TJ Dillashaw (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
It hadn't been the most exciting night in the world in the TD Garden on Sunday. Even the official decision in the co-main event between Eddie Alvarez and Anthony Pettis, a matchup that everyone thought would definitely get the arena on its feet, was met by boos as the former Bellator champion edged out 'Showtime'.
The night took on a different feel once TJ Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz entered the Octagon. Finally, Cruz contended for the belt he never lost, and although it had been over four years since he last contested a title bout, he looked like he had never been away.
The crowd were involved right from the first bell and they gasped and whooped as 'The Dominator' situated himself just on the edge of Dillashaw's range, which forced the champion to commit. However, when he did, Cruz would vanish again only to reappear through one of his unorthodox entries that seemed to bewilder Dillashaw throughout the twenty-five-minute showcase.
The roars of the crowd welcomed the new champion back to his thrown as Bruce Buffer bellowed out the result. Cruz's comeback story may have won him more fans than any bout he had ever been in, and the delight of the spectators around the world was obvious from the reaction on social media sites.
There is nothing quite like the crowning of a new champion to reinvigorate a division. After Cruz's split decision win over Dillashaw, the bantamweight bracket is more interesting than ever, in fact, it could be one of the most intriguing divisions in UFC. It's hard to believe the division's current hype given the fact that former champion Renan Barao has upped sticks to the featherweight bracket–a man Dana White once heralded as one of the best pound for pound fighters on the roster. However, as we have learned before, in MMA the landscape can change rapidly.
Both Dana White and Cruz were understandably asked to forecast who the next challenger to the newly crowned champion would be following the bout, and based on the amount of options currently available at 135 lbs, they were probably right to not humor the media's inquisitions.
"I don't know, we'll see what happens," said Dana White when asked by Dillashaw's coach Duane Ludwig if there would be an immediate rematch of the contest. "I don't even know if he's healthy. He's hurt again."
Cruz later revealed that it was his foot that was hurt and not a reoccurrence of the knee injury that had him sidelined for so many years, so it seems that he won't be out for as long initially feared. Ludwig won't be the only man calling for a rematch either based on how close the contest was, but there are still a number of different avenues the champion could take.
The last man to claim a victory over Dillashaw before Cruz, Raphael Assuncao is currently on a seven-fight win streak in the 135 lbs bracket. Working himself into the top five of the division, it could be a perfect time for the Brazilian to get back in there with Dillashaw, who would no doubt want to avenge his 2013 split decision loss to Assuncao.
Another man to put a blemish on Dillashaw's record, perennial flyweight contender John Dodson, has penciled himself in for a return to bantamweight following his second loss to Demetrious Johnson and he is almost guaranteed a top-seeded opponent on his return to 135 lbs. While it is unlikely he will get a crack of Cruz straight off the bat, a win on his return to the division will certainly put him in the title conversation.
At the moment, no one is in a better position than Urijah Faber. An Octagon meeting with his former teammate Dillashaw could probably generate more interest than any fight in the division at the moment. Cruz has openly talked about his dislike for the former WEC champion in the past, which could lead to a third championship outing between the two. Despite not holding the belt, 'The California Kid' could in one of the best positions he has ever been in throughout his career in terms of opportunities, and it will be interesting to see what UFC decide to do with him.
Another reason that the 135 lbs division is so exciting at the moment is due to the young prospects that feature in the bracket's top 15 rankings. Although his future with UFC is still in question due to him opting for free agency, unbeaten Ray Longo product Aljamain Sterling has made waves on the back of his four successful outings in the Octagon. 'The Funk Master' has an ever-evolving skillset that could see him rise to the top of the division, and given that, UFC should try and tie him down for the sake of the future of the division.
Aggressive showings from Brazil's Thomas Almeida have marked him out as a must-see fighter. Like Sterling, he is unbeaten in four tests under the UFC banner with only one of his bouts lasting the distance. From the famed Chute Boxe academy, it would be interesting to see how Almeida's vicious Thai would fare against 'neo-footwork' proponents Cruz and Dillashaw. Should he be able to continue to put on the showings that have seen him climb to number seven in the rankings, the fans will no doubt welcome that kind of matchup should it happen in the future.
Returning to action at UFC 195 in January after over two years of inactivity, Michael MacDonald's second round submission over Masanori Kanehara re-introduced himself to the fold and his 'Performance of the Night' showing earned him the number six spot in the rankings. Having made his UFC debut at just 20 years old, MacDonald has only lost two of his eight bouts in the Octagon, and his losses came against two of the best fighters the bracket has ever seen–Urijah Faber and Renan Barao.