Josh Gross
Saturday March 6th, 2010

Dominick Cruz doesn't do negative. It would have been too easy. And he doesn't do that either.

"Anytime I catch myself getting negative, I slap myself and restart," said the 24-year-old mixed martial artist, who challenges Brian Bowles (8-0) for the WEC bantamweight title Saturday in Columbus, Ohio (Versus, 10 p.m., Eastern).

In part that's because when he reflects on where he's from, and he does almost every day, Cruz considers himself blessed.

Had things transpired another way. Had he not been raised in a single-wide trailer with his mom and brother in Tucson, Ariz., where he ate corned beef hash and eggs more than he didn't. If his absentee father wasn't an addict. Had shopping for school clothes meant something other than a trip to the thrift store. Had college been an option. Then, maybe, exhausting himself in a gym two hours at a time wouldn't be so appealing.

But these are the facts of Dominick Cruz's life, and they are, in a very real way, what makes him so good at his job.

With an impressive 14-1 record, Cruz ranks as MMA's fourth best 135-pound fighter. He didn't get to the top of his division on just spirit, guts and hard memories -- though he might have tried had it not been for Eric Del Fierro.

In 2006, Cruz accepted an invitation on two-day's notice from Del Fierro, a Muay Thai trainer and San Diego-based fight promoter, to fight outside of Arizona for the first time. He was 8-0, couldn't afford to pay anyone to hold mitts, worked three jobs and tried somehow to fit in school. Really, all he wanted to do was fight.

It didn't take more than a couple of minutes of watching Cruz in the cage for Del Fierro to realize even if the kid didn't know what he was doing, there was a lot to work with.

"My way of making up for not having the technique that I needed was to be in ridiculous, insane shape," Cruz said. "Because anything that I might've been lacking in technique I could make up for in cardio. That was my mindset. And toughness. That's exactly how it went."

Cruz jumped at Del Fierro's offer to move to San Diego to train at Alliance MMA -- a large fight facility located a couple miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border -- where he could work alongside Brandon Vera and others. For the first six weeks, Cruz slept on Del Fierro's floor. They worked almost every day. Basic boxing movement. Basic kickboxing movement. Evading. Setting up punches. For a wrestler capable of taking a shot regardless of which leg led, Cruz quickly understood that manipulating angles and close distance made him difficult to handle.

"I want to mix the pretty boxing combinations with movement," Cruz said. "The difference is boxers, they have to have footwork, but they can sit still and cover up. In MMA, you lose if you do that. You'll get nailed. Or you get taken down. The key is throwing the same combinations with quickness and efficiency."

These days, fighters in the gym stop what they're doing to watch Cruz strike and dance. He calls himself a rhythm fighter. It takes about a round, but when he syncs with an opponent, "it's impossible to stop him," he said. "People underestimate the amount I can make people miss, and if you miss, it's exhausting."

This is how Cruz bests men with motors that never stop. He throws combinations like Norman Mailer writes sentences.

Since dropping down to bantamweight after Urijah Faber introduced Cruz to a higher plane of fighting, he's unbeaten in five fights. Against Bowles -- the 29-year-old WEC champion from Athens, Ga., who pasted Miguel Torres last year to capture the belt -- Cruz gets his stiffest test since Faber needed only 98 seconds to put him away in 2007.

"Cruz is definitely tough," said Rory Singer, one of Bowles' chief trainers at the Hardcore Gym. "I don't think he's the fighter that Torres is, honestly, but he's a damn good fighter and definitely believe he deserves to be there."

Cruz has always believed, and for that he can thank mom -- a life-coach who runs a marketing and graphics company called Praise Promotions, and does work for the Christian Business Directory in Tucson.

"She's always forcing me to think positive," he said. "I think it's really important that people who grew up or were raised in a low-income environment, you have to figure out a way how to get through the tough times because you see other people who don't have to live that way."

Past, present, and future opponents have "their own experiences that drive them as well," acknowledged Cruz, who recently reconnected with his father, "but I'm confident the things I've been through make me a strong person."

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