By Raphael Garcia
The return of Dominick Cruz to the top of the UFC bantamweight division has, in a way, put things "back to normal" at 135 pounds. However, that leaves questions about what comes next within the weight class. Cruz was one of the most dominant champions in the sport before he was hit with multiple injuries, but his extended absence opened up opportunities for others. So if he can stay healthy, he has a number of interesting options for helping the division gain greater relevance in the sport.
The first question for the division, however, is who should be the next man to stand across the stage from Cruz. “The Dominator” knocked off TJ Dillashaw at UFC Fight Night 81, but that fight was not without controversy, and in today's UFC, an immediate rematch is never out of the realm of possibility.
So what about the rest of the division? The first man in question is Raphael Assuncao, who holds a win over the former champion Dillashaw at UFC Fight Night 29. Although he is recuperating from injuries at the moment, he is one potential option for the number-one contender’s position. However, his extended absence from active competition would make it easy for the promotion to overlook him in search of a bigger matchup.
Cruz recently went on the record and said that he would be open to a rematch against the current UFC Flyweight Champion, Demetrious Johnson. Cruz defeated Johnson in a one-sided affair back in 2011 at UFC Live on Versus 6, but since then, “Mighty Mouse” has looked impressive as a 125-pound champion and is working with famed coach Matt Hume. While this may not have the same allure of the bout between Conor McGregor and Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 197, a bout between Johnson and Cruz would bring together two of the most dominant champions in recent history.
Aljamain Sterling. The recent free agent was a Top-10-ranked competitor in the division, but decided to try his luck on the open market. As he searches for a contract that matches his perceived value as a fighter, there’s no telling how long he will be out of competition. However, Sterling presents a dynamic challenge to any opponent, and he has the personality to attract fans and attention if properly promoted. That said, if he’s truly trying to leverage his position in the sport for the greatest financial benefit, he may find himself competing in an organization such as Bellator or ONE FC for an extended period of time.
Beyond these names, the division is wide open for men looking to shake up the ladder. The rest of 2016 offers the opportunity for the UFC to create some compelling matchups in a division that is in need of the attention. Dominick Cruz will do his part as the mouthpiece for the division and its kingpin, but the rest of the weight class needs to keep looking for ways to push their names to the forefront.
UFC Fight Night 81
• TJ Dillashaw vs. Dominick Cruz (UFC Bantamweight Championship): Dominick Cruz def. T.J. Dillashaw via split decision (48-47, 46-49, 49-46).
UFC Fight Night 81: Dillashaw vs. Cruz took place on January 17, 2016 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.