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There’s a tendency to overstate the importance of individual fights to a fighter’s overall career, not only in Ultimate Fighting Championship promotional materials but also among fans and journalists. A top challenger in his mid-30s loses a key fight, and he’s never going to get another title shot. A champion strings together a few big wins, and he’s the best ever in his weight class. In truth, the UFC’s style of matchmaking, where the elite is continually matched with the elite, gives healthy fighters continual opportunities to rise or fall sharply. There is an unending stream of excellent matchups but a far fewer number of defining bouts.
A key caveat exists for that general rule: A fighter has to stay healthy in order to take advantage of the many opportunities to prove his or her greatness. Without that health, each fight becomes more and more precious. Another opportunity may not come anytime soon. That brings us to the unique case of Dominick Cruz, the dominant champion and pioneer of a particular brand of speed and footwork-based fighting, whose career prime was thieved from him and us through cruel and unfortunate fate.
When Cruz bested Demetrious Johnson to retain the UFC bantamweight title in late 2011, there was no way of knowing what was ahead for both men. Johnson, the loser, would drop down in weight class and win nine straight fights, establishing himself as the best flyweight in the world and garnering widespread acclaim as one of the sport’s pound-for-pound best. Cruz, the 26-year-old champion with the 19-1 record and no unavenged losses, would fight only once in the next four plus years.
As Cruz now returns to fight for the championship he never lost in the Octagon, there are myriad factors working against him. Most obviously, there are the injuries that have taken their toll. Arguably no fighter in MMA history has been so snake bit. An ACL tear has derailed careers in many sports, and Cruz is accumulating ACL surgeries like he used to accumulate title defenses. He has now torn his ACL in both knees, something particularly problematic for a fighter so reliant on movement.
The fighter who probably compares most closely to Cruz in terms of those injuries is Mauricio Rua. “Shogun” was widely considered the best light heavyweight in the world at age 25, with a 16-2 record and a Pride Fighting Championships middleweight grand prix victory to his credit. He was right around the same age and status as Cruz before he suffered a series of knee injuries leading into his UFC debut. “Shogun” was never the same fighter in UFC that he was in Pride. He had flashes of his earlier brilliance, but he is 7-8 since his pre-UFC peak. Those wins came almost exclusively when he harnessed his always substantial power with a big shot -- a trump card Cruz does not possess. Cruz needs his quickness and athleticism.
Even if Cruz wasn’t a fighter particularly reliant on the attributes most affected by severe knee injuries, he competes in a division where those skills play an outsized role. Cruz is now 30, and no fighter in the history of his division has ever held the UFC/World Extreme Cagefighting title after turning 30, going back to 2006. In fact, the history of the division is one champion after another undergoing a precipitous and sudden fall, from Chase Beebe and Miguel Torres to Brian Bowles and Renan Barao. The bantamweight division is not kind to fighters as they age.
Beyond the general trends, there is also the rather substantial matter of the opponent he has to face for the bantamweight title on Sunday in Boston. There has been plenty of discussion about T.J. Dillashaw leaving Team Alpha Male and his mentor Urijah Faber for Elevation Fight Team and Duane Ludwig, but Dillashaw stylistically is as much a pupil of Cruz as he is Faber and Ludwig. As Cruz hasn’t been shy to point out, Dillashaw has adopted many of the tenets of his style of fighting. As Dillashaw hasn’t been shy to note in response, he has added substantial power to the mix. The result for Cruz is an opponent that many feel is a better, more dangerous mirror image of Cruz himself.
Despite the stiff obstacle in front of him, Cruz appears supremely confident. His trash talk leading up to the fight with Dillashaw has been some of the best MMA has ever seen, and it’s not entirely clear if it’s even intended to be trash talk. Cruz has labeled the champion a wannabe and matter of factly outlined why Dillashaw can’t compare to the master. Whether there is bluster involved or not, it’s quite clear that Cruz remains very confident about his chances in the fight.
It’s understandable Cruz would demonstrate such self-confidence, because he has needed every bit of it in order to continue on. As his body has failed him, he has needed to rebuild himself over and over again. Without supreme confidence in himself, it would be hard to maintain the necessary focus and willpower to spend a significant chunk of a four-year span simply rehabilitating from injuries.
The problem is self-confidence can only carry one so far. One of the principal reasons so many elite athletes struggle to know when to retire is because the psyche they needed to become great finally works against them. Their minds get stronger as they learn more and more, but their bodies are not what they once were. The desire to be the best and the knowledge of how to accomplish that goal is not enough if the body will not cooperate.
It is that confluence of factors that makes this bantamweight title fight so meaningful and so intriguing. We don’t know if Cruz will be healthy enough to compete at a championship level consistently in the coming years. Even if his health holds up, it’s still no guarantee he will be an elite fighter for the next five years. However, none of that matters this weekend. The past injuries are irrelevant, as is the future. All that matters is this one night, where Cruz can prove his greatness against a worthy champion and vindicate all he has said. The uncertainty of the future only makes the present stakes even greater. For Cruz, this fight is everything.