Crash Course to UFC Fight Night 81: T.J. Dillashaw takes on Dominick Cruz

3:50 | MMA
T.J. Dillashaw, Dominick Cruz talk trash ahead of title fight
Thursday January 14th, 2016

Everything you need to know about this weekend's big fight between T.J. Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz.


Demetrious Johnson was not the UFC flyweight champion on this night, because there was no such thing as a UFC flyweight division. When “Mighty Mouse” stepped into the Octagon in October 2011, he was an undersized bantamweight challenging Dominick Cruz for the 135-pound belt, which itself was only a year old.

The fight was televised on a cable channel that no longer airs UFC fights. That’s because there is no longer a channel called Versus; it’s since been rebranded as NBC Sports Network, and there’s no UFC there, either, because a month after Cruz vs. Johnson, the UFC made its debut on Fox.

This history lesson is brought to you by the anterior cruciate ligament.

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Cruz was cruising along back in those days, having been the king of bantamweights for a year and a half, his reign bridging the weight class’s transition from the old WEC to the UFC. When he won a unanimous decision over “Mighty Mouse,” it was his 10th straight victory. His next booking was as a coach in The Ultimate Fighter reality show, with the plan being to defend his belt against his opposing coach, Urijah Faber.

But before that fight could take place, everything fell apart. And fell apart. And fell apart.

First, in May 2012, Cruz tore the ACL in his left knee. Then, that December, he underwent a second ACL surgery after it was deemed that the first had been unsuccessful. Then, after rehabilitation of over a year, in January 2014, Cruz was pulled from his scheduled comeback fight because of a groin tear. He was stripped of his belt.

That strap resided around the waist of Renan Barão for four months, until he stepped in the Octagon with a fighter barely ranked in the bantamweight Top 10. T.J. Dillashaw was about an 8-1 underdog for that UFC 173 main event, and his supporters cashed in on that night in May 2014. Dillashaw knocked down and almost finished the champ in the first round, then completed the job midway through the fifth. And new …

So here’s what we have on Sunday night at TD Garden in Boston (10 p.m., Fox Sports 1): champion vs. champion.

Rey Del Rio/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Sure, Dillashaw is the only man who’ll be the owner of a shiny brass-and-leather strap. At 12-2, the 29-year-old Californian is the winner of four straight fights, including another knockout of the once-unassailable Barão in their rematch. He ranks No. 1 in the bantamweight rankings and is No. 8 in our pound-for-pound tally. He’s the champ.

But Cruz (20-1) is a champ, too. He may no longer have the belt to prove it, but he never lost it in the cage. The 30-year-old, also from California, has beaten every fighter he’s faced. His lone loss was to Faber, and “The Dominator” beat him in their rematch. Despite fighting just once in the last four years, Cruz ranks No. 2 in the bantamweight rankings. He’s never been dethroned, and always been confident.

In addition to the Fox Sports 1 telecast of Sunday night’s four-fight main card, four prelims will be shown on the same channel, starting at 8 p.m. ET, and the event’s first five bouts will be available on the UFC Fight Pass online service at 7. (The non-Fight Pass bouts also will be aired on Fox Deportes with Spanish commentary.)


Among Dominick Cruz’s victories, one came against Urijah Faber and two against Joseph Benavidez. Both are part of Team Alpha Male, and until recently, T.J. Dillashaw trained at that Sacramento, Calif., gym as well.

Dillashaw had a very public, and somewhat ugly, separation from Alpha Male. It was his choice to follow his coach, Duane Ludwig, to his Colorado facility. However, the champ expected to be able to train at Alpha Male when he was home in Sacramento. Faber, the team’s founder and leader, wouldn’t hear of it.

So it’s not only Cruz who’s in an uncomfortable position. Sure, he’s been inactive for the last four years, but Dillashaw has been separated from the team that made him who he is. 

Last Five Fights

Dillashaw Cruz
7/25/15 Renan Barão W TKO 4 9/27/14 Takeya Mizugaki W TKO 1
8/30/14 Joe Soto W TKO 5 10/1/11 Demetrious Johnson W UD 5
5/24/14 Renan Barão W TKO 5 7/2/11 Urijah Faber W UD 5
1/15/14 Mike Easton W UD 3 12/16/10 Scott Jorgensen W UD 5
10/9/13 Raphael Assuncao L SD 3 8/18/10 Joseph Benavidez W SD 5

Tale of the Tape

Dillashaw   CruZ
Feb. 7, 1986 BIRTH DATE March 9, 1985
Angels Camp, Calif. BIRTHPLACE San Diego, Calif.
Denver, Colo. RESIDENCE San Diego, Calif.
13-2 RECORD 20-1
135* WEIGHT 135*
5’6 HEIGHT 5'8
67” REACH 68”

*Official weights announced at the weigh-in (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)

Other Numbers to Count On

1,569: Days it will have been on fight night since Dominick Cruz defended his belt against Demetrious Johnson. Since then, because of injuries, “The Dominator” has fought only once—477 days ago.

5.81: Significant strikes landed per minute by T.J. Dillashaw, fourth all-time among UFC fighters, and most among bantamweights, according to FightMetric statistics. His strike differential (what he lands vs. what lands on him) is 3.18 per minute, fifth all-time and best among 135-pounders.

1.87: Strikes absorbed per minute by Dominick Cruz. That translates to 76% success in avoiding strikes, which would be second-best all-time and tops among active fighters if Cruz had enough UFC bouts (five) to qualify for the rankings.

Greatest Hits

The night T.J. Dillashaw became champion

Dominick Cruz defeats Dillashaw’s then-training partner

The Matchup

Both men move a lot.

But Cruz uses his unpredictable fluidity to frustrate opponents, who can’t seem to find him with their strikes, while Dillashaw utilizes movement more offensively.

If their patterns hold, the champ will be on the hunt while the ex-champ attempts to remain elusive. But there’s reason to believe their styles will shift. Dillashaw’s usual strategy was created for fights with far more stationary targets than Cruz. And “The Dominator,” despite having been in the cage only once over the last four years, has to have evolved with all of the physical training and mental strategizing.

Don’t expect Cruz to stand and trade, but he will be more offensive-minded. And the more there’s a fighter in his face, Dillashaw might look for takedowns. That’s one way to pin down an elusive target.

The Odds

Dillashaw is the slight favorite, with a money line ranging from -131 (bet $131 to win $100) to -150 (bet $150 to win $100) at various sportsbooks. The line on Cruz ranges from +105 (bet $100 to win $105) to +123 (bet $100 to win $123).

The Prediction

All things being equal, this would be an easy pick. But they’re not, so it’s not.

Cruz is the best bantamweight the UFC has ever seen. If not for the four-year layoff, he would be favored to have his way with Dillashaw. Even factoring in the inactivity, he’s only a slim underdog.

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The X-factor is Cruz’s inactivity, with a side order of wondering whether mixed martial arts has passed him by. Dillashaw, meanwhile, has a pair of impressive wins over Renan Barão. But he wasn’t so dominant against journeyman Joe Soto, and not too long ago he was knocked out by a flyweight, John Dodson.

This is a tough one to predict. One fight in four years is a difficult deficiency to overcome. But the bottom line is that I simply believe “The Dominator” is the better fighter. Maybe still.

Prediction: Cruz by decision.

Fighting Words

“When I got in this sport, he was the champ. My goal was to be the best in the sport, and he was there. I made some huge leaps and bounds, and now I’m here.” T.J. Dillashaw during a dual interview along with Dominick Cruz on Fox’s UFC Ultimate Insider

“He mixes up things better than any of the opponents I’ve faced so far at 135 lbs, but he hasn’t faced somebody like me. He’s able to mix things up because he’s facing stationary targets, so he’s been able to look a lot better than he actually is.” Dominick Cruz during the same interview

The Rest of the Card

Anthony Pettis vs. Eddie Alvarez, lightweight; Travis Browne vs. Matt Mitrione, heavyweight; Ross Pearson vs. Francisco Trinaldo, lightweight.

Preliminary card (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1 and Fox Deportes): Patrick Côté vs. Ben Saunders, welterweight; Mehdi Baghdad vs. Chris Wade, lightweight; Tim Boetsch vs. Ed Herman, light heavyweight; Maximo Blanco vs. Luke Sanders, featherweight.

Online prelims (3:30 p.m., UFC Fight Pass): Paul Felder vs. Daron Cruickshank, lightweight; Charles Rosa vs. Augusto Mendes, featherweight; Ilir Latifi vs. Sean O’Connell, light heavyweight; Rob Font vs. Joey Gomez, bantamweight; Francimar Barroso vs. Elvis Mutapcic, light heavyweight.

Programming Notes

Mike Goldberg will handle blow-by-blow and Joe Rogan analysis for the main-card telecast on the Fox network as well as prelims on Fox Sports 1 and the UFC Fight Pass. Fox Deportes also will televise the main card and Fox prelims in Spanish, with Victor Davila and Erik Perez the announcers. Post-fight coverage will be immediately after the main event on “Fox Sports Live,” on Fox Sports 1.

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