Bantamweight champ honored by opportunity to introduce division to new audience
For some fight fans, the only organization that matters is the UFC.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship established themselves as the dominant force in the sport prior to the fall of Pride, and has since bolstered that standing in recent years. As it stands now, the Las Vegas-based operation is like Secretariat in the ’73 Kentucky Derby; they’re so far ahead of the pack that you think they’re running alone. But up until December, there was a collection of elite fighters competing outside the UFC Octagon.
Prior to their merger with the WEC, featherweights and bantamweights weren’t on the casual fight fan’s radar. Even now that the two divisions have become a part of the leading organization in the world, many fans are still unable to identify the marquee talents in those divisions.
That’s about to change for the bantamweight ranks this weekend, as champion Dominick Cruz defends his 135 pound title against his nemesis Urijah Faber in the main event of UFC 132. While the heated rivalry between the two is a major storyline heading into the weekend, Cruz prefers to focus on the impact this fight can have for the lighter weight classes and his fellow WEC alumni, rather than his rivalry with “The California Kid.”
“It’s just good for the division to have a fight like this. I’m excited for a big fight like this to happen for the division,” offered Cruz prior to departing for Las Vegas last week. “We need a top level fight like this to show what we can do, and more than anything (for me), to show what I can do. That’s what I’m excited for.”
Like many smaller promotions, the WEC had its fair share of loyal followers, with hardcore fans always extolling the merits of the sport’s mighty mites to the oblivious masses. But for many, the reality of the sport is that you haven’t really arrived until you’ve stepped inside the Octagon, a belief Cruz reluctantly accepts.
“Anybody who followed the WEC knows what we have to offer. But, I hate to say it, more people didn’t follow it than followed it from what I’ve noticed. It’s almost like the 135 and 145 pound divisions have so much to prove because even though we’ve been around all these years, putting in all this work, we really don’t have all that much to show for it.
“Because the UFC is such a dominating force, unless you fight in the UFC, nobody cares about what you’ve done. When I say that nobody cares, I mean the general fan base. Anybody who is very deep into MMA and anybody who is a full-fledged MMA fan knows what we have done — the 135 pound and 145 pound divisions — and they know how exciting the fights that the WEC put on (were). I’m talking about the general public; nonchalant MMA fans. They’re about to learn a lot about the lighter divisions.”
The introductory lesson to the lighter weight classes began in earnest at UFC 129. That night in Toronto, featherweight champion Jose Aldo and Canadian challenger Mark Hominick stole the show with their Fight of the Night-winning five round battle. It was featherweight 101.
This weekend, it’s time for bantamweight 101, with Cruz and Faber stepping it up a notch as the first former WEC fighters to headline a UFC pay-per-view event. There may not be a pair more deserving of the honor.
Throughout his time in the WEC, Faber was the face of the franchise; the charismatic standout who endured as the top draw even after he lost the featherweight title. In the midst of his title run in the 145 pound division, Faber handed Cruz the first and only loss of his career.
Cruz dropped to bantamweight following the loss to Faber and hasn’t looked back since. He’s won seven straight fights at 135 pounds, and reached the division’s summit in March 2010 when he defeated Brian Bowles to claim the belt he defends on Saturday.
Not only are Cruz and Faber a fitting pair in terms of their achievements in the cage, but the animosity between the two is befitting a grand stage as well.
During the build-up to their first meeting, Cruz took offense to not being featured on the event poster. To make his presence felt, he scrawled his signature on Faber’s face, over and over. The tension jumped off from there and endures to this day.
Though the 25-year-old defending champion tried to keep the focus of this fight on the impact it has for the division, he did allow his feelings about facing Faber to creep through for a minute.
“More than anything, it’s just going to be good to shut him up. I’m tired of hearing him talk, do you know what I mean? There’s really not much else to say. It’s just going to be good to shut him up and maybe humble him a little bit. I’m tired of his big head and his big talking.”
One of Faber’s main talking points has been Cruz’s style of fighting. The former featherweight champion has been critical of his opponent’s approach and he’s not alone; many fans and media alike have derided Cruz’s tactics in the cage.
The bantamweight champ is in constant, unconventional motion inside the cage. He flashes in, lands two, three, four strikes and backs out of range of his opponent’s attack, sticking to the strategy throughout, but never repeating the same pattern of attacks twice.
Some critics have labeled his approach “point fighting,” slandering his style as if his approach is a lesser form of offense. Cruz has heard the criticism through his rise to the top, and has a message for those that don’t like his style.