March 15, 2013

Dominick Cruz may be stripped of his bantamweight belt because he's been out with a knee injury for more than a year. (Todd Warshaw/Getty Images) Dominick Cruz may be stripped of his bantamweight belt due to injury. (Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

MONTREAL -- One UFC champion might be dethroned this weekend. And the fight promotion also could soon unseat another champ without him even setting foot in the octagon.

Or because he isn’t setting foot in the octagon.

During a conversation with reporters at the Bell Centre following Thursday afternoon’s press conference to hype UFC 158 -- and in particular, the main event, Georges St-Pierre’s welterweight title defense against Nick Diaz -- company president Dana White was asked if he had any news to share about another of his belt holders, Dominick Cruz. The bantamweight titlist is recovering from a second knee surgery after the first one failed to fix a torn ACL. He has not fought in nearly a year and a half.

White sighed at the question. You could see the wheels turning inside his head: Should I just say, “He’s our champ,” and leave it at that? No, as it turned out, he couldn’t.

“We need to get Dominick into Vegas,” said White, “and sit down and talk to him and see what’s up.”

Here’s what’s up, as far as we know at this point: The UFC created an interim championship, which was won by Renan Barão in July; the Brazilian already has defended the belt once (fourth-round submission of Michael McDonald last month) and is scheduled to put it on the line again (vs. Eddie Wineland in June); and Cruz (19-1), while promising that he’ll fight again, has declined to give a timetable for his return.

Will the UFC strip “The Dominator” of his belt and hand it over to Barão? White wouldn’t say, but even his vague elaboration did not sound good for the reign of Cruz. “He’s our champ, he’s our guy, and he needs time,” said Dana. “But we’re getting to the point now where we really need to make a decision.”

Stripping a title would not be unprecedented. Back in 2004, the UFC unseated Frank Mir after the heavyweight champion was injured in a motorcycle accident. But Mir had won the belt just three months before and had never defended it. Cruz is a far more established champion.  He captured the 135-pound title of the UFC’s sister promotion, the WEC, in 2010, and made two defenses before that organization was folded into the UFC. He’s since defended the strap two more times. Another factor in the UFC’s decision: Dominick was injured in training, not on a reckless motorcycle ride.

This will be a wrenching call for White to make. His business is fueled by championship fights, and no matter how much an interim belt looks like the real thing, the paying customers know it’s a faux honor. Then again, regardless of what Barão is wearing around his waist, would he be viewed as a true champion without having taken the belt away from Cruz himself? And then there’s the human side: Dana aches for the predicament in which his fallen champion finds himself. “This poor kid,” said White. “I’ve never seen anybody with more bad luck than Cruz, man.”

The wretched trend might well continue. But if the UFC does come calling for Dominick’s belt, we’re not likely to hear about it until the deed is done. “Even if I had a decision about him, I wouldn’t say it here,” White told the gaggle of reporters. “He deserves the respect to come out to Vegas and sit down and talk about it.”

--Jeff Wagenheim

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