Welcome back, Dominick Cruz.
The challenger in the headlining bantamweight title bout at UFC Fight Night 81 at TD Garden in Boston shocked TJ Dillashaw by split decision in an incredible back-and-forth battle. Kevin Iole of Yahoo Sports shared the judges' scorecards:
Dillashaw was the champion coming into the fight with a handful of knockouts under his belt, but he won his title as Cruz dealt with a number of leg injuries. On Sunday, Cruz announced to the UFC world that he is back and one of the best fighters in the Octagon in just his second fight since 2011.
The UFC reacted to the victory:
Ariel Helwani of MMAFighting.com commented on the action:
Fight ends to a standing O. Respect to this crowd for recognizing what we just saw. No clue how these judges will score this. I got DC.— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) January 18, 2016
The drama started before the fight even began, when the two fighters did not touch gloves. During the fight, they exchanged blows in the opening minutes, and Mike Bohn of USA Today summarized the feeling in the arena: "This is already crazy."
Dillashaw, known as a devastating kickboxer coming into the fight, repeatedly went for the head kick in the first round. However, he failed to land any crushing blows, and Cruz, who consistently darts in and out with speed and the ability to throw strikes in rapid succession, landed an early hit, per the UFC:
Iole analyzed the first round: "Cruz 10-9, but very close. I could be convinced TJ won that quite easily."
Helwani put Cruz's efforts into perspective:
Again, regardless how you feel about him, a man who underwent 3! ACL surgeries is about to fight for a UFC belt. That's superhuman, IMO.— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) January 18, 2016
Dillashaw bounced back in the second round with some leg attacks, as the UFC shared:
However, Cruz returned some of the aggression and registered some momentum-shifting takedowns. After the second round, Shaheen Al-Shatti of MMAFighting.com called the score 20-18 in Cruz's advantage.
Cruz continued to pace around in the third round, unleashing his constant-motion strategy as he looked for openings to attack. He added to his takedown total and earned some praise from Iole:
Cruz is just remarkable. Hard to believe this guy has been away four weeks, let alone four years— Kevin Iole (@KevinI) January 18, 2016
Cruz's performance was particularly impressive because no opponent had ever taken Dillashaw down before Sunday, according to Helwani.
Cruz established more momentum in the opening minutes of the fourth round with another takedown, but Dillashaw struck back with a body blow and a high kick before securing a takedown of his own. Dillashaw also pinned Cruz against the cage and seemed to build some momentum heading into the final round, although Helwani said Cruz won three of the first four rounds on his card.
The fight looked primed to go the distance, but Dillashaw finally landed a jarring head kick in the early stages of the fifth round. Both fighters appeared to have more urgency in the final minutes, as though they didn't want to put the fight into the judges' hands, especially given how close it was throughout.
Dillashaw went after Cruz's leg (which has been surgically repaired a handful of times), but the challenger continued to dart in and out.
The crowd came to its feet for the final 30 seconds as both fighters exchanged a flurry of punches and went the distance. Fox Sports UFC weighed in on the final round:
Dillashaw having a great fifth round so far, really going after Cruz with those kicks #UFCBoston— FOX Sports: UFC (@UFCONFOX) January 18, 2016
Jeremy Botter of Bleacher Report described how close the decision was after the fight:
Man. 48-47 Cruz on my card. But it could really go either way and we should be okay with it.— Jeremy Botter (@jeremybotter) January 18, 2016
With the title hanging in the balance, the judges ruled in Cruz's favor: 48-47, 46-49, 49-46. Just like that, there was a new bantamweight champion.
Post-Fight Reaction and What's Next?
Cruz reflected on his victory in the aftermath while holding his belt, per Helwani: “I'm sharing this with you guys. Thank you fans for the support. Nobody is retiring me except for me.”
Dillashaw also commented on the fight, per Iole: “I’m very disappointed. I thought I had the fight. I was the aggressor, I pushed the pace and I feel like the last two rounds I won pretty decisively. I felt I won the fight, I want to do it again. Props to Dominick. I missed some shots and it was my fault for not following them up.”
Cruz discussed his strategy during the Fox Sports 1 post-fight show, via Iole: “The biggest idea of this fight was the takedown. I had to make sure I took that away from him. He threw a lot of kicks, and anybody who throws a lot of kicks, I'm going to make you pay for them.”
Perhaps the best thing about Sunday’s fight for UFC fans is the fact the two fighters will likely see each other again with Cruz’s title potentially on the line. Ryan Maquinana looked ahead to a potential rematch:
I'd pick TJ in a rematch. By late Rd4, he seemed to figure out how to time Cruz & get inside—well, enough to score. He just ran out of time.— Ryan Maquiñana (@RMaq28) January 18, 2016
ESPN’s Ryen Russillo echoed that pro-Dillashaw sentiment:
I just didn't think the takedowns that led to nothing in the 2nd win you the round. Just watched it again. TJ was better for 4:30.— Russillo (@ryenarussillo) January 18, 2016
There were certainly times when Dillashaw looked like the better fighter Sunday, and he could capitalize on his opportunities in a possible rematch. On the other hand, Cruz would theoretically be even further removed from injury and could have even more of his vintage speed and mobility back in a second fight.
Considering how impressive the back-and-forth affair was Sunday, especially given Cruz’s recovery, another fight would be a victory for UFC fans everywhere.