By Hal Estep
The bantamweight division has never really been completely dominated by just one fighter. The bantamweight division’s roots go back to World Extreme Cagefighting. When WEC was merged into the UFC, Dominick Cruz was the champion, and he was awarded the inaugural UFC bantamweight championship.
Here’s where the waters for the bantamweight GOAT get murky. Dominick Cruz defended his championship twice, defeating Urijah Faber and the flyweight GOAT Demetrious Johnson. Those are two incredibly impressive victories. But after defeating Johnson, Dominick Cruz wouldn’t fight for another three years due to several injuries that prevented Cruz from returning to the cage. This led to Cruz vacating the bantamweight title in 2014. Someone had to step up and take the belt.
Renan Barao was the man to take the reigns from there. After Cruz initially tore his ACL in 2012, Barao defeated Urijah Faber for the interim bantamweight title. Cruz would suffer a setback and had to undergo another surgery at the end of 2012. With Cruz sidelined, Barao defended his interim title twice, defeating Michael McDonald and Eddie Wineland. The two were scheduled to fight and determine the undisputed bantamweight champion in early 2014, but Cruz suffered a groin tear in the lead-up. With yet another setback, Cruz was forced to vacate the championship and Barao was named the undisputed bantamweight champion.
Renan Barao was in the midst of a historic run. After losing his first professional fight, Renan Barao was on a 31 fight win streak when he was named bantamweight champion. There was nobody hotter in the MMA world than Renan Barao. His first defense was against Urijah Faber. No, that is not a mistake, Urijah Faber really got this many chances at the bantamweight title. Barao won the fight because Faber is doomed to always be the bridesmaid and never the bride.
Barao was scheduled to make his second defense against Raphael Assuncao, but Assuncao pulled out of the fight due to a rib injury from his previous fight. In his place, a young fighter named TJ Dillashaw would fight the hottest champion on the planet. TJ Dillashaw only had 11 professional fights under his belt at this point, while Renan Barao was 32-1. The odds were not in Dillashaw’s favor. However, Dillashaw would shock the world and TKO Renan Barao in the 5th round to win the bantamweight championship.
If anyone thought it was a fluke, they were mistaken. Dillashaw defended the title first against Joe Soto. This may be one of the least deserving title shots ever. Soto fought Dillashaw because Barao had to pull out of the rematch. This was also Joe Soto’s first-ever UFC fight. Dillashaw dispatched him in the 5th round. But Dillashaw would defeat Renan Barao in their rematch, once again TKOing him. After defeating Renan Barao, a man who seemed unstoppable, twice, who could defeat TJ Dillashaw?
How about the man who never truly lost his title? Dominick Cruz was finally healthy again, and he was next in line for a title shot. Cruz finally had a chance to prove that he was still the top dog, and he was able to defeat Dillashaw via split decision. Somehow, after years of being plagued with injuries and losing his spot at the top, Dominick Cruz regained the championship that he never lost. Cruz defended his title against, you guessed it, Urijah Faber and won.
Cruz would go on to lose the title against Cody Garbrandt. Garbrandt is a talented fighter, however, his claim to bantamweight GOAT status would require a gold medal in mental gymnastics. The fact is that Cody Garbrandt had his best night in his first title shot. It was the best Garbrandt has ever looked, he fought smarter than any time before or after this fight, and unfortunately, Garbrandt has not returned to this level.
Garbrandt’s first defense came against his former teammate, and former champion, TJ Dillashaw. Dillashaw knocked Garbrandt out in the second round and would TKO him in the rematch as well. Dillashaw’s status as GOAT seemed all but guaranteed. He’s a two-time champion in his early 30s, what could derail his career? A loss to Henry Cejudo at flyweight doesn’t effect his resume. But testing positive for EPO would definitely soil his reputation. Dillashaw had to relinquish his title, making this argument even harder than it needed to be.
The bantamweight title’s history itself makes for a great story, but it’s needed to determine the true bantamweight GOAT.
TJ Dillashaw had the strongest claim until he popped for EPO. Personally, I’m weighing the fighter’s resume more than reputation. TJ Dillashaw is tied for the most defenses of the bantamweight championship. In those defenses, Dillashaw defeated Joe Soto, Renan Barao, and Cody Garbrandt. Those are two solid defenses and one unimpressive defense. Overall, Dillashaw is 16-4 with additional victories over John Lineker and Raphael Assuncao.
Renan Barao had a great claim. That is until he faced Dillashaw the first time. Before facing TJ Dillashaw, Barao was 32-1. After losing to Dillashaw, Barao has gone 2-7 in the UFC and is currently on a 5 fight losing streak. Barao has also missed weight in two of his last three fights. Due to these facts, Barao cannot be considered the bantamweight GOAT. He lost to another candidate twice and his most impressive victories are both against Urijah Faber. Barao’s record now stands at 34-9, with his UFC record at 9-8.
Honorable mention to Urijah Faber and Cody Garbrandt. Faber may be the greatest negotiator in UFC history for getting so many title shots. Jokes aside, Faber has only lost to the highest level bantamweights. After a brief retirement, Faber has shown that he still has it at the age of 40. Garbrandt is one of Faber’s pupils at Team Alpha Male and has reached the mountain top before. Garbrandt has struggled recently, but he’s only 28 years old. Garbrandt still has a chance to turn it around and make this an even more difficult decision.
But the greatest bantamweight of all time is Dominick Cruz. Dominick Cruz has the more impressive victories out of the three candidates for bantamweight GOAT. He’s defeated TJ Dillashaw, Urijah Faber twice and Demetrious Johnson. The only argument against Cruz would be that injuries have rendered him as an inactive fighter. That’s a fair point, but using injuries against Cruz would be like using the PED suspension against Dillashaw. I’m not going to do either. In terms of resume, Cruz beats Dillashaw. Head-to-head, Cruz beat Dillashaw. Record-wise, Cruz beats Dillashaw. Cruz is 22-2, with his only losses coming against Urijah Faber in WEC and against Cody Garbrandt 9 years later. Cruz hasn’t fought in almost three years, but he hasn’t called it quits just yet. There’s a slim chance he returns and adds to his already impressive resume, but he does have a history of coming back after years and taking his title back. Henry Cejudo better watch out.
Edited by Emma Moloney | firstname.lastname@example.org