UFC's interim bantamweight title has become a long-term problem

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

TORONTO – The record books would say that Renan Barao is tied with Glover Teixeira and Khabib Nurmagomedov for the longest active winning streak in mixed martial arts, with 20 straight wins.

Barao, though, hasn't lost in more than eight years, covering 31 fights. A no-contest in 2007 is all that stands between Barao and a mind-numbing 30-fight winning streak.

The record is amazing, even if Barao, the UFC's interim bantamweight champion, shrugs it off.

"I don't think of it that much," he says impassively.

The streak, though, is garnering precious little attention, even as Barao prepares to face one of his toughest challenges when he defends his belt Saturday at UFC 165 at the Air Canada Centre against hard-hitting Eddie Wineland.

[Related: Eddie Wineland relying on more than just power]

That's because so much of the talk about the Barao-Wineland fight is about the status of the belt, interim titles in general and a guy who hasn't fought in nearly two years.

Dominick Cruz is the UFC's bantamweight champion. He's one of the elite fighters in the world and is a bright, insightful guy who has a bright future as a broadcaster when his fighting days are finished.

But a series of knee injuries have kept Cruz from fighting since Oct. 1, 2011. UFC president Dana White said Thursday that he hopes Cruz can fight in early 2014.

If he can't, however, he will be stripped of his belt and the Barao-Wineland winner will become the outright champion.

It's a sad situation, because Cruz has done nothing wrong, but it's a decision that is long overdue.

"It's been two years," White said. "A lot of people think we're crazy for holding up the title this long, but it's a tough thing to do to take a title away from somebody. It's hard."

Interim titles are meant as a way to prevent challengers from getting a shot at the championship when the champion is injured or otherwise unable to defend the belt. It's supposed to be more of a short-term thing, and when Barao first won the interim title at UFC 149 on July 21, 2012, the interim reign wasn't expected to last much longer.

But it's dragged on for another 14 months, with no end in sight. Cruz has tried mightily, but hasn't been able to return to complete health.

No one wants Cruz to fight before he's physically ready, but it's also not fair to those who are waiting for the big payday that a title shot against the "real" champion brings.

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It's not an easy choice. White said he'd consider putting a hard time limit on injured champions, but that comes with problems, too.

Say, for instance, if White said that if a champion doesn't defend the belt within nine months, he'd be stripped. There are a lot of fighters who would not be honest about their injuries and would compete so that they could keep the belts.

The UFC, of course, would have the fighters examined by a doctor, but if the fighter lied to the doctor and said he had no pain, he or she could be cleared to fight even if the injury is lingering.

That is a worst-case scenario for all involved.

But the bantamweight title mess shows the problem with the interim belt scenario. Having two champions diminishes both.

Barao has an incredible record and has run through the best of the class already. He considers himself champion, but he knows that Cruz is out there on the horizon.

"It would be best for me if Cruz was back and I could fight him, because then we wouldn't be having this conversation," Barao said. "But he is hurt and I understand that, so I just have to do what the UFC says is best."

There is no great answer, because stripping a fighter of a title fairly won in the cage should always be a last resort.

[Yahoo Sports Radio: Dana White previews UFC 165]

But challengers deserve their day to compete for the belt, as well.

The best-case scenario would be for Cruz to be healthy and able to fight in early 2014 so that a champion vs. champion match could be held.

But if the knee doesn't allow Cruz to compete, White is going to have to make a decision he doesn't want to have to make.

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