It’s not often that I approach a pay-per-view UFC card–not to mention one as stacked as this weekend’s UFC 178, which truly does consist of quality fights from top to bottom–but then it’s not often that a fighter of Dominick Cruz’s quality is to be found on the prelims. Indeed, in the past five years Cruz has only not been the headliner once, when his WEC bantamweight title bout with Scott Jorgensen was trumped by the now-legendary lightweight title fight between Anthony Pettis and Benson Henderson.
But then, a lot has changed in those five years. Cruz was the WEC champ in 2010, then slid smoothly into the role of UFC champ when the WEC was dissolved. Then, in 2012, primed for a rubber match against arch-nemesis Urijah Faber, Cruz suffered a torn ACL, an injury that would set off a catastrophic chain of events that would see him out of action for over two years and, ultimately, bereft of his belt.
Now Cruz makes his long-awaited return, a very stiff test against the resurgant veteran, and long-time top bantamweight Takeya Mizugaki. The most commonly explored narrative of the bout is, of course: “will Cruz be able to recapture his old dominance, or have his injuries and long layoff permanently damaged his style?” Such is always the way with comebacks of this kind, and it’s certainly a question worth asking. However, I find the hypothetical to be less than compelling. Instead, I’d rather focus on Cruz at his best, in his prime, before he fell into relative obscurity. Because, like him or not, Dominick Cruz is one of the most skilled athletes in all of mixed martial arts, and a technician the likes of which are rarely seen in this still young sport.
On that last point, and as a final aside before I get into the details of Cruz’s system, I have a confession to make: I was, until very recently, not a Dominick Cruz fan. I was, in fact, very critical of the nature of his fighting style, which I saw as flashy without real substance. Cruz, to my eye, was a showy fighter, impressive in his athleticism, but nonetheless incapable–and apparently completely disinterested–in finishing or even hurting his opponents. I have long placed a premium on damage as the most admirable of goals in combat sports. Be he a counter-puncher, swarmer, or pure submission grappler, a fighter who didn’t seek to finish his opponent at every opportunity was not held high in my esteem.
As you can probably guess, my views on Cruz and other fighters like him (I’m sorry, Frankie Edgar and Tim Bradley)–have changed. But instead of delaying the meat of this article any longer and explaining why, I’ll let the brilliance of Cruz’s game do the talking. For if you truly understand what the man is about, I have a feeling you’ll be won over by his results just as I was.
Builder of Bridges
Cruz is, first and foremost, a transitional fighter. In the MMA community we tend to go on and on about “phases”–separating the aspects of fighting into the general categories of striking, wrestling, and submission grappling. Ironically, we usually make this distinction to laud fighters who fight as if no such separation exists. Cruz is such a fighter. Not especially effective in any particular phase, Cruz’s overall effectiveness stems from his ability to blend them all together, sliding effortlessly from kicks to punches to takedowns, and every conceivable combination in between.
Let’s start with a simple example, because that’s really what Cruz’s game is all about. For all of his flash and flair, at heart Cruz is a highly systematic fighter, each movement fitting neatly into a larger plan and, more importantly, flowing cleanly into another.
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1. Cruz adopts a low posture . . .
2. . . . and sidles up to Faber, pawing at his belly with his lead hand. Faber jerks into a defensive shell, and Cruz backs off.
3. Now Cruz approaches again, this time taking a hard step to Faber’s right.
4. Again, Faber bites hard on the feint, clawing for a reactive takedown when Cruz isn’t near close enough.
5. This time Cruz backs off and casually resets his stance, giving Faber just a moment to think about what’s coming next.
6. He begins shifting toward his right, taking a step in that direction with his right leg . . .
7. . . . and Faber, expecting Cruz to be square, throws a big uppercut, which Cruz deftly slips, moving to the left.
8. Cruz cuts back to his right as he collides with Faber’s hips, and simply rips him off his feet with a huge takedown.
When it comes to biting on feints, Faber is not alone among Cruz opponents. With Cruz, it’s difficult not to bite, because his real attacks–the takedowns, punches, and kicks–are part and parcel of his erratic movement, which makes every feint maddeningly convincing. To most of his opponents, the only difference between a Dominick Cruz feint and a Dominick Cruz strike is that the strike hurts immediately, whereas the feint hurts a second or two later.
In the sequence above, Cruz’s feints are almost entirely footwork based. Aside from some robotic, jerky motions with the hands and shoulders, the Dominator almost exclusively threatens attacks by simply putting his feet in position to execute, often stomping his feet and appearing to settle his weight in one direction only to commit to another. Above, his initial movement to Faber’s left (in frame 6) convinced Urijah that he would be able to catch the champion square, urging him to throw. After biting defensively on two feints, Cruz had convinced Faber that he was merely feinting and nothing more. Almost as if embarrassed by his defensive overreactions, Faber was compelled to punish Cruz’s movement with a devastating shot, which is precisely when Cruz chose to strike.
For Cruz, the primary goal is not to hit his opponent; the primary goal is to make his opponent hittable. Once the other man has made himself vulnerable–by overextending, or losing balance, or shelling up, etc.–then Cruz can simply pick him off with an attack of his choice. In other words, whether you react or not to Cruz’s feints, he will find a way to use your reaction (or lack thereof) against you.
Case in point:
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1. Cruz approaches head-on . . .
2. . . . then hits a sudden hop-step that puts him at an angle to Faber’s left. Faber doesn’t quite know how to respond.
3. Cruz backs off and lets Faber reset.
4. Now Cruz comes in again, moving straight on as he did before.
5. Once again he pivots, only this time the circular movement of his body comes paired with a swinging left hook. Faber gets his hands up in time to defend . . .
6. . . . but loses his stance (circled) in the hurry to get away . . .
7. . . . which makes him an easy target for Cruz’s follow-up right hand to the jaw.
In many ways, Dominick Cruz’s entire game is a treatise on the simple beauty of feints. Not necessarily in terms of execution, as many of Cruz’s feints are athletic feats unto themselves, but in terms of application. When a fighter throws a feint, he is looking for a reaction from his opponent–any reaction, even if that means no reaction whatsoever. No matter what the opponent does in response to the movement, a follow-up can be constructed around that.
So in the previous sequence, Cruz found Faber throwing up wild defenses, and simply had to wait for him to get frustrated and attempt an ill-advised counter. In the sequence above, on the other hand, Faber didn’t react at all aside from an awkward paw in Cruz’s direction. So, Dominick deduced, he was safe to follow up on his prior movement with an attack. And though Faber defended that attack, Cruz was more than prepared to follow up with another (and another, and another–watching the GIF, you can see that Cruz lands another punch and a lovely body kick in the same sequence).
Finally, what better example of Cruz’s tactical mindset than the following video, wherein the former champion shows how to set up a soft right hand with a defensively responsible feint?
Dominick Cruz is a phenomenal fighter with a phenomenally unique system of combat. His footwork is often risky. His punches are rarely straight. And he almost never finishes his opponents. And yet, there is a masterful artistry to his approach to MMA. Never out of options, Cruz excels at controlling the fight as it unfolds before him, all but forcing his opponent’s hand with every single move.
The question still stands: will the Cruz of UFC 178 be the same that dominated the bantamweight division in 2010? Honestly, I have no idea, but having gained a new appreciation for his skillset I can safely say this: it will be an absolute shame if the former champion is gone for good.
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