Whether or not you're a fan of Dominick Cruz is not the question here. After all that he has gone through, one has to feel for the former WEC and UFC bantamweight champion.
He had fought consistently and successfully throughout the first six years of his career. Due to injuries, he has been relegated to the sidelines since defeating current UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson at UFC Live: Cruz vs. Johnson in October 2011.
For an athlete to be inactive for two-and-a-half years during the prime of his career is sad and raises a lot of questions about how he will perform when he does return to the Octagon.
Cruz initially injured his knee while training for his trilogy bout against Urijah Faber, which was scheduled to take place after the two men coached opposite each other on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter on the FX network. Toward the end of the show, the UFC announced that Cruz had been injured and was pulling out of the fight.
Renan Barao replaced him and defeated Faber at UFC 149 for the interim UFC Bantamweight Championship. In the meantime, Cruz underwent surgery to repair his ACL, which can keep an athlete out of action for up to a year.
The complex procedure involved removing a cadaver tendon from his Achilles and placing it into his injured knee. As Cruz explained on Alchemist Radio, the advantages were less cutting required to the body and less trauma.
The downside to the surgery was that the body can reject the cadaver tissue, and unfortunately for him, this occurred. A second surgery was performed in December 2012, and he was given an expected recovery time of six to nine months.
Anyone who knows Cruz will say that he is one of the most passionate, dedicated and hardworking mixed martial artists. During his downtime, he met with his doctors every eight weeks and kept to a strict schedule.
To keep himself busy, he cornered some of his Alliance MMA teammates and worked as an analyst on the UFC on Fox broadcasts. Little by little, his knee grew stronger, and he was getting closer to returning to the cage.
During his time away, Barao successfully defended the interim title against both Michael McDonald and Eddie Wineland.
Toward the end of 2013, Cruz was given the go-ahead to return to training full time. As a result, the UFC and Dana White, who had been staunch supporters, announced that he would face Barao in a title unification bout at UFC 169 on February 1. The pair was set to headline the UFC’s annual Super Bowl Weekend card, and the contest was highly anticipated.
Finally, Cruz had the opportunity to return and show he was healthy on the big stage.
Alas, it was not meant to be, as the hammer fell once again. This time, the 28-year-old Arizona native suffered a tear to his groin, which cost him the bout with Barao and his UFC bantamweight title. The UFC could no longer wait for the once-defeated Cruz to defend his title and instead crowned Barao as the undisputed champion.
At the time of the announcement, the UFC provided no timetable regarding Cruz's return, but if he comes back in the summer, it will be almost three full years since he last fought.
Cruz has always relied on his speed and footwork to confuse his opponents. He doesn’t possess McDonald's knockout power or Faber's submission game. He has an uncanny ability to land and accumulate punches and kicks at a frenetic pace, while his opponents struggle to catch up with him.
Will he have the same speed when he returns? Psychologically, will he be able to get past all of the injuries he has had to deal with during these past two-and-a-half years?
“The Dominator” will return—there is no question about it. When, where and, most importantly, whom he fights are the biggest questions that fans, fellow fighters and pundits have.
Knowing the type of competitor he is, he will want to jump right back in with the sharks. He will request an immediate title shot, and who can blame him? He’s been at the top of the division for some time now, and if you combine that with his pride, there is no way he will look for a tune-up bout.
Throwing him against Barao would have been a daunting task in February, but when you add on another six months or so, Cruz will be at an even bigger disadvantage. Being out of the cage and the minds of the UFC fans for so long could also hinder him upon his return.
Maybe the UFC should match him up with someone in the Top 10; a lot of talented 135-lb fighters can offer Cruz a tough test and allow him to get his feet wet.
Fighting is as much about an athlete's mental state as it is his physical well-being. That's why taking one fight before a title bout would be the smart thing for him to do.
Cruz will sit down with his coaches, speak to White and formulate a game plan that is best for his career. My only hope is that he stays injury free and can pick up where he left off.