(Munster Mulisha! Pic: MMA Convert)
There was good reason for Jose Aldo to immediately start gobbling up the headlines after the UFC crowned him and Dominick Cruz its newest champions at the beginning of this year. Aldo after all has been known to suspend the rules of space and time during his fights and in one of his two most recent performances, ground the former consensus GOAT’s lead leg into andouille sausage. Still, with all the attention afforded the featherweight champ these past few months, we couldn’t blame bantamweight kingpin Cruz if he were sitting around right now mumbling something like “Wait ’till they a get a load of me.”
Because, while Aldo has been tabbed the immediate breakout superstar of the lighter weight classes, Cruz has certainly been no slouch. His unique blend of evasive footwork and striking has so far been a riddle no one at 135-pounds can unravel. Slated for a second bout with Urijah Faber at UFC 132, Cruz will get the stiffest test of his career during his first Octagon appearance. That bout could potentially see a realignment of the bantamweight Top 5. Until then, here’s how we see the cream of the 135-pound crop …
1. Dominick Cruz: A unique talent, and one of my favorite fighters to watch. Cruz’s combination of attention-deficit-disorder footwork and airtight wrestling have baffled every bantamweight he’s gone up against. Urijah Faber was able to choke him out when they met for the featherweight belt four years ago. Now, Cruz is the dominant champion in a division where Faber is still getting his feet wet. It won’t be so easy for the California Kid next time.
2. Joseph Benavidez: While in the WEC, Benavidez submitted Miguel Torres and Wagnney Fabiano, knocked out Rani Yahya, and outpointed Jeff Curran and Ian Loveland. But since he’s also eaten two losses against Cruz, and counts Faber as a Team Alpha Male training partner, it might be a long, long time until he gets another shot at the belt.
3. Urijah Faber: Faber has looked reinvigorated at 135, choking Takeya Mizugaki nearly to death, and dominating a resurgent Eddie Wineland. I hate to rank a dude based mostly on his potential in the division. Then again, Brian Bowles has only scored one win in the last 18 months, and I still haven’t forgotten that Bowles kicked Torres’s ass, so…here we are.
4. Brian Bowles: After a bad night against Dominick Cruz and a subsequent foot injury, the former bantamweight champ began to fall off our radar a bit. His first-round submission over Damacio Page in his return fight at “UFC on Versus 3″ showed why he should still be considered an elite 135′er. Plus, it’s hard not to like a guy who has a 100 percent finishing ratio in his victories.
5. Miguel Torres: In one of the most dramatic shifts-of-style in MMA history, Torres has morphed from an inventive and crowd-pleasing tornado of ass-kicking to…well, a guy who jabs a lot. It’s not a thrill to watch, but it’s pulled him out of his losing streak — and now I’m curious to see how he’d do in rematches against Bowles and Benavidez.
1. Dominick Cruz: The 25-year-old champion may well be the sport’s “most improved” since cutting to bantamweight after that loss to Faber back in 2007. He was so maddeningly elusive and effective against Scott Jorgensen in December that it reduced befuddled Jorgensen cornerman Joe Warren to yelling totally helpful stuff like, “Grab a hold of him!” and “Just get him down, Scott!” Cruz’s style must be one of the most difficult to prepare for and as such a relative youngster, you get the feeling he’s going to be here for a minute.
2. Urijah Faber: I think a well-publicized and protracted Cruz-Faber feud would be just what the shady ringside doctor ordered to vault the 135-pounders into the mainstream consciousness of the MMA world. Given Faber’s early troubles putting Eddie Wineland on his back though, I’m going on record saying I think Cruz wins this rematch, if and when it happens.
3. Joseph Benavidez: Yeah, it stinks that Benavidez is shaping up as the bantamweight answer to Jon Fitch, meaning he can beat everybody in the division except the guy with the belt. As BG mentioned, he’s already lost twice to Cruz and with his teammate Faber likely getting the next shot, it’ll be hurry up and wait time for Benavidez for the foreseeable future.
4. Miguel Torres: Logically, this is probably too high to rank Torres right now, but I can’t shake the memories of him ruling the division with extreme prejudice from 2007-09. He’ll take another step in the rebuilding process against Brad Pickett at UFC 130 and then it would be nice to see him get back in there with some top 5 competition. A fight against Faber would be a big-seller, but I too would like to see him rematch Benavidez and Bowles post haste.
5. Brian Bowles: You don’t like to see anybody lose the title due to injury, as Bowles (broken hand) did against Cruz back at WEC 47. Now that he’s back, he likely needs one or two more wins against someone of the Ian Loveland-Eddie Wineland- Takeya Mizugaki variety before he looks like a full-on top contender again.
1. Dominick Cruz: Cruz is as dynamic a fighter as anyone in the division, which is crazy since he only made his pro debut three years ago. A dangerous opponent, he can knock you out or tap you out, which is something that a lot of the division’s top fighters can’t claim. An inevitable rematch against Urijah Faber — the only man who ever beat the former WEC 135-pound champ — is happening at UFC 132. After that we’ll know just how legit this kid is.
2. Joseph Benavidez: Benavidez came very close to beating Cruz in August at WEC 50, but he couldn’t seem to pull the trigger in any given round. If he can go back to finishing fights and not leave his fate up to the judges, he could easily be champ one day.
3. Urijah Faber: Faber’s stock has dropped considerably in the past two years thanks to a trio of losses to Mike Brown (x2) and Jose Aldo. He seems to have found his groove again at 135, but whether or not at 31 he has what it takes to be champ again remains to be seen.
4. Brian Bowles: In spite of his loss to Cruz at WEC 47, Bowles’ pair of first-round finishes over Miguel Torres and Damacio Page kept his spot in the top 5. A win over another touted bantamweight will help him get back into title contention.
5. Miguel Torres: Two years ago Miguel Torres was the Jose Aldo of the division; now he’s the Sean Sherk (minus the steroid allegations, T-Rex arms and chronic injuries). With the glut of young fighters looking to make a name out of the former champ, Torres better hope that the switch in camps to TriStar in Montreal helps him get back on track or he can expect to hear the term “gatekeeper” uttered in the majority of his interviews for the indeterminate future.
On the cusp: Scott Jorgensen, Eddie Wineland, Demetrius Johnson, Michael McDonald.