March 30, 2012

Dominick Cruz is in constant motion. That's his secret. But it's no secret. You see it every time he steps into the octagon. That doesn't make it any easier to figure out.

The UFC bantamweight champion seems to be forever coming forward yet paradoxically is unpredictable in his movement. You wouldn't say he floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee ... unless the bee were a Gumbylike figure with every third frame of animation missing. He's more like a herky-jerky Elaine Benes claymation dance in elusive fast-forward. With a mean jab, hook and cross.

Catching Cruz isn't hard these days, however. You can do so every Friday night on FX (10 p.m. ET), as he's a coach on The Ultimate Fighter: Live. It's the 15th season of the groundbreaking MMA reality show, but the first on the Fox outlet and the first to air its fights live. Cruz is coaching opposite his nemesis/dance partner Urijah Faber, the only fighter to truly catch him.

On Cruz' 19-1 record, Faber is the 1. Back in 2007, when "The California Kid" was the WEC featherweight belt holder, he caught Dominick in a guillotine choke and elicited a tapout just 1:38 into the first round. Cruz was just an MMA pup, though, a 21-year-old with nine fights.

Since then, Cruz has lived up to the nickname "The Dominator." He's won 10 straight bouts, including four defenses of the belt he won from Brian Bowles in 2010. One of those successful defenses was in last summer's rematch with Faber, then a newly minted bantamweight. The fight went the full five rounds but was a clear decision for the champ.

Cruz and Faber will make it a trilogy July 7 at UFC 148. caught up with Cruz on Thursday to go a few rounds, touching on Faber, The Ultimate Fighter and how in the world a champion can sufficiently focus on both. Coaching a team of eight young fighters while also training for a fight of your own -- a championship fight -- obviously requires an adjustment from your usual pre-fight regimen. How has it affected you?

Cruz: It took about a week to adjust, for me and my coaches to set our schedule. But now that we've got a schedule, there's really nothing to think about. You just do it. It makes for a very long day. But once you make the decision that, yes, I'm ready to take on the responsibility of this double duty, it's time to get the job done. Why take on the added responsibility before a title fight? You're the champ.

Cruz: Everybody goes through a situation in life like this, where you have to ask yourself: Are you willing to make the sacrifices necessary to win? And to be honest, this is bigger than me. I've got eight guys that I'm training. They're looking for guidance. They're looking for leadership. They're looking to take the next big step in their careers. I don't take that lightly. In all of the things I do, I'm all in. So the fighters are getting 100 percent of me. And yet you've also got to give that same 100 percent to your own training. How do you strike that balance?

Cruz: It's not easy, switching hats while on the job. I look at it as a challenge and a learning experience. It's a matter of keeping your head screwed on straight, staying focused, making sure you're getting the right nutrition and rest so you don't overwork yourself. It's a lot of balancing, but I'm not complaining. I love it. I'm having a great time coaching these guys. Do you look at the TUF fighters and see yourself -- or a younger, greener version of yourself?

Cruz: Definitely. I once tried to get on the show and I didn't make it. I tried out for the first season that they had lightweights, a short while before I fought Faber for the first time. [Editor's note: That would be Season 5 in 2007, coached by B.J. Penn and Jens Pulver, with Nate Diaz the winner.] I was hoping for that big break, and I didn't get it. And it sucked. Well, these guys have got the break I was hoping to get. They're trying to take a big step in their careers. Being on TUF can help you take a big step, too, don't you think? Even as a world champion, fighting in the lighter weight classes doesn't bring as much recognition as, say, the heavyweight champ would get. Wouldn't you agree?

Cruz: Sure. And it's common sense that since I'm going to be on live television every Friday night for the next 12 weeks, I'm going to get some recognition. But the way I look at it is: Don't make it about yourself, make it about the fighters on the show, because that's what it should be about. I'm already in the UFC. I've already fought big fights. On The Ultimate Fighter, I'm there to help these guys try get to that level. Can some of these guys make it to the top tier? Not too many TUF fighters, especially in recent seasons, have excelled in the UFC.

Cruz: This season is different from past seasons. These guys are serious. The MMA has gone to another level. That shows the evolution of the sport. I think this is shaping up to be an awesome season. I'm a world champion and Faber is a former champ, so in training the guys get to see what it takes to become a champion. I think it's also great for fans to see two athletes who've competed at a world championship level work with a group of young fighters. You see the differences in coaching styles. You see the differences in mindset. What will we learn about Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber the fighters by watching them coach?

Cruz: I'll give you an example. I've got a guy on my team named James Vick. He was somewhat overlooked, considered to be a guy who wouldn't make it into the house. In the preliminaries, they matched him up with Dakota Cochran. That guy is a beast. He'd just beat [former WEC champ] Jamie Varner before coming to the show. But James Vick goes in and beats Cochran to get on the show, and ends up on my team. Then Faber chooses him for the first fight, thinking his guy, Daron Cruickshank, is sure to win. He completely overlooks James Vick like he's not even there.

That is a great, great example of why me and Faber don't get along. I never overlook someone. I always give everyone the benefit of the doubt. But Faber sees Vick and says, This is going to be a guaranteed win. That's exactly the way he looked at me when we first fought. That's exactly the way he's looked at a lot of opponents. There's a real arrogant, smug attitude. And I can't stand that.

I will take a James Vick any day of the week, and I will help mold that guy. He's scrappy. He's tough. He wants it. I'll build that guy into a winner. He'll take the hardest path possible through the ranks until he's a world champion. I love that kind of guy. I loved watching him beat Faber's guy. It put a smile on my face. And every time I beat Faber, whether in the cage or as a coach, I get a little happier. You have a chance to get happy on July 7 when you fight Faber for the third time. You won a pretty clean unanimous decision last time. What more do you have to prove against him? Do you need to win more decisively, maybe finish him?

Cruz: You've always got to be thinking finish. I haven't been finishing guys, but it's not like I haven't been trying. You think I want to go out there and fight for 25 minutes? It's not easy to fight for 25 minutes. It's especially not easy to fight the way I do for 25 minutes. I don't stop moving, I'm constantly punching, constantly coming forward. So I'm going to be looking for the finish in this fight, to shut Faber up. Is there something special for you about this trilogy of Faber fights?

Cruz: Trilogies make fighters better. This thing with Faber is making me a stronger person. It's making me a better fighter. It's preparing me for the challenges to come later in my career. You know, I fought a lot of monsters before I got to fight Faber for a second time. I fought Joseph Benavidez twice, Scott Jorgenson, Ivan Lopez. I fought Brian Bowles when he was on a streak of finishes. Every one of those fights was preparation for the second Faber fight. Now this third fight with Faber is going to be preparation for whatever comes later on in my career. That's what its about. You've spent a lot of time during your career thinking about and training for Urijah Faber, and now you're doing it again. You don't like each other, but has a respect developed?

Cruz: Speaking for myself, I respect the things that he's done in fighting. I respect how Faber fights. When you two arrived at The Ultimate Fighter gym and you saw he was no longer sporting the long, flowing hair -- and you knew that he'd cut off his locks not as a fashion statement but in moral support of his sister, who was hospitalized in serious condition after a terrible in car accident -- were you able to look at the man any differently? You're not buddies, that's for sure, but did you say anything to him?

Cruz: You know, when Faber had that situation arise with his family, I sent a tweet out to him and it was 100 percent heartfelt. It said something like, "God bless you and your family. I hope your sister gets better." And he wrote back to say thank you, and that was that.

It didn't change anything between us. He started talking trash again, and I'm not going to just sit here and be quiet because I feel bad for the guy. I go right back at him.

The thing is, the bad feelings between Faber and me have nothing to do with our families. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy in the world, for someone in their family to get hurt like that. That's a tragedy, it really is. But his sister's OK now, and I'm super glad to hear that. I've talked to Faber about it, and he says his sister is recovering 100 percent. I'm seriously stoked to hear that. You've been dominant in your weight class, and when that happens in the UFC, the fans and even the matchmakers start talking about superfights that transcend divisions, like Georges St-Pierre vs. Anderson Silva or even Frankie Edgar vs. José Aldo. Well, like Frankie you're just one division away from Aldo. Would you consider moving up to 145 to fight him, or taking part in some other superfight to solidify your legacy as one of the greats in the sport?

Cruz: It pretty much depends on what your body will let you do. It's also all about what the UFC wants from you. Whatever they want me to do, I'll do it. Right now I'm focused on Faber, on beating him and becoming a five-time world champion. You don't allow yourself to look beyond that?

Cruz: Again, it's about what your body will allow you to do. If my body allows it, let's fight JDS. Lets do it. I like that. Do you think Junior dos Santos can cut weight to 135 pounds?

Cruz: No worries. (Laughs.) I'll move up to him.

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the MMA mailbag, click on the e-mail link at the top of the page.

You May Like

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)