The following is MMATorch columnist Shawn Ennis’s in-depth review of the Bantamweight Division published five years ago this week…
This will be the first of two parts breaking down the UFC’s bantamweight division.
We’re a bit behind on the Lay of the Land series, as I’ve still got Bantamweight, Featherweight, Lightweight and Heavyweight to write about, but with the recent announcement that Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber will be the next coaches of The Ultimate Fighter on FX, it seems like a good time to get back on track. Let’s take a look at this relatively new division and see what we’ve got going on. And I’ll level with you here – these are tough to do the first time around. I may forget or misplace some guys. If that’s the case, feel free to call me out in the comments. I can take it.
Dominick Cruz (19-1):
There are a couple of polarizing champions in the UFC, but Cruz may be the best example. With his fantastic footwork, unorthodox movement and inexhaustible gas tank, the champion is a tough guy to figure out. No one has done that since his move to bantamweight, and in that time Cruz has racked up nine straight wins. Even Urijah Faber, owner of the only win over Cruz, was unable to solve his puzzle when the two rematched in July of this year. Faber has given Cruz the best fight so far, however, and he’ll get another shot when the two square off after the next season of TUF. And given how Faber looked against former WEC champion Brian Bowles, Faber will give Cruz all he can handle again.
Urijah Faber (26-5):
It’s not hard to figure out why Faber gets another shot so soon at the champion when each man has only fought once since their last championship bout. Faber is charismatic, he’s as big a draw as there is in the sub-155 weight classes, and most importantly he is a great fighter. That was demonstrated most effectively when he absolutely dismantled Brian Bowles at UFC 139 last month. Bowles had only one loss (to Cruz) coming into the fight, and he’d looked good in his two comeback fights since injuring his hand in the Cruz fight. It was supposed to be a back-and-forth battle wherein it was hard to pick a winner. What happened next? Faber dominated Bowles for a round and a half before putting him down and choking him out with a guillotine. Faber looked as good as he’s ever looked against the top of the division (or at least as best we can tell right now). You could make a decent argument that Renan Barao deserves the contender spot right now, but based on resume and name recognition, there’s no contest. I remember seeing a tweet that came out not long after the Bowles fight that sums it up (my apologies to the author, whose identity I have forgotten) – “That’s why Urijah Faber gets as many title shots as he wants.” Indeed.
A STEP OR TWO AWAY
Renan Barao (27-1):
Not everyone who racks up a record of 27-1 is good enough to be in this category. Renan Barao absolutely is. Barao lost his first fight in April of 2005, and he hasn’t looked back since. Under Zuffa employ since June of last year, Barao quietly went 3-0 before making a big statement in the co-main event of UFC 138, where he crushed Brad Pickett in front of Pickett’s home crowd in Birmingham, England. Pickett is a dangerous guy with a well-rounded game, and he’s a top-ten bantamweight. Barao essentially walked through him in the first round, frustrating Pickett with crisp striking before nailing him with a knee and summarily choking him out. The win was one of the more impressive performances we’ve seen from a bantamweight in the UFC, and he can’t be far away from a title shot if he continues to win. In addition to Barao, you could certainly see guys like Joseph Benavidez, Scott Jorgensen or Brian Bowles in this particular category under other circumstances, but unfortunately for that particular trio, while they’re all top ten guys, they’ve all lost to Cruz recently enough to not be considered all that close. On the other hand, any of them would make an intriguing matchup for a guy like Barao in his next fight.
After Barao, the division gets a little tricky. There are guys who are highly ranked and have good resumes, but they’ve all had their shot. I think from this point it’s pretty much anyone’s game to come in and make a statement the way Barao did against Pickett, because the line for a title shot consists of two guys right now in the bantamweight division, and that’s Faber and Barao.
UP AND COMERS
Michael McDonald (14-1):
McDonald made his pro debut at age 16. That’s plain insanity. He’s only 20 now, and he’s one of the most exciting prospects in the UFC. McDonald’s only loss came to Cole Escovedo in Escovedo’s triumphant return to MMA competition, but the defeat would be avenged only a year later when McDonald scored a 2nd round TKO over the “Apache Kid.” You could make a case that he’s a win or two away from title contention, and that may well be true, but I think it’d be wise to bring him along a bit more slowly. He’s young, he’s extremely talented, and he’s absolutely dynamite to watch. A good test for McDonald could be Darren Uyenoyama, or if they’re ready to go to the next level with him, I could see someone like Scott Jorgensen or Takeya Mizugaki after he beats Chris Cariaso.
Walel Watson (9-2):
In his debut on the last Versus card, Watson made quick work of then-undefeated and also-debuting Joseph Sandoval, and he did so in impressive fashion. “The Gazelle” has never gone the distance in 11 fights and seems to always run a torrid pace. He’ll face Yves Jabouin this weekend in Jabouin’s second fight at 135 pounds, so we’ll get a pretty good idea what he’s made of from that fight. I think Watson’s got a lot of upside, but could also be a quick flameout if he doesn’t fight smart.
Mike Easton (11-1):
Something tells me we’re about to see the best of Mike Easton, and that’s a scary proposition for the bantamweight division. After a highly disputed decision win over Chase Beebe all the way back in 2009, Easton was out of action for two years before joining the ranks of the UFC and earning a win over Byron Bloodworth on the last Versus card. Easton started out slow, but dispatched Bloodworth quickly and brutally once he turned it on. I’d like to see how Easton fares against our new Ultimate Fighter John Dodson more than three years after their last fight, though I think Dodson will be at flyweight before long. If that happens before he takes another fight at 135, a good matchup for Easton could be a guy like Charlie Valencia or Damacio Page to see what he’s got. I think he’s got something.
That’s it for now. As I said, it’s not unlikely that I’ve made some omissions here since I haven’t broken down the division before and don’t have quite the feel for it that I usually have with others. Let me know what you think in the comments, or shoot me a message via one of the methods below. I’ll be back soon with the rest of the bantamweight pool. Until next time.