Photo by Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC
The last time former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz was active, mixed martial arts was a totally different game.
Women and flyweights had yet to make their mark inside the Octagon, the UFC was six weeks away from its network debut on FOX, and light heavyweight Anthony Johnson was struggling to make 170 pounds.
Strikeforce was still a very real thing back in October 2011, and Pat Barry and Mac Danzig were both on the active UFC roster. Stefan Struve’s heart was healthy, and Nick Diaz? Well, Nick Diaz had yet to even make his UFC comeback, let alone announce his premature retirement, or his latest plans to return to the Octagon in January 2015.
Professional MMA was a very different sport 1,093 days ago, the last time Cruz competed. The UFC has held 106 events since Cruz thoroughly dismantled current 125-pound titlist Demetrious Johnson at UFC Live 6. New champions have been crowned in every weight class, save the light heavyweight and featherweight divisions, including two bantamweights.
MMA isn’t the only thing that has changed since Cruz’s second successful UFC title defense on October 1, 2011. The London Olympics have come and gone, President Barack Obama was elected to a second term, and George Zimmerman had yet to stand his ground against Trayvon Martin. Even Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, he of crack, booze, and cunnilingus fame, was largely unknown to the world, and Aaron Hernandez was still playing for the New England Patriots.
And despite all of these massive changes in mixed martial arts and the world at large, combat aficionados remain intrigued by Dominick Cruz and his massive potential.
So what will become of Cruz in his comeback fight against a streaking Takeya Mizugaki, after nearly three years away from action? What awaits “The Dominator” inside the Octagon at UFC 178? And how can this athlete, once considered one of MMA’s most exciting talents, regain the form that helped him to 10 straight victories, before a pair of ACL replacement surgeries and a groin tear forced him to vacate his 135-pound title?
A boxer and a wrestler who trains out of San Diego, California’s Alliance MMA, Cruz quickly made a name for himself in the late aughts on account of his exceptional footwork and unorthodox movement. Cruz was never afraid to keep his hands low or switch stances, stupefying opponents with tremendous timing and nearly impenetrable takedown defense. His speed was uncanny, even in pro MMA’s fastest division at the time, and Cruz looked like he might just hold onto the belt for many years to come.
But then, while coaching on the fifteenth season of The Ultimate Fighter, tragedy struck Cruz’s camp in the form of an ACL tear, delaying his highly anticipated trilogy bout against Urijah Faber.
Torn ACL’s were big news in MMA at the time; then-welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre was in the midst of his own ACL rehabilitation, but Cruz opted for an alternate surgery involving cadaver ligaments, and the procedure did not take the first time around.
Like St-Pierre, Cruz would see his title co-opted into an interim form. But while St-Pierre would eventually make his return, some ten months after going under the knife, and reclaim his undisputed championship, Cruz would be forced to vacate his title after withdrawing from a unification bout with Renan Barao in February 2014.
Following his failed attempt at a comeback earlier this year, it seemed very likely that Cruz may never return to the Octagon. And having discovered another talent, as an MMA analyst for FOX Sports, it appeared as though he may hang up his gloves for good, favoring the suits and ties of the broadcast booth.
Luckily, that wasn’t the case.
Now healthy, Cruz is ready to test out his surgically repaired knee, and he’s been tasked with Mizugaki, who has won five straight contests. The matchup has been labeled a tune-up fight by some, assuming that Cruz will jump to the front of the challenger line with a win. And there’s not much to dispute that claim.
Mizugaki is an exciting fighter in his own right, always moving forward and pressuring, not afraid to stand in the pocket and trade combinations. But in a sport where styles make fights, Mizugaki is the perfect opponent for Cruz, who can counter offensive pressure with elusive head movement, fancy footwork, and well-timed strikes. Don’t expect a sudden burst of knockout power or a new-found submission game, but Cruz has all the tailor-made weapons to out punch, out kick, out move, and out point Mizugaki.
And then what?
Well, Cruz never actually lost his bantamweight title; the UFC instituted new language on account of Cruz’s injury, forcing any champion unable to defend their title for a period of more than two years to relinquish their belt. And given that Cruz handed over his hardware, it would be tough to deny him a crack at T.J. Dillashaw and the 135-pound strap. No one would be too upset with that call, well, except for Raphael Assuncao, who is looking for his seventh straight victory on October 4, and has already been passed over for title contention on two occasions.
In actuality, whether it takes one, or two, or three wins for Dominick Cruz to earn a shot at his old title is irrelevant. For a competitor who has been forced to sit on the sidelines for nearly three years, a championship fight is merely a dream, an attainable dream. But returning to the Octagon inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena on September 27, well, that is about to be Dominick Cruz’s reality.
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