Dominick Cruz has all the confidence of a champion, which suits the 25-year-old bantamweight well.
Cruz (16-1) scored the first major title defense of his career Wednesday at WEC 50, outworking Joseph Benavidez for the second time in 12 months to take a split-decision victory in Las Vegas. Judges Lester Griffin (48-47) and Adalaide Byrd (49-46) saw the five-round affair for the champion, while Nelson Hamilton dissented with 48-47 for Benavides. SI.com tallied it four rounds to one for Cruz, but cases could be made for 48-47 or even a 48-48 draw.
Despite talk coming into the fight that the 135-pound mixed martial artists evolved so much over the past year that the midweek title tussle would look different from their first go, when Cruz used his superior size and wrestling to control Benavides as needed, it really wasn't.
Cruz still danced all over the cage and initiated takedowns, mostly as rounds wound down, in an effort to sway the judges. He put Benavides on his back in each round, and connected on six of seven attempts, according to CompuStrike.
"I'm a little disappointed I didn't get the finish," Cruz said. "I was really looking for it. I landed a lot of shots that I felt like should have finished him, but he's tough."
Benavides, who appeared undersized next to Cruz and would be best served competing at 125 pounds if and when WEC opens that division, walked through most of the champion's attacks. Cruz darted around the cage, feinting and attacking from off angles. And when it came time to hear the judges' totals, Benavides said he figured he didn't do enough to win.
"So when the judge did say my name, it was quite a surprise," said the 26-year-old challenger, ranked No. 2 at 135 coming into the fight. "I was like, 'Wow, could this happen? Is this, like, the work of God or something?' "
No, it wasn't. Just the work of an official who thought Benavides (12-2) found success by letting off the gas to fire in short, powerful bursts, which surprised the champion's corner. Trainer Eric Del Fierro had it a shutout for his man, and told him as much as the bout progressed.
"I'll have to go back and watch video [of the fight]," Del Fierro said in a text message. "I hate if I'm giving him the wrong advice."
Speaking to the media after the fight, Cruz agreed with his trainer.
"In my humble opinion, I thought I won all the rounds," Cruz said. "I think that the crowd has a big part to play in the judges' opinion sometimes. Also, he caught me with a real slick knee up against the cage that made me bleed real bad. I would assume the blood could have swayed the judges a little as well."
Cruz's victory secured his place atop the competitive and exciting bantamweight division, which had seen the WEC belt switch hands the last two times it was contested.
"I rank among the best in the world," Cruz said. "There's not a doubt in my mind."
Cruz, 25, is headed for a showdown against Scott Jorgensen, whom some felt deserved to be in there with him Wednesday. Depending on what a hand specialist tells Cruz in the next few weeks -- the champion put off surgery to make the Benavides rematch happen and, according to Del Fierro, didn't aggravate anything over 25 minutes -- he could be forced out of the cage for the remainder of 2010.
Either way, we know Jorgensen (11-3) is next after he earned a hard-fought, unanimous decision against England's Brad Pickett (19-5). The win was Jorgensen's fifth in a row since October 2009.
"I think I'm a better striker than Dominick," the 27-year-old would-be challenger said. "He just moves at a great rate and creates different angles. My wrestling is better than his. If I want to take someone down, I will. I'll find a way. If he wants to stop it, I've got a few tricks in my bag. For me, it would be a great fight. I feel stronger in every area. I'll bring the belt back."
Also, it appears WEC lightweight champion Ben Henderson has seen his next challenger emerge in the form of Anthony "Showtime" Pettis, who was terrific in dispatching Shane Roller on Wednesday. Pettis (11-1) shut down much of what Roller (8-3), a three-time All-America wrestler at Oklahoma State, hoped to accomplish, and finished with a triangle choke at 4:51 of Round 3. That fight is likely to happen later this year in the lightweight titleholder's backyard of Phoenix.
Chad Mendes (8-0) needs to be challenged. Javier Vazquez needs a high-profile fight. Each featherweight impressed in his own way Wednesday -- Mendes with a no-doubter unanimous decision and Vazquez via second-round submission -- and I'd like to see them matched next.
Mendes, a powerful wrestler, would need to try to stay on top of Vazquez (15-4) without playing into the veteran's top submission game. Vazquez could almost certainly strike with Mendes, who wings hooks and straights but remains fairly green when it comes to fighting on his feet.
This matchup tests both fighters and sets up bigger bouts down the road.