Dominick Cruz was once considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the face of the planet. Victories over former WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber, current UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and flyweight contender Joseph Benavidez cemented Cruz as the best bantamweight fighter in the world.
His two knee surgeries effectively removed him from the "pound-for-pound best" conversation. A groin injury suffered before a title unification bout with former UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao would remove the belt from his waist.
"I'm excited to finally be back," Cruz told ESPN.com's Brett Okamoto. "It's been a long time coming, but I feel great and I'm already training hard. Mizugaki is tough and he's been on a roll, but I'm ready to get back in there and prove that I'm the best bantamweight in the world."
Think about it, the last time Bruce Buffer announced Cruz's name Frankie Edgar had yet to rid himself of Gray Maynard, Cain Velasquez was still enjoying his first run as the heavyweight king, Jon Jones was merely one title defense into his now-historic run, Georges St-Pierre was still dominating, Anderson Silva was still making dudes pay and only diehards knew anything about Ronda Rousey.
It's been a long road back to the Octagon, but that doesn't mean it should be a long road back to the title.
Here's what the former champ needs to do in order to regain his status as the best fighter at 135 pounds:
Listen to His Mind
"Dominick Cruz: The Fighter" showed us that he had a future in fighting; "Dominick Cruz: The Analyst" showed us that he had a future after fighting.
He hasn't necessarily had the charismatic success that Chael Sonnen or Kenny Florian have had on Fox Sports 1's UFC Tonight, but he's certainly made a name for himself as one of the best on-screen analysts out there.
Whether it's explaining how Chris Weidman was able to dethrone the middleweight king on two separate occasions, why Alexander Gustafsson gave Jones so much trouble in their first bout or why nobody in the bantamweight division—including Barao, Faber or TJ Dillashaw—can keep Cruz from regaining the title, the Dominator simply needs to continue watching the tape as he prepares for his comeback.
Trust in His Knee
After two knee surgeries to repair a torn ACL, everybody on the outside looking in almost expects Cruz to be a little hesitant in his first appearance back inside the cage.
It isn't a completely uncommon injury in sports. NFL athletes suffer this injury about as often as fighters are left counting sheep. But for every spectacular Adrian Peterson-like recovery you see, you're bound to get dozens of dispiriting recoveries akin to the one Robert Griffin III had.
Unlike Peterson or Griffin, Cruz didn't rush his recovery to meet any sort of season-opening deadline—he spent three years out of the cage to ensure he would be healthy enough by his own decree.
Three years out of the Octagon should rarely ever be celebrated for any fighter. At its worst, it could bring the most potent ring rust any marquee fighter has ever seen. At its best, though, it should give Cruz all of the certainty that his knee will hold up just fine as he faces Mizugaki.
Remember His Feet
Take a second to consider this: Even Johnson, the flyweight champion, couldn't keep up with Cruz's footwork in their matchup at UFC on Versus 6.
Take a second second to consider this: Dillashaw—the man who successfully denied Barao from taking his 32-fight winning streak any further—credited Cruz's footwork as part of the reason Dillashaw stands atop the bantamweight division.
"I knew that Dominick [Cruz] had the footwork to beat [Barao]," Dillashaw told Bleacher Report's Jeremy Botter after UFC 173. "So, having that in my mind, I knew I had to step up my footwork, use good angles and keep him confused."
It was the way Cruz danced around his opponents, peppering jabs and confusing them with faints that kept his opponents guessing and the belt around his waist. He never got caught up in a brawl or his head in position for his opponent to make contact. He was quick to come in, and quicker to get out—he was about as untouchable as a fighter could be in MMA.
Kristian Ibarra is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. He also serves as the sports editor at San Diego State University's student-run newspaper, The Daily Aztec. Follow him on Twitter at @Kristian_Ibarra for all things MMA.
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