They may not be big enough to ride the rollercoaster at Disneyland, but the bantamweights in the UFC don’t come up short in the Octagon. The banty boys are 135 pounds of miniature mayhem in the cage, living up to their spirited and aggressive namesake—the bantam rooster, which, despite it’s mini stature, struts around the barnyard like Napoleon at Waterloo. With the UFC’s absorption of the WEC, bantam action is already underway in the cage—so, keep an eye on the champ and these eight pocketsized contenders.
UFC BANTAMWEIGHT CHAMPION
Few fighters have the determination of Dominick “The Dominator” Cruz. The Alliance MMA representative earned his nickname as a scrappy kid on the football field. However, his run through mixed martial arts has done much to justify it. Cruz began as a wrestler, but he quickly fell in love with striking. Now, he works both disciplines as effectively as anyone in the cage.
Cruz began his career with nine consecutive wins and put his perfect record on the line when he stepped into the WEC cage for the first time to face Urijah Faber for the WEC Featherweight Championship in March 2007. Faber submitted Cruz via guillotine in the first round and became the only blemish on an otherwise perfect record. An immediate drop to 135 pounds set off a memorable four-fight tear through the WEC that was rewarded with a title shot against Brian Bowles in March 2010. This time, he would not come up short, stopping Bowles after two rounds.
Focused on crafting his legacy, Cruz ignored surgery to repair a broken hand and successfully defended his belt twice. He battled former adversary and Faber teammate Joseph Benavidez for 25 minutes, earning a split decision in his first title defense. He then worked over Scott Jorgensen for 25 minutes at the WEC’s final show in December 2010, picking up the inaugural UFC Bantamweight Championship in the process. Cruz earned three top-10 wins in three title fights in 2010—one of the most spectacular years in history. Putting his hand injury behind him, Cruz hopes a stellar reign at the top of the bantamweight division will continue.
The next step in Cruz’s plan for divisional domination is avenging the lone loss on his ledger. Urijah Faber challenges Cruz at UFC 132 in July. A genuine dislike that was cultivated four years ago during the build-up to their first contest will boil over when the two scrappers meet in the Octagon. For Cruz, erasing the memory of submitting to Faber will also garner him his signature win, while preventing “The California Kid” from achieving a historic second title in a second weight class. The potential victory will bridge Cruz’s reigns as WEC and UFC kingpin and push him toward the five-title defense club in which Faber resides. A forward mentality and free fl owing fight style makes Cruz an integral piece of bantamweight’s budding history.
Urijah Faber relished his poster boy tag as the face of the WEC, holding the Featherweight Championship for more than two years. After joining the exclusive five-title defense club, the UC Davis alum lost his next three title fights. In the wake of adversity, the consummate pro decided his accomplishments at 145 pounds would stand strong as he pursued gold in a new division—bantamweight.
Team Alpha Male’s founder concluded a storied WEC career by leaving Takeya Mizugaki unconscious thanks to a first-round rear-naked choke at WEC 52 in November 2010. That end was another beginning as Faber successfully kicked off his run for gold at 135 pounds. After earning a unanimous decision against Eddie Wineland in his UFC debut at UFC 128 in March, Faber looks for a second title in a second weight class in a major organization—an achievement that only BJ Penn, Randy Couture, Dan Henderson, and Jake Shields have accomplished.
Benavidez is the best fighter in the bantamweight division that won’t get a title shot in the near future. It’s a precarious situation for the Team Alpha Male representative. The New Mexico State Champion wrestler was a judge’s scorecard away from taking the title from Dominick Cruz in a contest he lost via split decision in August 2010. It was his second loss to Cruz, and a rematch with the champ will have to wait until other fighters have been given their opportunity—including Faber, who, if he wins, will not face his Alpha Male teammate.
Benavidez has already run through Rani Yahya, Miguel Torres, Wagnney Fabiano, and Ian Loveland. All he can do in the meantime is continue to destroy everyone in the division not named Cruz or Faber, and there are plenty of guys on that list. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but Benevidez is a champion-in-the-making, and the 26-year-old has plenty of time left in his career to strap gold around his waist.
Miguel Torres knows what it’s like to be “el último hombre.” The mulleted Mexican-American crushed 135-pound foes in the WEC for more than two years, earning the Bantamweight Championship from Chase Beebe and successfully defending it three times before Brian Bowles knocked him out. In his next fight, Joseph Benavidez piled on the problems for the former champion by becoming the first to submit the Carlson Gracie black belt. However, it’s hard to keep a good man down.
Torres has refined his unshakable grit, honing his skills with strategic gameplans that have allowed him to reel of two consecutive victories over Charlie Valencia and Antonio Banuelos. Adhering to the warrior philosophy, the personable Indiana native understands it’s how a champion handles defeat that defines his legacy. Now, Torres finds himself in a contender match versus Brad Pickett at UFC 130 in May. After a decade in the sport, the fan-favorite is eager to leave his mark on bantamweights in the UFC.
An English import rooted at American Top Team, Brad “One Punch” Pickett relocated to Coconut Creek, Florida, after rising through Britain’s ranks. The move has fashioned the Londoner in the mold of his best friend and training partner Mike Thomas Brown. The Cage Rage veteran kicked off his WEC career with an enthralling Peruvian necktie submission over Kyle Dietz. He then knocked off Demetrious Johnson before faltering against Scott Jorgensen. However, he rebounded with a unanimous decision over Ivan Menjivar in December.
Set for his UFC debut versus former WEC Bantamweight Champion Miguel Torres at UFC 130 in May, Pickett has a chance to further display the gritty performances that have endeared him to fans. His fighting persona is straight out of Snatch, but it’s not an act with “One Punch.” Pickett likes to scrap, and with the UFC enjoying an increasing presence in the United Kingdom, expect the 32-year-old former Cage Rage Featherweight Champion to leave his mark on the 135-pound class.
Former WEC Bantamweight Champion Brian Bowles has never heard the final bell in 10 contests. Few fighters can harness the power and submission prowess that the Georgian possesses. The consummate finisher ended a year layoff by securing a guillotine choke against Damacio Page in March. Submitting the Greg Jackson product lined Bowles’ pockets with his fourth performance bonus in his last four victories—three Submission of the Night and one Knockout of the Night. It was a successful UFC debut, reminding the 135-pound weight class that The HardCore Gym representative is one of the division’s most dangerous, when he is healthy. After all, he became champion by becoming the first man to knock out Miguel Torres.
The lone defeat on his ledger was his championship defeat courtesy of Dominick Cruz. There’s no doubt that the 30-year-old will remain a contender as he works to position himself in title contention and settle the score with Cruz. Don’t let the Georgian’s soft-spoken demeanor fool you. He’s anything but soft in the cage.
Losing a promotional debut is never pleasant, however, Demetrious Johnson is someone who made the most of it. Outshined by a televised slugfest between Leonard Garcia and Chan Sung Jung, Johnson battled Brad Pickett at WEC 48 in April 2010 for every inch of the cage. “Mighty Mouse,” a natural 125-pounder, gave up the judges’ decision against the gritty Brit, but not without putting bantamweights on notice.
With a successful UFC debut against international star Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto in February, the Matt Hume protégé has strung together an impressive three-fight win streak that puts his name in the title shot picture. At 5’3”, Johnson bridges size and strength differentials with pure technique and strategy, marking him as a contender that should not be overlooked based on size. Johnson will be put to the test in May, taking on the streaking Renan Barao. It’s a pretty good way to pass the time, as he waits for the UFC to open up their flyweight class.
Another young lion out of the Nova Uniao camp, 24-year-old Renan Barao is on a 25-fight win streak. Sherdog.com named the Brazil native one of their 10 Brazilians to Watch in 2010, and he did not disappoint, submitting Anthony Leone and Chris Cariaso in the WEC.
A killer stare coupled with a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brown belt, Barao has been training since his early teen years when he began boxing. His submission game drags opponents into deep water quickly, while his stand-up comes equipped with ill-intentioned punches and kicks. The polished talent will find himself across from veteran Demetrious Johnson at UFC 130 in May. Testing himself against “Mighty Mouse” will determine if Barao is ready to tread contender waters.
Scott Jorgensen came close to having the best 2010 in MMA… close. A man named Dominick Cruz stood in his way. After rattling off WEC victories over Chad George, Antonio Banuelos, and Brad Pickett, the Boise State wrestling alumni got his chance for bantamweight gold against Cruz. It was a gritty effort, but Cruz negated Jorgensen’s wrestling prowess, and the champion peppered Jorgensen in the stand-up game to earn a unanimous decision.
It will be back to the drawing board for Jorgensen as he makes his UFC debut against Ken Stone in June. If he can string together another series of wins, it won’t be long before he’s back in the title mix. In the meantime, there are a bevy of potential fights to keep Jorgensen’s fans entertained, including a possible rematch with Brad Pickett that is certain to win Fight of the Night.