UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz

UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz is in jeopardy of being stripped of his title if he’s unable to return in early 2014.  Consecutive knee surgeries have sidelined the titleholder since for nearly two years.

While Cruz recovers, the UFC crowned an interim bantamweight champion, Renan Barao, that defended his title for the second time at UFC 165: Jones vs. Gustafsson on Saturday.

A unification bout is expected between Cruz and Barao early next year, but Cruz could have taken an easier route in his return.  He could have opted for a warm-up fight and given up the title.  After all, returning to fighting after more than two years on the shelf is already an uphill battle.

But Cruz has no intentions of giving up his belt and isn’t interested in a warm-up fight.  He questions whether or not there even is one in the stacked 135-pound division.

“Tell me who is a warm-up fight in the 135-pound division?” he asked during the UFC 165 Post Show on Fox Sports 2.

“I’ve always said I wanted to fight the best guy when I come back.  I’m not lying about that.  When I come back I wanted to fight the guy that’s number one, the best in the world in the division,” he added.

Cruz won the title in March 2010 by defeating Brian Bowles.  He’s on a ten-fight winning streak and doesn’t want to have to work his way back up to the top of the division that he’s already conquered.

“There is no warm-up fight.  Everybody in the division is tough.  Everybody in there has a threat,” he said.

“The difference is, I earned the title.  I earned that position in a line of great athletes, and I want that shot to fight the best guy in the world.  I don’t want to come back and go to the back of the line and have to work up,” Cruz explained.  “I want to fight the best to prove that I belong here and why I have the title.  Why I’m the best 135-pounder in the world.”

Sitting in a studio or cage-side watching the division where he holds the title move on without him hasn’t been easy for the 28-year-old athlete.

“There’s nothing I can do right now, and that’s frustrating for me.  It has nothing to do with being mad at anybody.  I’m not mad at Renan.  I’m not mad at anybody.  What I’m mad at is I can’t go in there and do what I want to do now, right now,” said Cruz.

UFC president Dana White recently stated that if Cruz was unable to return to action by the beginning of 2014 that the organization would likely strip him of the title.  Cruz understands why the UFC would take that action, but fully expects to be completely healthy by the early 2014 expiration date.

“The boss has spoken, has he not?  So the bottom line is he says I need to be ready by the first of the year.  That means I better be ready by the first of the year or they take the belt and Barao fights somebody else for the real title, not the interim title.  I get it,” said Cruz. “My thing is, I’m on track to be back by the beginning of the year.  That’s my goal.

“This doctor is going to clear me.  And when this doctor clears me, I’m going to be able to train full-time.  When I train full-time, I’m looking to be back at the beginning of this year.  I’m putting everything in my life on hold to come back and fight the best 135-pound interim champion in the world.”

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