It's been nearly two years since Dominick Cruz last fought, a unanimous decision victory over Demetrious Johnson at UFC Live: Cruz vs. Johnson. It was the UFC's last show on the Versus network, it's first title fight on free TV in 4 years. The UFC had yet to run a single show on Fox or any of its affiliates. What I'm saying is, it's been a while.
In the meantime, Renan Barao has established himself as the new face on the block. He beat Urijah Faber soundly for the interim title, and put a stop to Michael McDonald in an exciting, but ultimately decisive test. He's almost entirely shook off the shadow of Cruz, the true UFC bantamweight champion. Almost, but not quite.
Back in February it seemed that the title was still firmly Cruz's, Dana White spoke on the issue just before Renan Barao defended the interim belt against McDonald:
"I hate taking something like that away from somebody," UFC President Dana White said in a press conference this week. "The way it works in the fight business is, you beat the man who beat the man." (via SportsNet)
The tune remained largely unchanged over the next few months. With Dana and Cruz meeting to discuss the future of the belt, and coming to the mutual agreement that it was a future that included Dominick Cruz as champion.
"We had a great conversation with Dominick," White said on Thursday from Madison Square Garden, where the organization held a press event to publicize this weekend's UFC 159. "He's good, he's feeling healthy. He's training again. He's going to keep his title and when he comes back, he'll defend it." (via MMAFighting)
I'm not sure if anything has changed since their last conversation in April, but Dominick Cruz recently appeared on MMA Prime for an interview, and his thoughts on the belt were much more staid. He sounded like a man ready to let go of his title for the betterment of the division.
"I can't worry about the belt. It's really not my position to decide whether I keep it because I've been injured or whether Dana takes it or whether Barao has it. The belt is there. The bottom line is me getting healthy so I can go out there and do what I do best which is prove why I am where I am today. I'm not here by accident. I work hard to be there I'm at and I'm working hard in therapy to make sure I return to form as soon as possible. That's the goal. It's been a very tedious, tough process.... Nobody wants to wait including me. I don't want to have to wait but I don't really have a choice at this point other than to take my time and come back strong." (via MMAMania)
If he truly has no set time table for his return at this point, vacating the title may be the best option. I've long been a believer that Cruz is the rightful champion and shouldn't be stripped, but the division can't continue to wait on him if he's still unsure of when he'll be able to make a full recovery. His focus on having a long term career is smart, and his approach at this point should be admired. He's not an old fighter, and could have a lot of good years left if he takes the time off to get back to full strength. That may just have to mean coming back without the belt as well.