Artwork by Gian Galang
The first rule of fight writing is to never count any man out of any fight. More comes down to matchups than any fighter's previous form; some men are just made for each other and some can put their heart and soul into a gameplan that turns out to be perfect for one night. With that said many are finding it hard to get excited for Urijah Faber in this bout. Faber is good enough to beat anyone in the world at either of his chosen weights but if there is a skill he has not shown it is adaptability. His striking is always the same: he stands with his feet on a tight rope, advances and retreats on straight lines, and looks for the overhand right constantly. He's quick, wickedly so even in his late thirties but quickness is just an attribute. Faber's speed is the most expensive tin of off white paint you can imagine, being applied with a scraggly, busted up brush in a scattergun pattern. Faber's striking game, despite years with a respected Muay Thai coach, has just never become anything more than run and gun.
There is not a hidden code to beating Dominick Cruz, it is the same as against any mobile fighter. Cut the ring and kick the legs are the two main principles. A grueling clinch or body work to slow his feet and head movement would of course be a bonus but the first thing one must do before any of that happens is pressure him. A fighter cannot create pressure in a near circular cage with a tight rope-walking stance though and Faber's heels are almost always in line. It does not serve his overhand well as he still has to step off the line to get force on that, and he does not use his jab so being bladed cannot aid him there. It does serve well for moving him in and out quickly on a line, as a fencer does but means that he falls off balance in exchanges and can be kicked out of his stance by men like Renan Barao and Jose Aldo. Crucially to this fight it means that he has no real hope of moving to either side with any speed unless he can change a career long habit.
Compare Faber's stance to an effective ring cutter's. There are not many in the UFC but Rafael dos Anjos and Chris Weidman come to mind. Their feet are very rarely on a line, they need a foot on each side of their center of gravity in order to drive off and move in the opposite direction. You can test this yourself: have someone whip a baseball at your chest while you try to side step it first from a long, narrow stance, and then from a more measured, wide one. Actually come to think of it, start with the wider stance or you might not want to try again.
Faber's ultra narrow stance also means that when he tries a counter left hook and his opponent does not actually step in, he is thrown off balance by the effort. Against the frequent feints of Frankie Edgar and Dominick Cruz, Faber swung at air time and time again.
Faber throwing himself off balance with attempted counter hooks when Edgar feints.
A nice low kick to capitalize on this.
A right hand across the top.
Then there are the kicks which are rarely a factor in Faber's fights as he does them with such a visible run up that they almost never connect.
A whiffed check hook and a telegraphed run up into a kick.
Changes in Cruz
Despite his long forced absences due to injury Cruz has become a much better fighter than the first time he met Urijah Faber. While his footwork has always been about constant movement it looked more educated against Mizugaki and Dillashaw. Cruz used changes of direction to get off the fence and lateral movement to lead and turn his opponents before stepping in, rather than only using lateral movement to get out to the side on his angling straights or 'darts'.
A beautiful draw and side step to get away from the fence.
Another showing of ring awareness, Cruz breaks the line where so many fighters in MMA and probably Cruz just a few years ago would bump into the fence before realizing how close they were to it.
In our dual Killing the King before Cruz's return to fight T.J. Dillashaw we eyed Cruz with the same approach as any champion: remove the A-game. Cruz is at his best when his opponent is following him around the cage. Two ways to stop that are ring cutting and drawing him forwards. Some of Dillashaw's best blows came as he switched from following to retreating and Cruz, in the heat of the moment, stepped straight in on Dillashaw. The issue is, of course, that if all a fighter does is retreat Cruz will pick up on it pretty quickly and won't play that game. It was the switch from offence to a moment of retreat which saw Cruz step forwards and open himself up.
Dillashaw had some joy with low kicks but failed many too. One of the tricks to beating a mobile fighter in MMA is to punt his legs out from under him but this only works with proper ring positioning and set up. Kicking a mobile guy while he is standing in his stance is just throwing a kick with no set up against a normal opponent.
A fighter who uses his feet a lot will leave his stance a lot and his legs will no longer be a piece of a sturdy base but parts in motion which can be thrown about by low kicks.
Mauricio Rua made use of this to chop out Lyoto Machida's trailing leg as he backed straight up in their bouts. Where everyone else had chased Machida swinging at his head, Rua pumped his hands and got Machida running, before kicking the last thing to leave range.
When a fighter is circling along the fence it is normally best to go for the inside thigh on whichever leg he is pushing off. Robbie Lawler is not a fighter in the Cruz/Johnson/Dillashaw mold but here Melvin Manhoef shows the target we are talking about.
The reason ring positioning is important in low kicking a mobile fighter is that out in the open they can withdraw their leg to behind them. Along the fence they will begin sidestepping and that is when their trailing leg is exposed. Compare Henry Cejudo's effective low kick along the fence against Demetrious Johnson with his failed ones out in the open.
The first is the kind that would easily have Johnson slowing down after a few connections but the second is just a waste of energy.
The great thing about attacking the body and the legs along the fence or ropes is that you know where they will be. They are not as elusive as the head. Willie Pep, perhaps the most mobile man in the history of the ring, was unable to use his fancy feet or head movement to avoid hooks to the body as he circled out against Sandy Saddler.
Aim for the head, miss.
A good time to land a low kick is on the counter. This is another moment when the fighter is away from his usual base. Particularly a fighter who likes long jabs and interesting angles because there is a great chance that his foot will be in a weird position and his knee will be easy to buckle. Some have written off the low kick which visibly injured Cruz in the fourth round of the Dillashaw bout because Cruz said he had a foot injury. To that we can say a pre-existing injury would make the kick more severe, but a kick landing on a leg when a fighter is out of position is always effective and low kicking a fighter who relies on his mobility is always a good idea if you can do it right.
Another noticeable improvement in Cruz's game is his skill on the counter. In the first fight with Faber he would dart in, doing most of his best work with the jab, and then run away while Faber ran after him swinging wild. But Cruz's most recent performance saw him connecting more often when Dillashaw moved in on him. It was those awkward drying pole hooks, thrown with a stretched arm so that they are almost as long as his opponent's straights. These snapped Dillashaw's head around as he tried to close the distance with shifts.
This would be a more compelling fight if it seemed like Urijah Faber could adapt to a different gameplan but he is not a fighter who brings answers, he just asks the same few questions and is still good enough to beat the majority of men in his division. In an ideal world I would like to see Faber square up a bit and actually use a jab and combinations to get Cruz moving before chopping out his trailing leg. That seems unlikely but one area where Faber had success in the first fight which did not hinge on a error in judgment by Cruz was on the exit from clinches. There Faber would connect a sharp elbow or left hook. Faber never had much trouble getting into a clinch early on, running seemed to be enough (though as mentioned Cruz's ringcraft has improved since then), if he were to build a gameplan around dirty boxing it would certainly give Cruz something different and unexpected to work with and mitigate a lot of that time out in the open. What Faber does most of the time when he gets a clinch or a body lock, instead of trying to grind for a few minutes, is immediately jump for the back. This led to scrambles like this in the first fight.
For Cruz the gameplan should be simple: do the same as last time without the attempts to hit step up knees and other things which give Faber the right hand that he has cocked and ready at all times. Cruz's improved ring awareness and craft, and his sharper counters should be able to keep him off of the fence for longer periods and allow him to punish Faber's charges. Dragging a hittable thirty seven year old into the fourth and fifth rounds should make this a fight which Cruz can finish handily. Given the heated rivalry and the respect that Faber still has in the division, Cruz has to know that a TKO or submission in this bout would be a huge deal for his brand.
Faber is nearing forty and there are a handful of far more interesting opponents for Cruz out there, so this match feels like something of a favor to The California Kid for time served. It would be amazing to see him finally win the UFC belt he never managed to capture in this, his fourth attempt, but it's just so hard to see that happening outside of a one in a million right hand or a surprise back take. In any case, if he loses you can be sure that this rivalry will be used to sell a title fight for Cody Garbrandt whenever that seems opportune.
In the meantime watch out for Tom Breese, Max Holloway, Beneil Dariush, Brian Ortega and all the other young prospects, and find time to cheer on Michael Bisping who is also in a title rematch against a man who clearly had his number in their last meeting. Except this time it's at short notice. Whatever happens—and knowing the fight game there are bound to be at least some surprises—get back here Monday for the breakdown.
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