The Forgotten Dominance of the True Bantamweight Champion

Written by @NickRiznerMMA

Ah, how quickly we let recent events taint our memories of old.

Dominick Cruz is the best bantamweight to ever live. This is undeniable.

Since dropping down to 135 pounds, Cruz has gone a perfect 11-0, defeating a who’s who of the lower weight classes. Mighty Mouse, Urijah Faber, Scott Jorgensen, Joseph Benavidez, Ian McCall. These names have two things in common:

They’re all extremely accomplished veterans of this sport. And they’re all victims of Dominick Cruz.

Cruz was the WEC’s last and the UFC’s first bantamweight champion. After winning the title from Brian Bowles in 2010, he defended it four times, most recently defeating the current UFC Flyweight Champion, Demetrious Johnson. Cruz was as exciting as they come, using superior technique and never-before-seen footwork and angles to perplex his opponents. He was a puzzle that no one seemed capable of solving.

“Fighter IQ – that helps for jobs, that helps for talking – but it doesn’t help in that fight. Not really, in my opinion. I didn’t always know everything I know about fighting, and I still went through and won fights. That’s a mentality, that’s a grit, that’s something in your heart.” – Dominick Cruz

In late 2011, following a wave of demand from fans and media, the UFC booked longtime rivals Urijah Faber and Dominick Cruz as opposing coaches on season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter. This would ultimately set up a rubber match with the only man to ever defeat the Dominator.

Unfortunately, in what would become a recurring theme in the years to follow, it was a match that would never be. Dominick Cruz was injured.

He had torn his ACL, an injury that was expected to sideline the champ for at least nine months. However, when his body rejected the ACL that was surgically implanted from a cadaver, the recovery process had to begin all over again.

Finally, nearly two and a half years after his last fight, the champ was set to return with a focus on wiping out the man who had taken over in his absence. Renan Barao, the 29-1-1 Brazilian wrecking machine who had not lost since his pro debut back in 2005, had seized the interim title from Faber and defended it twice while Cruz repaired his damaged knee.

The two were scheduled to meet in a Champion vs. Champion main event at UFC 169 in New Jersey. But again, injury would rear its ugly head, leaving us with another open-ended question of true bantamweight supremacy. This time, it was his groin.

The UFC had waited long enough, left with no choice but to force Cruz to vacate his title and promote Renan Barao to UFC Bantamweight Champion. Barao defeated Faber, marking his first official title defense, but it was the post fight comments of the California kid that foreshadowed a frightening future for the newly crowned champ. Faber pleaded with the UFC to give his teammate the next shot at the title. The UFC obliged.

Enter T.J. Dillashaw.

Dillashaw came into the bout as a 8-1 underdog, viewed by many as a less-experienced version of Faber. Boy were we wrong…

Dillashaw dismantled Barao, scoring a knockdown early and proceeding to pick the champ apart for four more rounds, before finally earning the TKO in the fifth. It was an act that he would repeat in the rematch a year later, cementing his position as the active king of the division.

But Cruz wasn’t done just yet. And the time off had given him a brand new perspective of the weight class that he once ruled. In speaking with Matteo Urella of Boxeo Mundial, Cruz explained further:

What I benefited from the time off is just understanding. I got to look at everybody. A lot of times when you’re in it, you’re so emotionally involved that you can’t really see things for what they are. But when I was hurt and out and wasn’t emotionally in it, I could see things in a different light; I wasn’t connected to it anymore.

Without the nerves, without the anxiety, without the thoughts, without the fears.

The man-who-had-never-lost-his-belt finally returned to action in September of 2014 – three years after his last appearance in the Octagon – and he looked phenomenal. His opponent, Takeya Mizugaki, was riding a five-fight win streak, looking sharp prior to the bout, but Cruz beat him in just over a minute. The champ was back, and the UFC was ready to give him another crack at his title.

But then, the unthinkable happened. During his training camp for Dillashaw, Cruz tore his ACL once again, this time in his other knee. It was his fourth major injury in a row, cursing the career of the most dominant and dynamic bantamweight to ever compete in MMA. Safe to say it was a tragedy; one that would break the mind, body, and soul of a lesser human being. And rightfully so.

But fear not loyal patrons… Cruz’s story would not end there.

That’s something that you can’t expect people to understand. Nobody knows how hard it actually was. All I can do is know it for myself, and that’s what this has to become.

(The time off) helped my brain understand not just where I was – and that I was far ahead, and that was adding new things to the sport that hadn’t been seen – but that people were using it to be effective after I was gone. That was incredible to me, and I couldn’t have seen that if I was in it.

On January 17th, in Boston, Massachusetts – more than four years since he last defended his belt against Johnson – Dominick Cruz will attempt to win his championship back. But to do so, he will have to defeat one of the aforementioned ‘users of his style’; quite possibly the most successful Cruz-imitator out there.

Dillashaw has the power advantage. Cruz has the range and experience. The footwork, speed, accuracy, and elusiveness are toss-ups. Those are questions that won’t be answered until we see them play out in real time. Those are questions that embody everything we love about this sport.

This will undoubtedly be the toughest test of T.J. Dillashaw’s career. Given the mental and emotional hurdles involved, one could make the argument that it’ll be the toughest test of Cruz’s career, as well. And it is an absolute dream matchup for fans of stylistic wars.

This has to become a test with yourself for what I’m trying to do. I didn’t have to come back and fight one of the best guys in the world after another year layoff. The UFC called me and asked me if I wanted a title shot – hell yeah, I want a title shot.

And that’s a test. It’s not like I was like, “Oh, this should be easy.” No. I was like, “Alright, What are you made of Dominick? How good are you? How much have you evolved? How much have you kept? How tough are you? Can you do it?”

You think those aren’t questions in my head? Come on. But I put in the work, put in the time; I put in the energy. Put in the blood and the swear and the tears. And I got to believe and have faith in my toughness because it’s gotten me this far.

Let me be clear. This is a great fight. It’s a close fight. And neither man is outmatched by a long shot.

But to list Dillashaw as the odds-on favorite – to essentially say that he is the man who should win this fight – is a laughable proposition, bordering on an atrocity.

It’s actually a disservice to both fighters, as it undermines the gravity of the situation-presented. Dillashaw is the underdog in this fight. He is the one with the uphill battle and he is the one who should be looked-upon as the David in this scenario. Cruz is the one who has been there. He’s the one who, despite all the injuries that have plagued him over the years, has shown us nothing but dominance in the bantamweight division. He is the Goliath.

Can T.J. Dillashaw win this fight? Of course he can. MMA is the single most unpredictable sport in the world. But in a perfect world, where superiority is rewarded and justice is always served, I’m going with Dominick Cruz.

Every. Single. Time.

[For the full interview with Dominick Cruz and other fighters from the UFC Boston card, please check out Matteo Urella’s piece on Boxeo Mundial.]

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