BOSTON, Mass. — UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw will defend his title against No. 1 contender Dominick Cruz this January at UFC Fight Night in a battle of fact versus opinion.
“T.J. Dillashaw speaks in opinions, and opinion means nothing in this sport,” said Cruz. “I have more time in this sport. I have more fights than him, and I have more fights against higher level opponents. Those are all facts.”
Cruz captured the inaugural UFC bantamweight championship in 2011, but was forced to relinquish the belt after undergoing ACL/MCL surgery, the first of three operations on his ACL. While he was injured, Dillashaw won eight of his last nine fights and defeated Renan Barão for the bantamweight title in May 2014.
“Dominick’s insecurity has him talking right now,” said Dillashaw. “He’s talking more this fight than I've ever seen in the past, and that’s because I’m the one he needs to catch up to. I’m the one with the strap.”
Dillashaw’s expertise is in wrestling, and his skill on the on the mat adds another dimension to his fighting. He began wrestling at the age of eight, and excelled to the point where he received a full scholarship to Cal-State Fullerton.
“Wrestling pushed me into fighting,” said Dillashaw. “Wrestling gave me that edge of competing and dealing with nerves, and obviously having that background to be able to take that fight where you want it.”
Dillashaw promised that Cruz’s words will come back to haunt him. “I’m not the one who’s going to look like an idiot when I win the fight,” said Dillashaw. “He’s the one who has to back up all those words he’s talking. He won’t be able to talk to me in the cage. I’ll be using my hands in the cage.”
Despite all of Cruz’s injuries over the past three years, he found a way to shine outside of the cage as a television analyst for Fox Sports.
“Quiet mouths don’t get fed in this sport,” said Cruz. “My talking doesn’t have to do with any insecurity. I’m confident in my abilities and the things I can do. I know T.J. had to emulate my style for years in order to have confidence in himself and win a title. I’m also confident because, when I speak, I know what I’m saying. T.J. has nothing to say that is factual. The things I speak of come from numbers, statistics, and things from his game that he knows I see.”
Both fighters are in prime condition for this fight. The 29-year-old Dillashaw (13-2) looks to give Cruz (20-1) his first loss since 2007. Dillashaw is one of the most active strikers in the game right now, throwing the most significant strikes landed per fight. Both Dillashaw and Cruz, who each weigh in at 135 pounds, have great cardio and use superb angles, which should intrigue viewers in search of a fast-paced fight.
The great unknown, however, is Cruz. The 30-year-old Mexican-American has overcome three major surgeries. The first, which was ACL/MCL, put him in a cast for three months. The second surgery was purely ACL, and that represented the darkest time of Cruz’s career.
“I was still fighting—being hurt,” conceded Cruz. “I was fighting when I really needed to learn from the injury and accept it. Ultimately, that’s what gave me the peace I needed to get through it.”
Cruz then tore his quad from the bone of his leg while preparing for a fight with Barão. But instead of limiting his abilities in the cage, Cruz explained that the injuries have actually benefited him.
“I’ve lost everything,” said Cruz. “That’s an edge I carry into every fight. I have nothing to lose now, but T.J. does.”
Cruz may have accepted the injuries, but he could never stomach the idea of retiring—particularly since he believes he is still the best bantamweight in the world.
“No disrespect, but I disrespect him,” said Cruz. “I’m the champion and he knows it. He’s good, but he’s not better than me. The things I’ve had to suffer through are the same things that are going to get me through this fight. Three ACL surgeries do not compare to one 25-minute fight. Reads, adjustments, and the mind are what’s really going to separate us on fight night.”
Dillashaw remains confident that his fast-paced, aggressive style will be too much for Cruz to handle.
“I’m going to beat a 100% healthy Dominick Cruz,” said the 29-year-old Dillashaw. “I see myself finishing this fight in multiple ways. I don’t think he has very good jiu-jitsu, and if the fight gets to the ground, he gives up his back all the time. I also see myself knocking him out.”
Cruz claims that Dillashaw’s confidence borders on insanity.
“T.J.’s confidence has stemmed from fighting top-15 guys,” said Cruz. “My confidence has stemmed from fighting top-5 guys in title fights, and they’re fights I won. T.J. lost two out of his four fights against top five guys. One was a decision to [Raphael] Assunção, who was very hard for T.J. to find because he switches stance and moves side to side. ... Who is another guy who also switches stance and moves side to side? Me. I’m a problem for him.”
The gap between top-five fighters and top-15 fighters, Cruz explained, is significant.
“The difference is mindset, durability, toughness, and cardio,” said Cruz. “When you can just out-cardio somebody and break their will, they’re top-15. You can’t do that to a top-five guy. You can also take a punch and freak out a top-15 guy because you took his best shot.
“Look at the Ronda Rousey fight. She hadn’t fought anyone with the athletic ability of Holly Holm. No credit taken away from her—Ronda is the sole reason women fight today and they are improving and evolving—but Holly Holm was the first true athlete she fought.”
The two fighters offer a contrast of styles. Dillashaw is at his best when he is brawling, where Cruz’s success is based off movement.
“I am not just going to stand there and let him punch me,” said Cruz. “That’s what is going to create problems for him. He’s fought statues in his fights, guys who stay in one-dimensional stances and just try to keep their feet still and throw heavy at him. When you see what I do, you see movements. T.J. doesn’t understand the reasoning for it. He doesn’t understand why I’m circling this way to set up a certain movement, he just sees movement.”
Cruz also explained that another major element working in his favor is his coaching. Cruz trains with the well-respected Eric Del Fierro, and stated that Dillashaw’s coach—Duane Ludwig—is merely using the champion.
“Ludwig’s pimping him out,” said Cruz. “That’s where T.J. made a big mistake. They’re paying him to be there, and that is a sponsorship. That’s a business. The Cruz camp is all heart. Eric Del Fierro is one of the best out there, and he doesn’t get the credit because he doesn’t like the camera. He could do my job on Fox, but he doesn’t want the spotlight. He does this for the passion of the sport. That’s the guy I want. But the guy who wants the spotlight, who’s riding the coattails—that’s the guy you’ve got to watch out for, and that’s Duane Ludwig.”
As for predictions, both fighters are expecting victory, starting with the champion.
“I’m definitely going to be champion, but I’m not sure the way I’m going to finish [the fight],” said Dillashaw. “I know I’m going to. The game plan always switches when you step in the Octagon, and that’s the best thing about being ready for any situation.”
Cruz was as articulate as ever when asked to explain if he will regain the title he never actually lost.
“I’m planning on dismantling him,” said Cruz. “If I need to fight for 25 minutes, then I’ll be in his face for 25 minutes. He’s going to miss a lot, and that’s going to frustrate him. I’m going to frustrate him to his death. If it takes me 25 minutes, so be it, I’ve done that before. If it takes me one round, I’ve done that before, too.
“You need to be patient with a guy like T.J. A lot of people try to counter-strike him, but you can’t counter-strike him. There’s a happy medium in the way you’ve got to fight guys like T.J., and I plan on finding that.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.