TJ Dillashaw asserted his dominance over Cody Garbrandt at UFC 227 on Saturday night, short-circuiting his rival inside a round for the second time to hold onto his world bantamweight title. That win strengthens his case as being the best 135lb’er in history and as such, Dillashaw’s next outing is paramount. Get it right, and he enriches his legacy. Get it wrong, and his heralded run of form – eight wins from nine - could blow up in his face.
A rematch with Dominick Cruz, the former champion who edged their first meeting on the cards in 2016, could be the only obstacle standing between Dillashaw and eternal greatness. After all, Cruz, who has taken the switch-hitting style to the next level, is a legend with scalps over the likes of Urijah Faber and Demetrious Johnson in two UFC title reigns.
In July Cruz announced doctors have cleared him to compete after suffering a broken arm in November 2017. That said, with Cruz returning from a stint on the periphery of the sport, is now the right time for a rematch with TJ? On one hand, fans would flock to a second episode of the rivalry, while Cruz would certainly stir up publicity with his trash-talk and wise cracks. Indeed, as well as being one of the trickiest boxers in the UFC, the Alliance MMA mainstay is a master of psychological warfare who always finds a way to rile up his opponents.
A rematch would not only give Dillashaw a chance to avenge another defeat – which he did against Rafael Assuncao in 2016 – it would represent a historic meeting between luminaries with two of the best fight IQs in MMA. It would be fascinating to see if Dillashaw could catch Cruz like he did Garbrandt, and it would be gripping to watch him attempt to coax Cruz into a brawl.
Moreover, despite Cruz’s lay-off of almost two years, let’s not forget how the UFC granted Conor McGregor a lightweight championship shot despite his 22 months away from the Octagon. It’s clear, then, that the UFC is dedicated to money-spinning mega-fights which put reputations on the line.
There’s another argument that Cruz should be made to wait, though. Five of his six UFC bouts have been for a title and, let’s face it, his last victory was in June 2016 over a shopworn Urijah Faber. When the UFC insists on rekindling bygone confrontations in favour of emerging talent, it runs the risk of stalling the division.
In light of that, judging by form, Marlon Moraes could be the next contender for Dillashaw. The New Jersey-based Brazilian, an explosive striker with excellent timing, is in a destructive vein of form after stopping Rivera in June with a sledgehammer of a head kick. Then there’s Assuncao, another Brazilian, who also deserves a tilt at Dillashaw more than Cruz.
The wildcard, though, is the newly-minted flyweight king Henry Cejudo, who shocked the world at UFC 227 by outpointing Johnson in a thriller full of drama, twists and intrigue. Cejudo – who only made his MMA debut in 2013, a year into Johnson’s six-year reign – is a world-class wrestler, an Olympic goal medallist in that discipline, and both Cejudo and TJ stressed their desire to square off in their post-fight interviews.
Whoever Dillashaw faces next, it’s difficult to imagine the UFC bantamweight landscape without Cruz leading or at least challenging at its summit. Boasting some of the best footwork and conditioning in the sport, Cruz brought new eyes to the division thanks to his dominance in the WEC and the UFC, not to mention his barbs with Faber. His track record means the UFC could justify giving him a chance to retain the title he’s just lost, but make no mistake about it: the race for number one contender at 135lbs is now a close-run thing.
This article was originally posted on The Runner Sports in August 2018