A guest on last week’s “Inside MMA,” WEC Bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz was asked by host Kenny Rice how he felt being a young champion. A soft-spoken Cruz responded, “I think champions are going to get younger and younger as time goes on.” His opinion is an interesting one.
It took almost three and a half years for the UFC to find its first young champion. Vitor Belfort, at 19 years old, became not only the youngest fighter to win in the octagon, but the youngest champion in UFC history. If winning the heavyweight tournament at UFC 12 doesn’t qualify Belfort as a champion however, Josh Barnett remains the youngest, having won his belt at age 24. It may be a good idea to look beyond a list of the UFC’s champions, though, to see just how deep the younger generation is beginning to dominate. The UFC is focused on the heavier spectrum of the scale—looking to organizations more welcoming to the smaller fighters makes it obvious that the most innovation and potential rests in the lighter divisions.
In the WEC, lightweight champions Ben Henderson (26) and Jamie Varner (25) have excited audiences for years. Astoundingly, WEC featherweight champion Jose Aldo is only 23 years old; Dominick Cruz is only 24. Aldo’s deadly mix of precise Muay Thai, stubborn takedown defense, and the enigma of his unseen Jiu-Jitsu game is enhanced by his relentless focus on being the best, without distraction. It is almost scary to consider what he will be like when he reaches his prime. Cruz flustered the more conventional Brian Bowles in winning the title, using precise striking and an elusiveness rarely seen in mixed martial arts. Indeed, Cruz looks more like a boxer in the cage than a mixed martial artist, but he has grown up learning every facet of the sport. His style is his own, and it was tailor-made to be effective, and to confound his opponents. That is the nature of innovation.
Bellator Fighting Championship’s featherweight champion Joe Soto is only 23, and their welterweight champion Lyman Good is 24. Keep in mind these are current champions. Some dangerous contenders, in every organization around the world, are the same age as these guys, sometimes younger. How terrifying will Jon “Bones” Jones be when he is 24? 26? 30?
Just how does Dominick Cruz think he got this far? “I’ve just been fortunate enough to get my mind together and get on top early,” the champion said, smiling. “Let’s just see what kind of work I can do up top, for as long as I can.”
It will be interesting to see what these young champions will accomplish. Just how much they can change mixed martial arts as a sport remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: the younger generation of fighters, whether they are champions now or sitting in a high-school classroom, will keep everyone interested for a long, long time.