Little more than two years ago, big bantamweight bouts were worth getting excited about.
World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) was trotting out its hottest 135-pound talent, Miguel Torres, about every four to six months. The East Chicago, Ill., native was money, turning in exciting performances and spectacular finishes that were even worthy of "Fight of the Year" honors.
His epic, back-and-forth brawl with Yoshiro Maeda was an instant classic.
Rolling with an impressive 17-fight win streak, 16 of which ended early, Torres was considered among the top pound-for-pound best fighters in mixed martial arts (MMA). Fans and critics were buzzing about his skills, even calling for a pay-per-view (PPV) "superfight" against featherweight champion (at the time) and promotional poster boy, Urijah Faber.
Torres was seemingly so good and so electrifying that he was able to get fans to care about fighters in a division, and a promotion, that was essentially an afterthought. He made people want to stay up late on Wednesday nights, work be damned, to watch him compete because they were all but guaranteed to witness a fun finish.
But then, disaster struck: Brian Bowles stopped Torres via knockout in 2009. He'd rebound to win two of his next four fights, but Torres clearly has not been the same since that fateful night in Las Vegas, Nevada.
And neither has the bantamweight division.
Dominick Cruz now rules the roost. He's done so since March 2010, which is when the "Dominator" took the belt from the aforementioned Bowles due to Bowles breaking his hand mid-fight and being unable to continue. Since that time, Cruz has defended the title on three separate occasions.
Cruz is poised to do it for a fourth time this weekend, putting his title on the line against Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson in the UFC on Versus 6 main event. It's the first time ever that the promotion has broadcast a title fight for "free" on Versus. Under different circumstances, fans would be over the moon with such a generous gesture. Watching title fights, typically, requires a $45 minimum cover charge.
Only with the fight taking place just three days from now at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., no one seems to really care. Interest is tepid. Fans are flat. The buzz is bunk. And it's seemingly all because of Dominick Cruz.
Let's be clear: Cruz is a fantastic fighter. He's fast, precise and intelligent. Efficient? Cruz personifies the term. Footwork? Beyond fancy. However, he's not a finisher. In fact, he hasn't scored a true (technical) knockout or submission victory since he entered the Zuffa fray in 2007. Nine fights with seven decisions, one technical knockout win (because of injury) and one submission loss.
Cruz brings a high energy, bouncy, in-and-out approach to each and every fight. Hit, but don't get hit. Avoid takedowns at all costs. Outwork opponents and impress the judges with volumes of strikes (that don't seem to significantly hurt anyone) and stay insanely busy. He never stops dancing. Ever.
This unique style was on display for 25 full minutes when Cruz successfully defended his title against Faber in the UFC 132 main event almost exactly three months from the UFC on Versus 6 show on Oct. 1, 2011. It was his time to shine, showcase what the bantamweight boys were all about to an otherwise uninformed audience.
Cruz, as usual, was incredibly effective. He and "The California Kid" set a furious pace and maintained it from cradle to grave, scrambling, exchanging and moving as if possessed. It was an entertaining back-and-forth battle. Yet despite all the action and attention, in the end, Cruz didn't win over a legion of devoted fans who are clamoring to see him fight again.
Not if the reception for his upcoming fight is an indicator, anyway.
And if he intends to begin to sway public opinion in his favor this weekend, the promotion certainly didn't make it very easy, booking him opposite a very aggressive and takedown-minded opponent in Johnson. "Mighty Mouse" actually wrestled a win away from Torres in his most recent appearance to earn number one contender status.
There were many who believed that Torres actually won that fight off his back, getting victimized by a broken scoring system and inept judges. Had the result been different, we might have a little more to talk about this week. We'd be reminded about all the ways in which Torres has, and can, make us jump out of our seats ... even if he's not the fighter he was two years ago.
Cruz now has that opportunity on his own. A responsibility, really, to shoulder the load for the rest of the division. Lead by example. The stage isn't as big, but it is equally as important. More fans will certainly have access to it on Versus rather than PPV.
He has the chance to provide us with something to look forward to days, weeks and even months out from showtime. Give us a reason to stay in and watch the fights on a Saturday night. Give us something to get excited about.