Dominick Cruz is ready to re-engage his toughest opponent Saturday night at UFC 199.
No, not Urijah Faber. Cruz needs to overcome his sharpest critic and adversary—himself.
"After all I've been through, I have built my brain as powerful as I built my body," said Cruz, who has spent most of the past four-plus years dealing with knee surgeries and recovery. "My brain might even be more powerful than my body at this point.
Cruz has one blemish on his record. Faber forced him into his only loss nine years ago. He avenged the loss, winning the 2011 rematch, and Cruz's bantamweight championship is at stake in the rubber match on Saturday in Los Angeles. With the fight quickly approaching, Cruz is walking into the Octagon with a great deal to prove—but only to himself.
"I'm the toughest individual this man has ever faced in his life," said Cruz. "If anyone thinks they're going to retire me or that I'm going to go down easy, that man is out of his mind."
Cruz has repeatedly felt disrespected by Faber, which is actually familiar territory.
"Every day I train, I tell myself nothing can compare with what I've already gone through," said Cruz. "TJ Dillashaw overlooked my mental toughness, my physical toughness, and how bad I want to be where I am—and how bad I want this belt.
"If you look at my past, no one ever gives me the credit I deserve. After I fight them, they still don't give me the credit. When you listen to me, I give every single one of them the credit they deserve, and that is precisely why I continue to beat all of them."
Injuries have defined Cruz since 2012, but he overcame every odd to defeat Dillashaw in January at UFC Fight Night in Boston. After the fight, while sitting at his celebratory press conference perched atop the pro fighting world, Cruz displayed his frustration at reporters as he was repeatedly asked about his next fight.
"The excuses and questions about my next fight were a slap to my face," said Cruz. "I shouldn't even have been competing, much less world champion. That was me after four years of injuries, three ACL injuries and a torn quad."
Although Faber is dangerous, Cruz conceded, he cannot compare with three ACL tears. Cruz pushed his mind, body, and spirit through doubt and fear that would have crippled others during his injuries, and he was surprised with what he discovered.
"I found myself," said Cruz. "I'm now at a point in my life where I refuse to listen or care about other people's judgments. I used to train, 24/7, to win and get better. That was my existence, but that was all taken away from me. I was trapped in my body with two busted knees, and there weren't many other places to go except my own mind. I needed to run from my problems or come up with answers."
No stranger to loneliness and fear, Cruz was also all too familiar with the sound of tears from his days living as a child in a trailer park.
"I watched her my mother cry in bed alone," said Cruz. "All I could do was hug her when she was lonely."
Cruz's mother, Suzette Howe, was a single parent raising two sons and only earning $10,000 a year. Despite the lack of amenities her children were afforded, she instilled qualities far greater.
"I watched my mom, every single day when I was a kid, put others first," said Cruz. "She was always trying to do the right thing. If she got food stamps, she never took advantage—she only bought what she needed. She taught me how to care, how to stay humble, and how to stay true. She never steered from that. She is still the most whole, happy person, and that has made me a stronger person."
At only 30, Cruz is at the peak of his popularity. Women flock toward him, and the shine of the UFC bantamweight championship is nearly blinding. Yet Cruz instead chooses to draw strength from his mother.
"Losing everything brings the true people into your life and gets rid of everyone else," Cruz explained. "People seem to fall off, and the people who love you and care about you make you stronger in your weakest times. My mom made me stronger at my weakest point.
"When I had no belt, everybody left. I was sad and depressed, and she showed me that I needed to love myself. I don't need a belt to be happy. I didn't need to be the best in the world to be happy, and I don't need fighting to be happy. I define my happiness any way I want, that's my decision—and my mother was a shining example of that."
Far from overlooking his fight, Cruz understands that Faber (33-8) represents a challenge in the cage—yet nothing more. Cruz will draw on his experience to outthink and maneuver the 37-year-old Faber. He explained that the process of reaching the pinnacle of success, then witnessing injury rob him of his fame and fortune has given him a new edge.
"Those were the most humbling years of my life," said Cruz. "I asked myself, 'Why am I doing this?' and 'Can I do this?' Doubt crossed my mind.
"The key was turning my weakness into a strength. What made me weak made strong. That was a choice. No one I fight has been through what I've been through, so it was a matter of my transferring my energy to my mind."
Cruz (21-1) explained that to be considered a genuinely great fighter, one principle tenant applies: to thine own self be true.
"You can't label yourself a special champion, and you can't try to be a special champion," said Cruz. "The only way to be the best champion is to let yourself out of the box. Be you. TJ Dillashaw's biggest downfall—and the reason he didn't sell tickets—is because he was trying to be someone else. Why are you trying to be something other than yourself? I'm going to be me, and people are going to take me at what I am or not. As soon as you try to be what other people want you to be, you lose yourself."
Quiet mouths are rarely fed in the UFC, and Cruz has been very vocal since returning from injury. The manner in which he is coached by Eric Del Fierro generates a tremendous amount of confidence in Cruz.
"I know I'll be effective in the cage," Cruz explained. "I train with top-notch guys. Eric Del Fierro tortures me in camp so that the fight is easy. My camp is harder than my fights. If anybody knows how to beat me, it's Eric. He makes sure I get beaten for twelve weeks, so that when I get in the fight, I've already felt the worst before I even get in there. Then there comes that point, during the last couple weeks of training, when I'm unbeatable. Eric won't 'Yes' me when I don't look good, and he tells me when I look like crap. That's the type of person who helps me stay true to myself and glued to my roots. When it all comes to it, the roots of me is what got me here."
Cruz's tale is one of the man who dreamed, worked and won. He saw all his glory ripped away, but then took it all back with force. Saturday's fight with Faber, Cruz promises, will not be his Waterloo.
"I would be a six-time world champion if I was never hurt," said Cruz, who has two titles reigns as UFC bantamweight champion and one with the now-defunct WEC. "I could have a thirteen-to-fifteen win streak. TJ Dillashaw, Renan Barao, and no one in the 135-pound division would have even thought of the belt if I wasn't hurt. But the injuries made me an immensely stronger individual and taught me a lot about myself through self-actualization."
Cruz promised that class will be in session this Saturday, and Faber is in for an education.
"I can still dance in the rain," explained Cruz. "Put on your coat, get a great umbrella, and put one foot in front of the other. Eventually, the rain will stop—as long as you can withstand the pain. I might be a better athlete if I hadn't been injured, but I would not be a better man."
Cruz battled himself and won, which was a far tougher challenge, he explained, than he will see against Faber.
"The biggest battle for me is learning to enjoy what I've accomplished," said Cruz. "I'm working very hard to live in the moment and enjoy the things I've done."
Throughout the journey—the highs, the lows, and now preparing for Faber—Cruz has found himself. He has also held onto his trademark sense of humor.
"Ultimately," remarked a laughing Cruz, "I just want a good fight that pays me off."