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Renan Barao might be the UFC featherweight champion today were it not for his close friendship with Jose Aldo, the guy who actually holds the 145-pound belt.
So Barao simply dropped a division and got himself a belt there. On Saturday, he retained the UFC interim bantamweight championship at Wembley Arena in London by submitting Michael McDonald with an arm triangle at 3:57 of the fourth round.
That sets up a potentially massive fight with injured champion Dominick Cruz.
Cruz, though, has had two knee surgeries since he last fought on Oct. 1, 2011, when he defended his title against Demetrious Johnson. His return date is unknown, but it's a good bet he won't be back until at least the summer.
If it's any later, though, it may jeopardize a high-profile match with Barao, who won his 20th consecutive match in the back-and-forth affair with McDonald.
Aldo is set to defend his title on Aug. 3 against Anthony Pettis. If he wins that match, he's likely to move to lightweight. And that likely would send Barao up to his far more natural division of featherweight.
An exhausted Barao pleaded for Cruz to get healthy after the entertaining match with McDonald.
"Dominick Cruz, I'm ready for you," Barao said in the cage after his win. "I'm ready for you."
The public is definitely ready to see that. Barao is 30-1 with a no-contest; Cruz is 19-1 and has won 10 in a row, tearing through a roster of the greatest fighters in the world. He's beaten Urijah Faber and Brian Bowles, two men who have held titles and Johnson, the current flyweight champion. He also beat Joe Benavidez twice.
The only thing holding back what would be one of the most significant matches in the history of the lighter weight divisions is Cruz's health.
Working as an analyst on Fuel TV on Saturday, Cruz praised Barao but said he would present an entirely different set of problems than McDonald.
"I'll tell you the difference: I fight different than anybody else," Cruz said. "I'm not going to stand in front of you. I'm not just looking to counter you, and I'm mixing things up. On top of that, you take away range with angles. That beats range every day of the week. And I can wrestle. I'm going to wrestle this guy.
"I'm not just going to stand in front of him and strike all the time. I'm going to mix it up and keep him guessing. Feints ruin the entire game of Barao, in my opinion. You take away the range by taking away the jab."
Barao had a couple uneasy moments against McDonald, particularly in the first round when the phenom caught him with a left and then a series of short rights.
Barao was dropped by the punches, but his superior size and strength enabled him to get out of danger once they hit the mat.
Barao forced McDonald to repeatedly defend the takedown and that took its toll on the 22-year-old Californian. McDonald got winded in the third and was badly sucking for air in the fourth.
The finish came after Barao flung McDonald to the canvas out of a body clinch. He quickly gained the arm triangle and locked it in. McDonald resisted for about 20 seconds, and twice gave the thumbs up to show referee Marc Godard he was OK.
But he couldn't break Barao's grip and was finally forced to tap, accepting only the second loss of his career.
That set the stage for arguably the biggest fight in the division, provided Cruz gets back before Barao moves up.
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