Fluid and changing direction. And hard to know where it’s going.
That’s one way to describe the relentless movement inside the Octagon of Dominick Cruz, which, despite having been stilled for the better part of four years, was potent enough on Sunday night in Boston to propel him past T.J. Dillashaw for a second reign as UFC bantamweight champion.
Those evocative words also could be used to depict a couple of other relevant matters: the scoring possibilities as the title fight wore on before the 12,022 assembled at TD Garden, and the status of the 135-pound weight class moving forward … or moving in some still-to-be-determined direction.
Amid so many variables, one thing rings true: Cruz (21-1) is as interesting a character as the sport of mixed martial arts has seen.
There’s the painful back story of the 30-year-old’s resilience through two surgeries on the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, then one on the ACL in his right knee, plus the cruel groin tear that stalled his first comeback and got him stripped of his belt. When that initial return finally came, Cruz exploded upon a Top 10 opponent and finished him so swiftly—61 seconds—that we didn’t really get a chance to assess whether he still had his old skills and artistry.
On Sunday night, we saw the entire palette, and it was in Technicolor.
Cruz likes to characterize himself as someone who doesn’t get hit. That’s hyperbole in the fight game, because this is the getting-hit business. But “The Dominator” fares about as well as anyone has in dodging damage. According to FightMetric statistics, Cruz avoids 76% of his opponents’ strike attempts, making him among the most untouchable fighters in UFC history.
Dillashaw (12-3), by contrast, is among the most prolific strikers the sport has seen, regularly surpassing 100 significant strikes in his bouts. To do so against Cruz, he had to throw a lot—he launched 408 strike attempts and connected with 109, just 26% accuracy—and found most of his success with leg and body kicks. When he targeted his challenger with power punches, what he mostly produced was wind power.
For much of their 25 minutes inside the Octagon, it was Dominick the matador sidestepping T.J. the bull. Olé!
Yet because Cruz wasn’t landing many more strikes, and because his didn’t have quite as much behind them as Dillashaw did, it was challenging to assess who was truly getting the better of things. So in the end we had a split decision, with judge Sal D’Amato seeing the fight for Dillashaw but Tony Weeks (49-46) and Dave Ginsburg (48-47) outvoting him. So that brought the announcement: And new champion …
The scorecards revealed judging so split that only one round saw unanimity. That was Round 2, which went to Cruz on all three cards. D’Amato and Weeks scored the first round for Cruz, while Ginsburg saw it for Dillashaw. Ginsburg and Weeks gave the defending champ Round 3. Ginsburg and D’Amato handed Rounds 4 and 5 to Dillashaw.
As I watched, it seemed to me that Cruz won the first three. Now, at the time, I had no idea if my card bore any resemblance to the judges’ majority—it turns out it was—but from my viewpoint, the fight entered the championship rounds with Dillashaw needing a finish. Judging being what it is in MMA, of course, neither corner could advise its man with anything but uncertainty.
But it turned out to be Cruz’s night, and immediately his storyline shifted from his challenging past to his future challengers. At cageside sat Urijah Faber, the only man who has beaten him. That happened way back in 2007, though, and Cruz has already avenged the defeat. Is it time for a rubber match? Or, considering Sunday night’s jumble of scorecards, is the match we really need to see a Dillashaw rematch?
As he sat at the post-fight press conference early Monday morning, Cruz wasn’t interested in exploring the subject. For one thing, before any matchmaking can occur, the new champ needs to undergo an MRI on a foot that had him badly limping late in the fight. He said it was plantar fascia tendinitis and said, whimsically, “It’ll be fine. I’ve dealt with worse.” But the bigger reason Cruz didn’t want to speculate on the future was that he was just beginning to bask in the present. “I haven’t even gotten a pat on the back for the win,” he said, “and I’m already being asked who I’m fighting next.”
With that, UFC president Dana White, situated beside Cruz on the dais, reached over and patted his new/old champion on the back. There was laughter in the room at the timely “welcome back” gesture, and Cruz smiled, then continued: “I mean, I’m here. Let me be here. I’ll worry about who I’m fighting next when it comes.”
Such a spiritual attitude, one that would make Baba Ram Dass proud. Be here now. This is something Cruz learned during those long, dark days out of the Octagon, when it was unimaginable that he ever would be again in possession of a UFC title belt.
“When you go through what I’ve had to go through with the injuries, you can’t really put yourself in this situation,” he said. “You’ve kind of got to actually erase it from your mind in order to get through the injury. And after you get through the injury, then you’ve got to look at the 12-week camp that’s in front of you. Your camp has to be twice as long because you haven’t fought in so long, and you’re fighting five rounds instead of three. So then after you look at the camp, you’ve got to look at the weight cut. And then, after the weight cut, you can look at the fight. And after the fight, you end up here. I haven’t had a second to take it in.”
As he took it in during the press conference, what came out of Cruz were signs of an athlete at peace with what he’s been through and the mysteries ahead.
“When it rains, it pours,” said Cruz. “Everybody in this world has felt that before. It feels like you’re having a bad day, and then you spill coffee on your shirt, and then your tire goes flat, and then you step out and stub your toe on the curb. It’s like everything seems to stack up. That’s kind of how I felt this time. So when it rains, it pours. You’ve got to put a big, heavy coat on, out one foot in front of the other, and when the rain stops, everything starts growing—the flowers, the grass. Right here, I’m standing in the grass, I’m standing in the flowers. It’s a nice feeling. It’s going to rain again. It’s a matter of time.”
That sounds like something only the most astute prophets would have said about Dominick Cruz during his dark-cloud days. He’s going to reign again. It’s just a matter of time.