From one point of view a title belt could be considered little more than a trinket.
Years of grueling training and numerous hard fought battles sound like an awful lot of work to put in just to call oneself the temporary custodian of 10 pounds of gold affixed to an over-sized leather strap. Heck, a UFC championship belt won't even hold your garishly bedazzled Affliction jeans up when you go out for a night on the town with all your training partners.
But from another point of view a title belt is much more than just a gaudy, nonfunctional accessory: it's a symbol that the fighter who wears it is the best in the world at his or her weight class; the top dog, the creme de la creme, the baddest of the badasses, or any other adjectival phrase you care to name that denotes athletic supremacy.
Which is why by definition there can only be one champion in any given weight class.
Unless of course there happens to be two. In that case the waters become murkier than the inside of a janitor's mop bucket after he gets done wiping down a bunch of sweaty grappling mats.
Take for instance the UFC's currently muddled bantamweight title picture. If you date his reign from the day he captured the WEC bantamweight title he would eventually carry into the UFC, Dominick Cruz has been champion for a staggering 1,285 days. An impressive feat to be sure, but there's just one problem: the last time Cruz defended his title was a little over 700 days ago. To be exact, Cruz defeated challenger Demetrious Johnson in the main event of the the UFC's final show on Versus on October 1, 2011.
A lot's happened since then. Cruz's last challenger went on to become the inaugural UFC flyweight champion before turning in two successful title defenses, UFC programing migrated to the FOX family of networks, and Renan Barao earned the UFC interim bantamweight championship by defeating Urijah Faber back in July of last year.
Now these interim titles are nothing new for the UFC. In most cases they're little more than a tangible #1 contender's trophy the second best fighter in the division gets to strap around his waist while he waits for the real champ to recover from whatever injury it is that's sidelined him. Interim championships are far from an ideal solution given that a lookalike belt isn't enough to make fans forget who the real champ is, but hey, the wheels gotta keep chuggin' along on the Zuffa promotional machine no matter who blows an ACL.
However, when the rightful champ blows his ACL twice between title defenses it becomes a whole other story. At that point it starts to feel kind of funny speaking of him as the ruler of the divisional roost.
For better or worse MMA is very much a "what have you done for me lately?" kind of sport. Unfortunately for Cruz, through no fault of his own, if that rather unmerciful question was posed to him here in the later half of 2013 the only honest answer he could give is, "Not much."
Barao on the other hand has done, if not a lot, at least enough to justify his current spot atop the division. After defeating perennial contender Faber to capture the interim bantamweight belt, the Nova União product outclassed top prospect Michael McDonald en route to a fourth round stoppage by triangle choke. In all likelihood Barao, who is undefeated since losing his professional debut back in 2005, should be able to defeat challenger Eddie Wineland in the co-main event of UFC 165 later this month.
Putting aside hypotheticals though, Barao's accomplishments have proven him to be the best active bantamweight in the world in 2013. Sure sounds like the very definition of a champion to me. Barao himself appears to agree.
"No disrespect to [Cruz]," Barao said during a recent conference call promoting UFC 165, "but from the moment I won this belt, and I have defended it once, I considered myself the champion."
The main objection to Barao's line of reasoning is based on a maxim first set down by the great modern philosopher Ric Flair: in order to be the man, you gotta beat the man. The logical conclusion to this syllogism is that since Barao has yet to beat Cruz, he can't call himself "the man" at bantamweight.
This sounds great in theory, but there comes a point when continued inactivity on the part of "the man" begins to erode his claim to that loftiest of appellations. Whether the sidelined champ is resting on his laurels while sitting out a contract dispute or struggling through a slow rehabilitation process, it becomes hard to consider him the baddest man on the planet at his weight once he's been out of competition for more time than it takes to earn a master's degree.
When Cruz eventually returns he could put an emphatic end to the current bantamweight title quagmire by defeating Barao. Or it's possible that after two surgical reconstructions of his ACL he's no longer the same fighter who was once so adept at using lateral movement to frustrate his opponents' attempted offense, and Barao will be too much for him. Maybe a peak Dominick Cruz circa early 2010 couldn't beat Renan Barao anyway.
That's all idle speculation though. If Cruz can stay healthy we'll likely find out next year how he currently stacks up against Barao. As things sit in the fall of 2013 though, all we know for certain is that Renan Barao has been the best active bantamweight in the world's premier mixed martial arts organization for almost two years.
Partially by dint of circumstance and partially through his own efforts, the Brazilian finds himself in a position no other interim champ in recent memory has occupied. He may have that annoying "interim" tag in front of his title, but Renan Barao deserves to be called champion.