It's already been over a year since UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz has stepped foot in the Octagon, and by the time he returns, it will likely be well past the 24-month mark.
In May 2012, while coaching the Ultimate Fighter opposite long-time rival Urijah Faber, Cruz suffered a serious knee injury that forced him out of their scheduled fight in July and into the surgery room to repair a torn ACL.
If that wasn't bad enough, while rehabbing the injury in December 2012, Cruz again tore the ACL in his knee and had to undergo a second surgery that put him back on the shelf and out of action.
In the meantime, the UFC has crowned a new interim champion, as Renan Barao currently represents the best of the best in the bantamweight division. He's won the title and defended it once already, and he will do it again in June when he faces Eddie Wineland in the main event at UFC 161.
Cruz has had to sit back and watch all of this unfold while waiting for the injury to heal.
"I'm four months into rehab and I see the doctor on April 8. I go in and see the doctor and I'll be just at four months, which means I get a whole new set of stipulations on my physical therapy, I get a whole new prescription. I should be cleared to start jumping rope and get tiny little plyo in there now. I'm still not allowed to move laterally at all. I can only go forwards and backwards and that's to keep my tendon from re-tearing all over again," Cruz told Bleacher Report recently. "I'm listening to the doctor very strict and I'm listening to my physical therapist very, very strict and I'm not doing anything beyond what they allow me to do. That's just so I can get back to full form."
Cruz pushed his body past the limits the last time while rehabilitating from the surgery—it ended with him back under the scalpel and probably out of fighting until 2014.
An athlete his entire life, Cruz now has to go into the Alliance Training Center in San Diego every day and watch his teammates train; he can only hope to get off the crutches and back on the mats one day soon. Cruz still helps teach and train his fellow fighters, but the sideline has never been his home.
The UFC's first-ever bantamweight champion is an on-the-field kind of person. He wants to be active, defending his title and taking on a new crop of challengers, but there may be no coming back if his knee suffers another setback and a third surgery.
"It's the complete opposite of everything I'm used to. I'm used to being able to do what I want to do, when I want to do it, how I want to do it. That's just how I am," Cruz explained. "That's not been an option for me and it's tough. Anyone who believes they're a champion, it's not in their makeup to say 'Don't push yourself, you can't do that because you'll hurt yourself.' It's just taken my brain to a whole different dynamic altogether.
"It's really forced me to kind of slow things down and take my time doing things. Not only so I don't hurt myself, but also so I can break down and look at the things that have made me get injured in the past or ways to train safer. It's everything and it's given me a different outlook. It's tough—I want to be competing, I want to be fighting now, I want to be fighting last month, but I have to listen to the doctors."
Cruz has done his best to make a life for himself outside of fighting while his knee heals. He's become a regular commentator and analyst for UFC on Fuel TV, and if there is a silver lining to this nightmare he's been living for the past 11 months, it's that he's found a second career.
"So far it's been a big learning experience but I enjoy it," said Cruz. "The way my mind works is you make something work even if you don't want to. The truth is this, I was out of the career that I first chose—which is fighting—because of injury, so you've got to make lemonade out of water. Basically, I'm making something out of nothing. That's what I had to do to get through this time period with a positive outlook.
"Having this analyst gig has been nothing but a blessing because it's kept me busy, it's kept me in the MMA mindset for a long time and I enjoy doing it."
Cruz will return to the analyst desk for Fuel TV this Tuesday when he co-hosts UFC Tonight while Chael Sonnen prepares for his bout at UFC 159 just a few short weeks away. The show tapes just a day after his next visit with doctors, so he can see exactly where he stands in terms of overall recovery and rehabilitation.
Soon after, Cruz will sit down in a meeting with UFC president Dana White to determine his next course of action. Everyone is curious if White will strip Cruz of his bantamweight title because his absence from the sport will likely reach past two years by the time he returns.
While the UFC has stripped champions in the past after failing post-fight drug tests, the only occasion in which the promotion has taken a title away from a champion due to injury was in 2005 when heavyweight title holder Frank Mir sat out of action following a devastating motorcycle crash that kept him from taking on top challenger Andrei Arlovski 14 months after the accident.
In his mind, Cruz has no doubts that he is the true UFC bantamweight champion, and he has no desire to give up the belt he earned and defended on multiple occasions but he knows that ultimately the decision lies in the hands of White and the powers that be within the UFC.
"I believe that's the way it should be which is me fighting the champion when I come back, which I will come back. It's no question in my mind and anybody that's counting me out is crazy. Because I've been counted out before, I've been the guy that wasn't supposed to win several times, and I've always figured it out. It's who I am, it's how I do it, and I'm going to do it right," said Cruz. "Let's be honest, Dana White is the business owner. He's the one that runs this entire organization and the second you start thinking you're calling the shots in a business that Dana White and the Fertitta's built, is when you have a rude awakening of you don't control it, they do. It's their business and I let them make the business decisions.
"In a perfect world, I keep my title and I come back and beat down (Renan) Barao. In the business world, I don't know how Dana's visualizing this situation. I don't know what he's dealing with."
It's not like when he's in the cage and Cruz can take of business for himself with an opponent. This time the control is completely out of his hands, and admittedly, it is a helpless feeling.
Cruz hopes he gets to retain his title until he can come back and challenge whoever the interim champion is at that time, but he knows the UFC has a business to run and they have to make the best decision that works for them.
"I work for the UFC and I love everything that they've done for me, and that's about all I can say. I'm preparing to come back and fight for my title. That's all I can do, I can't make the decision. That's up to Dana," said Cruz. "No doubt in my mind that I'm still the champion, I'm still the best in the world, and when I come back I will do just fine against a guy like Renan Barao.
"No matter how good he is, no matter how long his winning streak is, I'm confident in my abilities and my mindset and break down anything Barao has to throw at me."
There are numerous stories of athletes coming back from ACL surgeries. Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings suffered a ruptured ACL to close out the 2011 football season, and came roaring back with more than 2,000 yards the following season. A little closer to home for Cruz is UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, who like Peterson had similar ACL surgery and has now defended his championship twice since returning from the injury.
Much rarer, however, are cases of athletes coming back from two ACL surgeries.
Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III had ACL surgery in 2009, and then went back under the knife on the same knee earlier this year. Cruz and Griffin will look to join the likes of All-Pro defensive tackle Casey Hampton from the Pittsburgh Steelers, who actually had to have his ACL operated on three times during his playing career.
Never doubt the heart of a champion, though, and Cruz is hoping everyone is betting big on his return to UFC glory in the near future.
"Everybody loves a comeback," said Cruz, "especially a comeback in a situation that is not easy to return to."
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted.