First of all, many congratulations to T.J. Dillashaw on his unexpected victory over Renan Barao. I'm sure for him it wasn't unexpected, but for the vast majority of the rest of the MMA universe it was a complete shock. So hats off to him.
After completely dominated a champion that was expected to rule the bantamweight division with an iron fist for a long time, the debate of who Dillashaw should face next has been raging. Should Barao get an immediate rematch as that was his first loss since 2005? Should Raphael Assuncao get next considering he was the original choice to face Barao until it was revealed Assuncao had a rib injury? Or should Dominick Cruz get a chance to reclaim the belt he never truly lost as he had to relinquish it due to injury?
First, I want to point out that this is a good problem for the UFC to have. You would rather have to many guys with a claim for a title shot than a field with no one who truly stands out as a contender.
After that though, I feel as though the option should be obvious. You gotta go with Assuncao. It isn't because he was the original option, though that certainly helps his cause in his claim to the next title shot. His 6 fight winning streak helps him out as well which is currently the longest in the division if you are strictly counting UFC fights (Cruz is at 9 if you include WEC). But the fact that he owns a victory over Dillashaw is the biggest trump card he owns over the others. Was it a controversial decision. Hell yes! All the more reason why people want to see it!
I don't know if Dillashaw's performance against Barao was simply the night of his life or if that is the standard we should expect from the newly crowned champ. But his name is hot right now and people want to see him fight. Who better than the one guy who recently handed him a loss? Assuncao's name is as hot as it is going to get right now as well and the UFC would be stupid to pass up the opportunity to strike while both fighters are hotter than they have previously been.
Barao is an easy argument to put aside. He was thoroughly dominated by Dillashaw. It wasn't like he simply got caught by a single punch or an apparent fluke submission ala GSP in his first encounter with Matt Serra or as some would say happened to Chael Sonnen in his first bout with Anderson Silva. From round one to round five, Dillashaw laid the smackdown on Barao and even ended the fight with a finish. What more do you want your champion to do? No one wants to see this fight right now. If Barao can win one or two fights in the interim, I might be interested to see how he adjusts. But not right away.
Cruz is a little more difficult for some. I admit, he never was beaten, so he never truly lost the belt. But seeing as how he still hasn't had his next bout announced, it will have been at least three years since he was last seen in the Octagon when he makes his return. In our society full of instant gratification, you think the casual fan cares about the champion who hasn't fought in 3 years?
That attitude is cruel and harsh. I'm aware of that. But there is truth to it and you know it as well. You throw in the fact that injuries to affect the performance of fighters, especially when they have been put on the shelf for a long time. I don't know if Cruz is the same fighter and neither do you. Rather than grant a title shot to a guy that may or may not be a viable contender, I'd rather give it to someone who has been active and I know is at peak physical condition.
I don't want to throw Cruz into the dump by any means though. I would rather give him a tune-up match of sorts to see where he is. If he looks like the Cruz of old, by all means, give him a title shot! But if he looks rusty and perhaps even losses, give him some time to round into his old form. If we throw him in there against the current champ and he isn't quite where he should be, did he just waste his title shot?
My last argument though comes back around to the title: striking when the iron is hot. And I already said that the UFC should match Dillashaw and Assuncao while both are at their peak. But I want to point out a mistake that I believe the UFC already made.
When Alexander Gustafsson almost pulled off the impossible and took Jon Jones to the limit, the outcry for an immediate rematch was unparalleled. Half the people thought Jones won, half thought Gustafsson won, all agreed it was one of the all-time best fights. But the UFC decided to let Jones dictate what direction he wanted to go as Glover Teixeira was already lined up to challenge the winner. Jones took the route of Teixeira and Gustafsson was told to wait his turn.
Things still look like they are going to work out relatively well for the UFC here. Jones beat Teixeira and Gustafsson beat a game but outmatched Jimi Manuwa to maintain his place at the front of the line. But I get the feeling that the publics temperature for the rematch isn't what it was before. It has cooled down since. Daniel Cormier can be partly to blame and not because he did anything wrong. Cormier has been promoting himself as the guy to beat Jones much louder since he dropped to 205 and backed up his talk in the Octagon with the destruction of Patrick Cummins and Dan Henderson. Now some people are shifting their attention to Cormier as the anointed one to dethrone Jones.
I'm sure that Jones-Gustafsson will still sell very well whenever the UFC decides to throw it together, but I feel very strongly they made a mistake in not (you know its coming) striking while the hype was at its hottest. You hear people say all the time that this is a business and the UFC has to do what is best for business. I don't think they did that with Jones and Gustafsson.
Now the UFC has an opportunity to do what is best for business with Dillashaw and Assuncao. Cruz and Barao can still do more to sell themselves as contenders. Assuncao would have a very difficult time doing so. Strike while the iron is hot and give the next title shot to Assuncao.