Dominick Cruz certainly has a flair for the dramatic.
With Cruz at the helm of the greatest comeback story in MMA history on Sunday at UFC Fight Night 81, you just knew it was going to come down to the wire.
He wasn’t going to make this easy on us—or himself.
And least of all on TJ Dillashaw.
In this way, Cruz’s bid to recapture the UFC men’s bantamweight title he vacated nearly two years ago was vintage “Dominator.”
He started his main event fight against Dillashaw like a house of fire but in the end hung on for a razor-close split-decision victory. From start to finish, it was exactly the sort of performance we expected—maybe felt too nervous to hope for—from Cruz.
It firmly established him as the greatest men’s 135-pound MMA fighter of all time and gave him a dozen victories in a row, nine of them by decision.
Perhaps most important of all, it proved that after a rash of injuries allowed him to fight just twice since October 2011, he’s still himself. Still a technical wizard endowed with Fred Astaire footwork, bottomless heart and the mental toughness of a Cold War diplomat.
Yet even with the UFC belt back in hand and the judges’ verdict in his favor (48-47, 46-49, 49-46), it felt as though Cruz couldn’t resist adding a little extra intrigue.
“I don't want to talk about [injuries] I came in with, but I’ve had problems with my left foot,” he told UFC color commentator Joe Rogan in the cage when asked about Dillashaw’s leg kicks and the pronounced limp he showed late in the fight. “It just got really bad in the fifth round … The kick to my leg [was hard]—I felt it, but it’s really my foot. It’s torn in half right now.”
Hearing this news, we caught our collective breath.
We’ve already been down this excruciating road with Cruz more than once.
We witnessed the UFC step in and take away his title because he simply couldn’t stay healthy enough to defend it. We cheered his return against Takeya Mizugaki in September 2014 and then sat through the protracted lead-up to this fight on pins and needles, dreading the moment we’d hear of another health-related delay.
We chuckled when last week he turned his open workout entrance into a wonderful bit of performance art. We winced and laughed again on Sunday when he was so excited he jogged down the aisle instead of walking to the cage. “Be careful, Dom!” we all might have called out in our living rooms.
We’ve heard every joke:
Now, here he was—in the immediate aftermath of his greatest triumph—telling us he was already injured again.
This guy really knows how to keep us in suspense.
And so we confront all over again the double-edged sword of having Cruz at the head of the bantamweight table. Watching him do his thing in the cage is one of the greatest pleasures in the sport.
Sitting through the delays in between is downright nerve-wracking.
No matter who you thought should have gotten the decision on Sunday, it was breathtaking watching Cruz step back into the cage and out-flank, out-maneuver and ultimately out-point Dillashaw.
Knowing that at 30 years old and after all the abuse heaped on his body, Cruz could defeat the man who had been the class of bantamweight for the last 20 months, it almost didn’t make sense. If you aren’t inspired by Cruz’s comeback, you may want to admit yourself to a hospital and get checked for a pulse.
But now he’s the champion again, and the hard truth is that we’re going to spend the rest of his career feeling a little bit anxious for him. We’re eternally going to be waiting for the next injury announcement, the next delay. We’re going to wonder each time if this injury is going to be the last.
So, yeah, seeing Cruz return to run circles around Dillashaw, reclaim his title and immediately announce that his foot was “torn in half”?
There was a certain sense of “oh, here we go again” to all of it.
That’s grossly unfair, but it’s how we’ve taught our minds to work after two decades of watching this deeply cruel, unapologetically heartbreaking sport.
We should note we have no idea how serious Cruz’s foot injury might be. For the time being, he's referring to it as just a bit of tendinitis and is hoping it won't keep him out for long. If there’s any justice in this world at all, he'll turn out to be right. He’s already been through enough on that front.
“I’ve just got to get an MRI on it. I think it’ll be fine,” he told MMAFighting.com’s Ariel Helwani after the fight. “Plantar fascia tendinitis is one of those things that you can just rest it, I think, and it’ll be fine. I’ve got a small, 180-day [medical] suspension so over that time I’ll rest it, I’ll rehab it. If anybody knows how to rehab an injury, it’s me, so I’ll be OK.”
We certainly hope so.
Now that he’s finally back on top, a number of big-ticket fights will come calling for Cruz.
He might rematch Dillashaw. He might take a third fight with longtime nemesis Urijah Faber. He might talk of superfights with flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson or former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar.
To make any of them happen, he’ll have to stay healthy.
That’s the one task Cruz hasn’t been able to accomplish during his amazing, logic-defying career.
Here’s hoping this is just one more worry, one more piece of doubt that Cruz can erase from our minds.