Specter of Dominick Cruz will hang over eventual champ

Stripped of a title and back on the shelf, what will become of Dominick Cruz?

Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Anytime word comes down that Dana White has scheduled a special announcement, speculation wildly follows. Theories get blasted on to message boards, and Twitter goes crazy. There is a vocal group that lampoons these pre-announcement announcements due to the belief that the news is never worth the hype.

That was the way Monday afternoon began in the UFC. All of the sudden, White was promising news, and the skeptics quickly emerged. But what he actually passed along was enough to sink even the blackest of hearts. Dominick Cruz was injured again. This time, it was a groin, and not the knee that has plagued him for the last two years. Still, it was enough to sideline him one more time, and this time, there were even more negative ramifications to follow.

UFC 169 headlining spot? Gone. Super Bowl weekend showcase? Gone. And, most importantly, UFC bantamweight title? Gone.

The belt is never yours to hold forever, but it is supposed to be yours to hold until losing. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, but in some ways, Cruz had held on to it longer than he should have. When he destroyed his left knee in May 2012, it was understandable and just that the UFC waited for him. But when he suffered a setback in December of that year, the promotion gave him additional rope, even though it had already been over a year since his last fight, and the UFC had no firm indication of when he would return.

Here’€™s the thing about stripping champions: one of the reasons it’€™s a last resort is because the deposed king always lurks in the background.

White later acknowledged that he didn’t strip Cruz because he’€™s a good guy who has always done everything the UFC asked, but he would have been within his rights to do so.

It was on the way to turning out in the UFC’€™s favor. In Cruz’€™s absence, Renan Barao, who hasn’€™t lost for nearly nine years, dominated the division. And so by the time Cruz was ready to return, you had a situation pitting the current monster against the long-reigning champ. From a purely sporting perspective, it was a divisional dream match.

And then the injury.

Here’€™s the thing about stripping champions: one of the reasons it’€™s a last resort is because the deposed king always lurks in the background. He is a specter, a ghost bound to haunt the division.

Imagine this scenario: Urijah Faber, who replaced Cruz in the UFC 169 main event — and that’s a whole irony of it’s own — goes on to upset Barao. Since Cruz beat Faber fairly convincingly at UFC 132, will fans view Faber as a rightful champ? Many won’€™t, and even most of those who do will say it’s with an asterisk, and that Faber will still need to beat Cruz to solidify his legitimacy. Remember, Faber has lost his last five title matches, and this sudden opportunity is something of a gift, albeit one he worked towards with a 4-0 run in 2013.

It’s not quite as bad for Barao, who has a resume that’s second-to-none, including consecutive wins over Faber, Michael McDonald and Eddie Wineland, the last two coming by finish. It’s hard to look through that body of work and find anything to be critical of, but the clash with Cruz was to be the exclamation point on his claim. Now he doesn’€™t get to make it.

Will we ever see Dominick Cruz inside the Octagon after this setback?

By defeating Faber again, he’€™ll be doing something he already did, and in fairly convincing fashion. Faber’€™s backers will point out that he fought most of the bout with a broken rib, but that’€™s besides the point. The break was caused by a Barao knee, which is just another sign of his dominance in the fight.

The Cruz fight was the one that was supposed to stamp him as the rightful king with a win. Now, he’€™ll still have something to prove as long as Cruz remains on the comeback trail. The way to remove an ‘€œinterim’€ tag, after all, is supposed to be by beating the champ.

Ultimately though, this might work its way into a positive. Barao, if he wins, will have a long-range foil, and Cruz, if he so chooses, can take his time and try yet another comeback. At 28 years old, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll call it quits, even though his frustration level has to be at DEFCON 1. On Monday, no one in the Cruz camp was talking. The now former champion did not respond to a message left by FOX Sports, and his trainer Eric Del Fierro said out of respect to Cruz, no one from the team would comment before he does. It doesn’€™t take a genius to guess that he’s got to be devastated from this latest setback.

He’€™ll soon probably head back to the physical rehabilitation specialists that at this point, he’€™s probably best friends with, and the division will roll on without him. But it won’€™t forget him. As long as Cruz is out there working to return, it will be impossible to ignore that he never lost the belt. The belt was not his to hold forever, but it was supposed to be his until losing. He never did, and that fact will stay with us whenever we see someone else celebrating with it. That makes Cruz a specter, a ghost in a division that will remain haunted until his story writes a conclusive ending.