuses, Bits and Bobs



The UFC once again broke records in the UK, taking an impressive $1.3 million on the gate and seeing 10,349 die-hard fans pack Wembley Arena.

Watson took home honors for both fight and knockout of the night, earning him $100,000 in bonuses. Barao took home $50,000 for submission of the night.

Though there were only two finishes on the entire card, White said that "if the fans are happy, I'm happy. And the fans seemed happy tonight."

As usual, White fielded plenty of questions about more events, including both Brazil and the British Isles.

"Brazil is the hottest market right now, Lorenzo [Fertitta] will be spending a lot of time down there working on setting up the infrastructure," White said, before answering similar enquiries about the UK. "I keep telling you, Garry Cook is the man. He is buttoning up the TV deal here and we're looking at setting up a three-year plan for venues all over the country."

Clearly the UFC expansion is not slowing down anytime soon.

Ronda Rousey wants 'to earn' her belt

February, 13, 2013
2/13/13
12:04
PM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
Archive
Rhonda RouseyGreg Bartram/US PresswireRonda Rousey is bringing her patented armbar to the UFC women's bantamweight division.

She will walk into the Honda Center arena in Anaheim, Calif., on Feb. 23 to defend a title belt she neither asked for nor wanted.

Women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey makes her Octagon debut in the main event at UFC 157. She will face Liz Carmouche in the first women’s bout in UFC history.

Rousey is the defending champion. It’s a designation she isn’t yet comfortable embracing. And who can blame her? The title was practically thrust upon her.

“When they [UFC] brought in the guys from WEC they gave (featherweight champion) Jose Aldo and (bantamweight champion) Dominick Cruz their belts,” Rousey told ESPN.com. “They did that to me as well when they brought the women’s division over. But I don’t feel like I’ve really earned it.

“When [UFC president] Dana [White] gave me the belt, I told him I didn’t want it, I wanted to fight for it. But he said, ‘I’m going to give it to you anyway and you can think whatever you want.’”

When [UFC president] Dana [White] gave me the belt I told him I didn't want it, I wanted to fight for it. But he said, 'I'm going to give it to you anyway and you can think whatever you want.'

-- Ronda Rousey, on receiving the UFC belt
No disrespect to White or anyone else, but Rousey, who was the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight titleholder before that promotion officially folded in January, believes no one can be called UFC champion until they compete and win inside the Octagon.

But UFC is the largest and most successful promotion in mixed martial arts, so when White issues a directive, fighters usually go along with it. Rousey saw no need to engage White on this issue.

While Rousey remains uncomfortable with being labeled UFC champion now, she deals with it. Besides, she has a bigger matter to address on Feb. 23 -- beating Carmouche and keeping women’s mixed martial arts viable.

Unlike any other fighter, mixed martial artist or boxer, Rousey finds herself in a truly must-win situation. If she fails to defeat Carmouche, it’s very likely that every female mixed martial artist will suffer.

UFC created a women’s bantamweight division solely because of Rousey’s success and star power. There is no other women’s division in UFC, and there isn't any talk of creating others.

For now, the presence of women fighters in UFC depends on Rousey’s continued success. She needs to beat every fighter placed in front of her for the foreseeable future to ensure that women mixed martial artists remain employed by the promotion.

Carmouche, and every other female fighter, is determined to dethrone Rousey. But if they succeed, they do so at their own peril – and that of every woman on UFC’s roster.

It’s that simple.
Ronda Rousey
Esther Lin/Getty ImagesRonda Rousey is hoping a dominant display at UFC 157 will validate her status as UFC champion.

Rousey is very much aware of the precarious situation women’s MMA finds itself in at the moment. But she is up to the task of fighting to keep women’s MMA relevant in UFC -- even if it is just the 135-pound division.

“I don’t mind having that kind of pressure on me,” Rousey said. “I feel that the more pressure there is, the more I fight above myself.

“And I like to pretend like it’s going to be the end of the world, the end of the world depends on whether or not I win the fight, because it is the end of the world for me.

“I’m fighting to win, and I’m fighting to keep women in UFC. And I’m not entertaining the idea about what will happen if I lose because I’m not going to lose.”

Rousey’s confidence is infectious. Despite such a heavy burden on her shoulders, she accepts the ordeal with a big smile on her face. She will not be deterred.

How can anyone not support this fighter who carries the weight of so many others on her shoulders?

Confidence, however, isn’t the only thing Rousey that is relying on to get her pass Carmouche. She remains humble. Despite being a gifted athlete, Rousey never takes an opponent for granted. She isn’t looking past Carmouche (8-2).

“[Carmouche] is a very dangerous fighter,” Rousey said. “My last opponent, Sarah Kaufman, was also a former champion in Strikeforce. And was a very good striker, very disciplined. But she was very predictable and very easy to prepare for.

“Whereas with Liz, there are fights when she comes out with flying knees, or fights when she comes in with spinning back fists, or fights when she comes in throwing a right kick followed by a right hook right away. She’s very unorthodox and very unpredictable.

“There are girls who’ve underestimated her before. She fought for the Strikeforce title against Marloes Coenen and dominated [Coenen] for four rounds and made one mistake and got caught in a triangle sent from God and lost the fight.

“She is just the type of person you don’t underestimate, and I haven’t been in the least. I don’t care what people are saying or what oddsmakers are saying, I still consider myself an underdog in every single fight.”

That’s Rousey: never one to rest on her impressive laurels. No wonder she seems to become more dominant with each fight.

Rousey has won all six of her professional bouts by arm-bar submission. She also used the technique to finish all three of her amateur opponents in the opening round.

Her proficiency on the ground might cause some to question whether she is a one-trick pony. What will happen if Rousey finds herself in a standup battle or has to venture into the second round?

“I’m prepared for everything,” Rousey said. “I train to be a mixed martial artist, not to be an arm-bar specialist. I train to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

“The first round actually was always my worst. I used to call it first-rounditis when I was doing judo.

“It’s so funny to hear all these girls say, ‘If I get her out of the first round, I’m going to see the defeat in her eyes.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m just opening up. You don’t want to see what the second round looks like.’”

Maybe we’ll get to see the post-first-round Rousey on Feb. 23. But be prepared; it could get frightening.

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