How Dominick Cruz Killed the King

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC

I cannot relate to you just how rewarding it is to have one of these big fights come off as thrillingly as I could have ever hoped. It seems like whenever I allow myself to get excited about all the possible ways two fighters can match up and I share it with my readership and tell all of my friends to make time to watch the fight, a snoozer comes about. A perfect example is Alvarez versus Pettis: a fight I was dying to see and I made that clear in my article before the bout but that match turned into a slog along the fence where the clash of wills made for a very poor spectator affair. With T.J. Dillashaw versus Dominick Cruz I had pretty much put all of my eggs into one basket, writing a trilogy of articles in anticipation of how great this fight could be and knowing that when switch hitters meet the results are almost always awkward and uninteresting. But after five closely fought rounds, fans were cheering on their feet and we all felt better for the spectacle we had enjoyed. It was one of those rare instances where two fighters were equally matched and the struggle between the two forced the fight into a more intense, exciting, adaptive affair, rather than a gridlock of neither giving an inch.

Now as with any close fight there is a good bit of bickering over the result. Dominick Cruz regained the title in a split decision, winning on two cards. I had it three rounds to two for Cruz, others felt it was three rounds to two for Dillashaw and that is where most of the arguments lie. There's the occasional guy who is still talking about PRIDE rules and how Dillashaw came closer to finishing the fight, but PRIDE is dead, buried, and Shinya Aoki is rolling all over its grave mounted on a fifty year old Kazushi Sakuraba, so that doesn't matter. The actual scorecards of the official judges are worth a laugh, with two of the judges scoring it a shut out for each competitor and only Dave Ginsberg giving a score which at all reflected the fight itself. Fortunately, my job isn't to argue over how fights are scored, my job is to point to what is beautiful and what is not and explain why that is. So follow my finger, this was a good one.

Dillashaw's gameplan was obvious from the start, he was going to move towards the fence (hopefully with Cruz between him and it) and he wanted to catch Cruz darting or side stepping out to Cruz's left. In last week's Killing the King: T.J. Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz we touched on this:

When Cruz throws the right hand he'll escape to his left, and when he throws his left hand, he'll escape to his right. He very rarely throws the right and weaves out to his right or the left and escapes to his left. This means that when you have someone like Demetrious Johnson who will give ground on the right hand, knowing that Cruz will always duck out the same way, it is possible to catch him with a right hook and a follow up:

Nice use of the tattoo here.

But Dillashaw was far less passive in this pursuit than Johnson and instead drove towards Cruz in hopes of forcing him to circle out into the right hook, and it worked pretty well for the opening minute until Cruz got his distance and was almost always too far away to be hit by this hook or even by Dillashaw's right high kick, which the champion ended up running into the ground as the fight progressed.

Cruz was relatively inactive with the low kicks and high kicks which he uses so frequently against less aggressive opponents but as we discussed last week, his wide back-stepping hooks came to be more effective against Dillashaw than against any previous opponent. I would go so far as to say that these, combined with the occasional jolting jab were the most effective weapon in Cruz's striking arsenal for much of the bout:

One technique which is a relatively unsuccessful feature of Cruz's style normally, serving as a deterrent, might take on new importance in this bout if Dillashaw plays the aggressor.

You will remember that it was these sort of wide, back stepping swings which John Dodson caught T.J. Dillashaw with in his only decisive UFC loss (not to mention that Dodson caught Demetrious Johnson with the exact same tactic on several occasions in their first bout as well). Against Dillashaw they will either serve to hurt him if he is over aggressive and off balance, or convince him to sit back a bit and allow Cruz to dance and dart around him more freely.

I really like this one. An almost backwards side step. One I expect everyone will be trying in the gym this Monday evening.

With Dillashaw constantly playing the aggressor and hoping to shift so often, he ate a good few of these long, retreating swings. Cruz's best moments in the fight came as he led with a jab and immediately retreated to connect a straight arm swing or two as Dillashaw pursued him. Where against most of Cruz's opponents they serve as a deterrent, against Dillashaw they served to catch him cleanly, break his balance, and destroy the rhythm and distancing of his combination work.

Also present was Dillashaw's habit of kicking too aggressively and throwing himself off balance as he did so. Dillashaw had his leg caught numerous times and was cracked with punches off of it, and even slipped to the floor a couple of times, as has become a rather dangerous habit of his.

The theme of our Killing the King columns is always that of taking away the A-game, rather than focusing on massive holes which just don't appear that often in world champions. Dominick Cruz's A-game is in the middle of the ocatagon where he can move freely to his left and right, and can retreat. The first way to take away Cruz's A-game is to drive him to the fence, and the second is to get him chasing a retreating target. Rather than standing still and waiting for him—as so many of his opponents have attempted ineffectively—forcing him to commit to coming forward. Dillashaw had surprising success with this in the second round but didn't really go back to it.

The problem for Dillashaw was that in his attempts in the former method—pushing Cruz to the fence—which took up most of the fight, he was largely unsuccessful once he was there. This was because of Cruz's head movement and ability to side step or weave out as soon as Dillashaw threw hands at him. This is where all of those parallels we drew with Willie Pep through the build up to the fight can readily be seen. For many fighters, the excitement of getting their man along the fence makes them predictable and they instantly swing for their man's head. However, the range of motion through which the head can be taken makes it a very difficult target to hit on a well trained and mobile man like Cruz. In fact, Cruz's discipline to find his moment to weave out or sidestep away along the fence is part of what leads some fans to complain about octagon size. In truth Cruz hit the fence numerous times in each round, he just got off of it quick enough for it not to matter. Anyone else: Renan Barao, Urijah Faber, Mike Easton, would have been pushed to the fence or flurried on in that time.

The not-so-secret secret of the ring cutter has always been to work liberally with shots to the abdomen, chest and arms. You cannot duck your body. It is moving on rails along the fence or ropes to the left or the right. If you land the body blow, great. If not you're going to land on their forearm. No-one can circle through flesh and bone and strikes to the guard serve to pin a man in place. To see that you only need watch Rafael dos Anjos start every one of his flurries along the ropes against Anthony Pettis with either a wide left hook to the body, or a left kick to the arm or midsection.  Alternatively, watch Willie Pep himself suffer the winding hooks of Sandy Saddler. Saddler absolutely had Pep's number and if you want to see how to exploit a man circling along the fence or ropes at the highest level, the three bouts Saddler won against Pep would make for an excellent study.

Here Pep demonstrates how much use he can make of a missed hook after being placed in a corner.

But as Saddler began to work with hooks to the body instead, the hook itself could halt Pep momentarily, and the repeated blows themselves rapidly slowed his feet for the rest of the bout.

When Dillashaw did throw body kicks as Cruz was circling out, he had good success landing, but almost every time Cruz would catch a hold and either threaten a takedown, punch him in the face, or simply pretend to go for the takedown and sling the leg past him to escape the fence.

One of the reasons that I always found the Barao—Cruz match up interesting was the main reason for Dillashaw's success in the fourth and fifth round: the low kicks. Not only has Dominick Cruz suffered so many injuries to his legs, his feet are very, very rarely in position to check because he is so active in his long side steps and foot switching. The problem, of course, is finding his legs. When he's doing the shuffle out in the middle of the cage, they're pretty hard to find. But along the fence Dillashaw would have had better success looking to catch Cruz inside the trailing leg as he circled out. Melvin Manhoef demonstrated that repeatedly and brutally as Robbie Lawler circled along the fence.

The most damaging blow of the bout came as Dillashaw took a couple of steps back again and let Cruz come to him. As Cruz planted his foot to attack, Dillashaw threw the kick. We discussed last week how much Ernesto Hoost loved this method and its added dangers when takedowns are permitted. The beauty of it is that when the opponent is throwing his weight onto his foot, he can't pick it up so while it is braced, it is also stuck to the floor as the kicker digs his shin into the quadriceps. This technique can work even better if the opponent is trying to bounce in with a jab or a straight and immediately bounce out again because the moment their weight comes off of that lead leg, it is free hanging and can easily be jarred by an impact.

This is the reason that kicks on the trailing leg as the opponent retreats work so well on mobile men like Lyoto Machida. The same thing worked against Cruz on several occasions.

Dillashaw only landed a handful of kicks, but the single jarring kick in the fourth round changed the complexion of the fight entirely. Suddenly Cruz wasn't quite on the end of Dillashaw's blows anymore, but suffering the force of them. He wasn't able to move as quickly and freely as he used to. Cruz is, of course, tough as a two week old steak but swelling and bruising in the legs will slow a fighter down like little else.

In the last round both men connected almost double the number of strikes that they did in the first three, much to the crowd's approval, but to this writer it was just wonderful to see a crowd respond so well to such a thoughtful and measured match up. Both men landed under forty percent of their strikes attempted, and in several of the round that amounted to under twenty connections per man, but still the crowd adored it as I did. It is so peculiar to think that Cruz's elusive style saw him vilified just a few years ago, but either the crowds have got more appreciative or absence has made the heart grow fonder.

While the result was close there is little to be upset about except for the sake of being upset. Both men showed their vulnerabilities and their toughness, and a rematch seems inevitable down the road with the state of the bantamweight division outside of these guys. The UFC seems to be moving away from instant rematches and I appreciate that so what next? There's talk of Demetrious Johnson and frankly that would be fun, he cut the cage on Cruz far more effectively, but got swung around by Cruz's whizzer when he got to the inside. Though Johnson is not suited to bantamweight and looked to be dwarfed by most of the men he met there. If Raphael Assuncao can get healthy I feel he's past due for a crack at the belt. And if there's nothing better to be done, might as well put Renan Barao in. Styles make matches after all and maybe the forgotten Brazilian champion can put his low kicks to Cruz and surprise us all.

Pick up Jack's new kindle book, Finding the Art, or find him at his blog, Fights Gone By.


Check out these related stories:

Killing the King: TJ Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz

Dominick Cruz vs TJ Dillashaw: On the Existence of Neo Footwork

The Art of Shifting in Mixed Martial Arts