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UFC bantamweight division: A primer on the top fighters

Dominick Cruz was the inaugural UFC bantamweight champion

Dominick Cruz was the inaugural UFC bantamweight champion but was stripped of his title due to a long, injury-related layoff. Photo Credit: Mario Gonzalez

T.J. Dillashaw will be the one wearing gold to the cage on Sunday night in Boston, but it’s his opponent who some may still view as the true champion at bantamweight.

Dominick Cruz reigned as the top-ranked 135-pound fighter in the world for nearly four years, but myriad career-threatening injuries forced him to vacate his UFC championship two years ago. All that time away allowed Dillashaw, a former teammate of Cruz’s chief rival Urijah Faber, to rise and claim the division as his to reign over.

At last, the two will settle who truly is the top bantamweight in the sport at UFC Fight Night: Dillashaw vs. Cruz. The two are similar in style — movement-heavy strikers with good takedowns — and separated in age by just a few months. It’s not often a UFC title is on the line for a Fox Sports 1 broadcast, making this an extra-special treat.

Read on for more on Dillashaw, Cruz and the other important players in the UFC’s 135-pound weight class and beyond, with fighters separated into descending tiers based on their standing in the division.

Champion

T.J. Dillashaw (12-2, 8-2 UFC)

Dillashaw rose to prominence with a stunning, lopsided upset of Renan Barao to claim the championship in May 2014. He then proved it was no fluke last July when he once again TKO’d the former champion.

While Dillashaw’s talent is undeniable and his recent outings have been impressive, his resume lacks big-name victories other than Barao. Adding Cruz to his list would go a long way to cementing his legacy as a dominant champion.

True contenders

Renan Barao (33-3, 8-2), Dominick Cruz (20-1, 3-0)

Cruz is 10-0 as a bantamweight with signature victories over Urijah Faber and current flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. His title defense against Johnson in October 2011 marked his last fight as champion, but Cruz did compete again in September 2014, knockout out Takeya Mizugaki in 61 seconds and reminding the world of his fighting prowess.

Barao succeeded Cruz as champion and has only lost to Dillashaw since suffering his only other career loss in his first professional bout. The former champ has had difficulties with the weight cut to 135 pounds and is considering a move up to featherweight.

Upper echelon

Raphael Assuncao (23-4, 7-1), Urijah Faber (33-8, 9-4)

Assuncao is a perfect 7-0 as a UFC bantamweight, with wins over Dillashaw and Caraway. So, why hasn’t he fought for the title yet? Injuries. A rib injury kept him from facing Barao in the fight Dillashaw ultimately won, and ankle troubles have sidelined Assuncao since October 2014. When healthy, he remains a threat to anyone in the division.

Faber, who beat Assuncao at featherweight six years ago, never seems to truly disappear from the title mix. He’s beaten six of the men ranked in this piece, most recently a decision over Frankie Saenz last month. Thanks to his drawing power and skill, a title fight against rival Cruz or former teammate Dillashaw appears likely later this year.

Muddled middle

Thomas Almeida (20-0, 4-0), Bryan Caraway (20-7, 5-2), John Dodson (17-7, 6-2), Michael McDonald (17-3, 6-2), Takeya Mizugaki (21-9-2, 8-4), Erik Perez (15-6, 5-2), Aljamain Sterling (12-0, 4-0)

Sterling, 26, and Almeida, 24, are the future at 135. Both are unbeaten as professionals and 4-0 in the octagon. Sterling’s resume has a signature win over Mizugaki, while Almeida has earned performance bonuses after each UFC bout. Sterling is shopping around for the best deal, so it’s possible he winds up elsewhere if the money is right.

McDonald’s future is bright as well. He was thrown into the fire a bit too soon, losing to Barao and Faber as a 22-year-old. Now 25 and hopefully past injury woes, he can continue his path to the top of the division.

Dodson is an interesting addition to the division. Both of his UFC losses came in title fights against flyweight champion Johnson. He also knocked out Dillashaw in their The Ultimate Fighter tournament final bout in 2011. He’ll be the fastest bantamweight on the roster and could find his way into the title picture at his new weight quickly.

Caraway, Perez, and Mizugaki are, more or less, upper-level gatekeepers. At 26, Perez’s future has the most to offer, but his UFC losses have come against Caraway and Mizugaki, incidentally.

Best of the rest

Iuri Alcantara (33-6, 7-3), Mitch Gagnon (12-3, 4-2), Frankie Saenz (11-3, 3-1), Rani Yahya (21-8, 6-2)

Alcantara and Saenz, both 35, had bright spots in losses to Faber. Still, it’s hard to see either one making a title run.

Gagnon and Yahya are grappling specialists with limitations that will prevent much upward movement in the division. Gagnon is the better finisher, while Yahya excels at positional control.

Outside the octagon

Eduardo Dantas (17-4, 0-0), Bibiano Fernandes (18-3, 0-0), Marcos Galvao (17-6-1, 0-0), Marlon Moraes (15-4-1, 0-0), Joe Warren (13-4, 0-0)

More than any men’s division, the talent beyond the UFC’s reach is deep at bantamweight, especially in Bellator. Current champion Galvao won the belt from Warren, who took it from Dantas, who in 2013 defended the title successfully against Galvao. Truly, these are three talented 135ers and would further muddle the muddled middle of the UFC if they ever jumped ship.

World Series of Fighting champion Moraes has won 10 in a row dating back to December 2011. His balanced skill set allows him to win in a variety of ways. He, too, would fit in with the Bellator trio around the top 15 of the division.

Fernandes, who holds ONE Championship’s belt, also has won 10 consecutive bouts. His level of competition in Asia isn’t up to par with that of the major American promotions, but he does hold a win over Warren at featherweight in 2009.

Expected upcoming bouts

  • Dillashaw vs. Cruz (Sunday, UFC Fight Night: Dillashaw vs. Cruz)
  • Fernandes vs. Kevin Belingon (Jan. 23, ONE Championship 36: Dynasty of Champions)
  • Alcantara vs. Jimmie Rivera (Jan. 30, UFC on Fox: Johnson vs. Bader)
  • Galvao vs. Dantas (Feb. 26, Bellator 150)
  • Warren vs. Darrion Caldwell (March 4, Bellator 151)

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