It's been nearly seven years since Eddie Wineland captured the first-ever WEC bantamweight title, and now at UFC 161, he has the chance to reclaim it when he faces Renan Barao in the main event on June 15 in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The WEC title was re-invented as the UFC bantamweight belt when the promotions merged, and the title has been held by five different men since Wineland last clutched it, but it's something that's never been far from his mind.
Following back-to-back wins over Scott Jorgensen and Brad Pickett, Wineland knew his name could be called to face interim bantamweight champ Barao next. On Monday he finally got the news he'd been longing to receive.
A simple text message from UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby read, "June 15. Renan Barao in Canada. Can you be there?"
It took Wineland seconds to return with an emphatic "yes."
The downside of Wineland's title shot is that it means the "other" UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz is still on the sidelines recovering from two ACL surgeries in his knee. Wineland has nothing but respect for Cruz, but this is a golden opportunity to face Barao for the belt, and he's not going to look at it as anything other than a chance to reclaim the title.
"I wish Dominick the best and I hope he gets better soon. That being said, it's a good thing for me," Wineland told Bleacher Report on Wednesday after his title fight was announced. "Him being injured is good for me, it was always just in the back of my head—how many more fights to do I have to win? My last two wins were over top five/top ten guys and they were pretty decisive. Even the split decision over Pickett, in my eyes it was unanimous but you never know what the judges see."
Wineland knows Barao is the real deal, even if the tagline on his belt still technically says "interim." Still, Wineland has faced the best of the best before and as good as Barao might be, no man is unbeatable.
"He's for sure going to be my toughest fight to date. He's beat the top level competition, he's beat Pickett, he's beat Jorgensen, he's beat [Urijah] Faber, he beat [Michael] McDonald, those are all one-, two-, three-[ranked] guys. That being said he hasn't fought me yet," Wineland said.
"In his last fight, I saw some holes. Everybody has holes in their game, I have holes in my game, he has holes in his game and unfortunately for him I'm going to take advantage of that and I'm going to be bringing that belt home for sure."
Wineland is in a rare position to capture the UFC bantamweight belt so long after he was the first WEC 135-pound champion. The way he's looking at it, the bantamweight belt has always had his name on it, Barao is just keeping it warm for him.
"I took two top five guys and ran right through them. When I first started fighting, Keith Wisniewski was one of the first people I ever trained with and he looked at me and said 'if you want a future in this, I think you can be one of the best fighters in the world' and I thought he was nuts. I thought he was bat sh—t crazy and didn't know what he was talking about. Now here we sit and we're going to fight for an interim belt," Wineland said.
"In my eyes, that belt is my belt. I was the first bantamweight champion, granted it was in the WEC and it wasn't under the Zuffa organization yet, but that trail leads back to the WEC and that trail leads back to the WEC bantamweight belt. That's my belt."
Wineland is going to do everything in his power to reclaim the title and proudly once again call himself the best bantamweight on the planet.
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained first hand unless otherwise noted.
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