The UFC's bantamweight division will reach the ripe age of six months on Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. It's been six months since the UFC absorbed its own sister promotion, World Extreme CageFighting, into its ranks, and both the featherweight and bantamweight divisions have been slowly integrated into the mix. The divisions enjoyed praise and accolades from hardcore fans for years due to the frequency of highly-entertaining fights, but it has yet to make its mark under the watchful eye of Dana White. Saturday night's main event title showdown between current champion Dominick Cruz (17-1) and former WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber (25-4) may change the perception.
The showdown, taking place in the 135 lb. weight class, is the culmination of Urijah Faber's drop to the division after suffering defeat at the hands of Jose Aldo at WEC 48 in April of last year. In his debut in the division at WEC 52, he surprisingly choked out resilient Japanese import Takeya Mizugaki in the first round. He followed the performance with an unanimous decision win over a surging Eddie Wineland only four months later at UFC 128.
Both wins along with the absence of a clear cut contender helped Faber gain contendership quickly. The fact that Cruz dispatched of Faber's teammate Joseph Benavidez on two separate occasions while also defeating Brian Bowles and Scott Jorgensen presses the case. Faber also holds a win over Cruz in a featherweight title showdown that took place at WEC 26 a little over four years ago, just another storyline that's been added to the personal animosity both men have for each other.
The true intrigue, however, lies in the tactical chess match that will unfold in front of our eyes on Saturday night. From all indications, the bout has all the characteristics of two war generals strategically placing their pieces on the battlefield and exploiting their opponent's weaknesses. Cruz has proven to be a paradox that most fighters haven't been able to crack on the feet. His jerky movements and ability to pepper opponents with shots from range while moving in and out of danger has been the basis for his success. His takedown defense and wrestling has withstood some of the best wrestlers in the division, and it's apparent that he's made all the necessary improvements over the course of his career to be a long-term champion.
It could be said that Faber possesses the same characteristics, but he's more prone to bringing fights to the ground and using a strength advantage to overwhelm his opponents. He transitions quickly in grappling affairs, and he can punish opponents from top control with brutal ground and pound and damaging elbows. Therein lies the intrigue in this match-up. Faber will likely be eyeing a ground war while Cruz will hope to wilt Faber on the feet.
In a three-round affair, I think Cruz has enough skill to avoid Faber's ground game and beat him on the feet. Over five rounds, it's a much tougher proposition, especially if Faber's gameplan from the beginning is to press the action to the clinch, cut off Cruz's advances on the feet, and work for takedowns. Adversely, that could tire Faber out quickly.
In my mind, Faber will likely try to take Cruz down early, but I imagine he'll be more reserved in sapping his gas tank attempting submissions of low percentage. If he doesn't see an opening immediately, he'll work to tire out Cruz and eventually take advantage in the later rounds. It's a risky strategy that relies heavily on gaining the ground early. Cruz's strategy is much more one-dimensional. Keep it standing and move, punching Faber as he moves in and out quickly.
My own indecisiveness is a clear indication that this will be a great fight. Logic says that Cruz will be able to utilize the same gameplan he did against Benavidez and stifle Faber, but the added speed and proven ground tactics that Faber possesses at 135 lbs. is too enticing for me to look past. I'll go with Faber via submission, past the third round.