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Opinion: The UFC’s Bantamweight Division Needs A Cruz-Garbrandt Rivalry

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 20: Cody Garbrandt (L) and Takeya Mizugaki square off during their bantamweight bout at the UFC 202 event at T-Mobile Arena on August 20, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Garbrandt won by first-round TKO. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

In MMA and the UFC there’s no guarantees. There’s no certainties, there’s no such thing as a ‘sure thing’ and there’s no inevitability.

The best guys don’t always get the title shot, the best fighters don’t always get the billing they deserve, and while at the best of times matchmaking is an illogical science, sometimes it’s as easy as putting two guys  who share a genuine distaste for one another against each other.

Rampage vs Rashad, Chuck vs Tito, GSP vs Diaz, Jones vs Cormier. The most anticipated UFC fights are usually the fights where the opponents involved dislike each other. They don’t have to, and there are plenty of examples that show you that you don’t necessarily have to have two fighters who hate each other to sell a fight, but when the animosity is genuine, and the disdain is real, generally the interest is as well.

The UFC’s current carousel of champions has kept the majority of the organisation’s divisions interesting and compelling, as just as one fighter seems to assert himself/herself as a division’s undisputed champ, they are quickly knocked off by a rising challenger.

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 20:  Conor McGregor (R) takes a punch from Nate Diaz during their welterweight rematch at the UFC 202 event at T-Mobile Arena on August 20, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. McGregor won by majority decision.  (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

Luke Rockhold, Robbie Lawler, Miesha Tate, Rafael dos Anjos and Fabricio Werdum have all experienced just how short-lived a UFC title reign can be, but then there’s some divisions where the champion is there to stay.

Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson looks virtually unbeatable in the UFC’s flyweight division, Joanna Jędrzejczyk has put an incredible streak together in the women’s strawweight division and Dominick Cruz looks as dominant as he ever has been in the men’s bantamweight division.

Cruz is currently 5-0 in the UFC, and after reclaiming the bantamweight championship against former champion TJ Dillashaw in January, the 31-year-old followed up his title win with a dominant performance over long time rival Urijah Faber.

Despite his dominance in the UFC, Cruz has headlined just one UFC pay-per-view in his five years with the company.

Repeated ACL and groin injuries have obviously limited his ability to fight, and therefore his potential to headline, but nevertheless, the San Diego native has never been a big draw in his time with the UFC.

The one pay-per-view (PPV) Cruz has headlined, his UFC debut against Faber at UFC 132, sold a relatively mere 350,000 buys, which made it the UFC’s 83rd highest ranking PPV of all time.

His bantamweight title fight with Demetrious Johnson just four months later drew 789,000 viewers on the Versus network, which paled in comparison to a Jon Jones-Brandon Vera fight, which drew 1.2 million viewers the previous year on the same network.

His title fight with TJ Dillashaw this year did garner a whopping average of 2.2 million viewers on Fox Sports 1, but it was aided by the fact it was shown directly after the NFL Play-offs, and even with the favourable schedule of following the NFL, it still trailed McGregor-Siver on the network, which drew an average of 2.7 million viewers.

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 17:  T.J. Dillashaw (L) greets Dominick Cruz after their bantamweight bout during UFC Fight Night 81 at TD Banknorth Garden on January 17, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The added exposure of following the NFL and a fight of the night performance against Dillashaw still didn’t do anything for Cruz’s ability to draw, as his UFC 199 co-main event clash with Urijah Faber reportedly only drew 350,000 buys, the same amount of buys the pair drew in their first fight at UFC 132.

Cruz’s inability to allure the masses won’t come as a huge surprise to MMA fans, and as seen with Demetrious Johnson who has a similar level of appeal in the division below, there’s only so much Cruz can do.

However, the growing animosity between Cruz and bantamweight contender Cody Garbrandt may bring some added eyeballs to a 135-pound division that has been crying out for attention since its inception.

Amidst a wave of spectacular fights and finishes at UFC 202, Garbrandt’s demolition of Takeya Mizugaki might have been easily overlooked as Donald Cerrone and Anthony Johnson both trumped the 25-year-old’s finish with devastating knockouts of their own before Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz battled it out in one of the UFC’s most historic fights ever.

Garbrandt’s stunning victory over Mizugaki brought his record to 5-0 in the UFC with four wins by knockout or stoppage.

Furthermore, the Denver native has stopped his last three opponents inside the first round, and while he would have gained a lot more fans given the exposure of UFC 202, he’s arguably made more headlines for his altercation backstage with Cruz than he did for his victory.

Cruz, who was working at the event for Fox Sports, had to be separated from Garbrandt after the two crossed each other’s paths backstage prior to Garbrandt’s fight.

SBG Charlestown coach Owen Roddy briefly caught the pair’s altercation on his video blog but Garbrandt’s account of the exchange to the MMA Hour’s Ariel Helwani reveals a lot more than what Roddy could catch on video.

“My response to his critiquing is that he’s a little bitch, first off,” Garbrandt said on The MMA Hour (via MMA Fighting).

“He’s scared. I went up to him before the fight, we walked in, we’re getting security patted down. He was sitting around there. I just went up to him and let him know, hey, I’m going to knock Takeya out and then you’re next. And you should’ve seen how scared that dude was. He was looking around to see if security was going to break it up.

“He was so scared that his voice was squeaking out like a little bitch when he was trying to talk shit back to me. Oh man, it was hilarious. I felt the energy of how scared he was, and he’s a dead man when I lock horns with him. It’s just a matter of time.”

Cruz had a different account of the exchange claiming on Fox Sports that Garbrandt was getting ‘teary’ and that he was upset by what Cruz had said about him in interviews prior to UFC 202.

But even if Cruz is a relatively poor draw, and with the backstage scuffle aside, this is still the fight the bantamweight division needs.

If the UFC aren’t going to give TJ Dillashaw a rematch, then this fight makes the most sense given Garbrandt’s explosive run of wins.

As seen with Anderson Silva, GSP and Jon Jones, being a dominant champion can have huge rewards outside of the octagon, but for whatever reason Cruz’s achievements inside the octagon haven’t made him a star in the same way the aforementioned fighters’ wins did.

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 17:  Dominick Cruz looks on prior to facing T.J. Dillashaw (not pictured) in their bantamweight bout during UFC Fight Night 81 at TD Banknorth Garden on January 17, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

If you can’t be a star through dominance, then you need to find a dancing partner that you can make classic fights with. A Diaz to a McGregor. A Frazier to an Ali. Joker to Batman. Garbrandt to Cruz?

Of course, there’s nothing to say that Garbrandt won’t be the bantamweight equivalent of Daniel Cormier, the uprising challenger who fans and pundits think will cause the champion problems only for the champion to expose their weaknesses with each and every passing round.

Cruz is definitely capable of exposing Garbrandt in a similar manner to how Jones dismantled Cormier, but at least the UFC now has a contender who can not only pose a threat to Cruz inside the octagon, but a fighter who can also help generate interest outside of the cage as well.

The bantamweight division is in desperate need of both, and in Cody Garbrandt the UFC may have stumbled upon their answer.

Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.