UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz has been through the wringer.
In the past five years, he's suffered four major injuries. After the first round of issues, he spent three years on the shelf. The UFC stripped him of his bantamweight title and awarded it to another man. After those three years, Cruz had one fight, which lasted all of 61 seconds, and then yet another injury required 16 months of recovery before he could fight again.
Despite all those setbacks, any one of which might have broken another fighter, Cruz is once again the champion.
In January, he regained the belt he never lost by defeating TJ Dillashaw, a sterling young talent with a style that seemed tailor-made to give Cruz fits. While it was a close decision, Cruz emerged victorious. Even more unexpected than a victory over a two-time defending champion with a dangerous, cutting-edge striking game was the wave of goodwill that accompanied Cruz's reemergence.
Prior to his long layoff, Cruz's emphasis on winning decisions, most of them relatively one-sided, rather than finishing his opponent won him few dedicated fans. Even those who focused on his brilliance—the unorthodox footwork, quick pace and gorgeous transitions between wrestling and striking—weren't necessarily struck by his personality or even awed by any given fight.
That has changed in his years away from the cage.
Cruz is more polished now, more willing and able to speak his mind. Perhaps that's media training or his time as a desk analyst for Fox Sports 1 and commentator for UFC Fight Pass. Maybe the 30-year-old, who first won his WEC title at the tender age of 24, is just now coming into his own.
He understands the promotional side better than he did in his youth. "There's more to the sport than just fighting, and you either understand that or you don't. And if you don't, then I promise you the guys that are worth money don't want to fight you because you don't get it," he said at a media event in April.
Money has been on Cruz's mind, and he hasn't been shy about bringing up the topic. That's a sign of a mature fighter—one who knows both that his window to earn is limited and that nobody is going to gift him bigger paydays.
Immediately after beating Dillashaw in January, he told MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani, "You know, I want to sit down with Dana [White], I want to sit down with Lorenzo [Fertitta] and talk about some money." Only afterward, he said, would he commit to fighting any of the litany of compelling opponents available to him in the bantamweight division. The once and current champion made only $110,000 in disclosed pay for beating Dillashaw.
The flip side to wanting more money is a willingness to do what's necessary to promote the fight, and Cruz has never been more able or willing to do so. He showcased his new understanding of the dynamics of promotion at the April media event:
You can go the Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey route, which is...I'm going to talk, I'm going to say what I need to say, I'm going to be great in front of the cameras, I'm going to be charismatic, I'm going to be in movies...I'm going to get social media followers, and with that, it doesn't matter if I win or lose in fights. I'm still famous, and I'm always going to get the big fight because media wants to see it.
He has dug into Urijah Faber with relish leading up to their rubber match at UFC 199 on Saturday. His barbs are confident, compelling and downright nasty. He doesn't just lob insults; he twists the dagger, focusing on what he feels are mental weak points.
"I don't need to beat Faber," he said at the media day, "because his ego will always beat him. He's got excuses for every loss he's ever had. He's been TKO'd three times and still doesn't admit any of those losses or being TKO'd. How do you grow from an experience like that if you don't accept the way that you lost?"
That's not just a piece of pre-fight trash talk; it's a psychological assessment of someone Cruz has spent hours verbally sparring with both in private and in public over the past decade.
Even in unrelated contexts, he can't seem to help himself from jabbing away at past, current and future opponents. He highlighted his dedication to working the media in April:
You have two choices: You can take what you're given or build with what you've got. I choose to build with what I've got and try to make the best of it, because I've still been given a stage. I've still got cameras in front of my face when I want them, and I plan to run with it. I'm not going to sit and be sad about what other people are getting, because that doesn't get you anywhere in life except sitting right where you're at, crying and complaining like TJ Dillashaw.
Why throw in that shot at Dillashaw? Cruz had already won the fight, after all, and while the two may meet again, it doesn't serve any immediate promotional purpose.
That kind of attitude, however, is part of what has endeared Cruz to fans during his long layoffs. He is ice-cold and focused and makes no excuses about speaking his mind.
One of the first things he said after having the belt wrapped around his waist in January was a barb at his Fox Sports 1 colleague, Kenny Florian. "Kenny Florian, stop copying and pasting, man," he said, referring to Florian's unauthorized use of material in an article for Fox Sports.
When asked to explain it later, Cruz said, per MMA Fighting, "I was just throwing a little jab at him, because he's my friend and it was funny." He continued, "I like Kenny. He didn't pick me in the fight. He gave me really no chance in this fight, so it was just a little poke. Nothing big. He's got great hair." This was after bringing up a sensitive topic regarding a colleague who was suspended for his actions, on national television no less.
That's the kind of genuine personality that demands a response from fans, whether that response is positive or negative. In combat sports, it matters less whether a fighter is loved or hated so long as he or she can generate emotional investment one way or the other from fans.
A willingness to let that personality shine through is part of what Cruz built in his time away from the sport. Despite his many injuries, however, he returned to the cage as a better fighter than ever. He credits that partially to his work as an analyst, as he told the Heavy Hands podcast in May:
[I]t helped me keep my mind in the sport. I became an analyst not because I wanted a desk job, but because I knew how important it was to keep my mind engaged and to keep progressing with the game. If your mind's progressing with the game and the reads and the understanding of the fight game, it's much easier for your body to come back and utilize the things you've been thinking about...I was still growing my brain, and your brain is the driver of the car...by being an analyst, I changed the driver of the car.
Against Dillashaw, his counters were harder and better timed; his movement was more efficient, and his reads and reactions were sharper than ever. His trademark footwork, the key to all of his success, was both more unpredictable and more effective against a higher caliber of striker than any he had ever faced.
Cruz has turned preparation into a near-religious calling, approaching every task with monkish devotion. As he told Heavy Hands, that same approach underlies his work both as a fighter and as an analyst:
Preparation is a mentality...With wrestling being my background, I've always learned to overwork, overwork. Work, work, work, work. It's not always the talented that wins, but it's the one who puts in the most preparation and thought into things. I just carried my wrestling mentality over to winning world titles in mixed martial arts, and I took [that mentality] over to being an analyst. Whatever work ethic I put forward into fighting, I need to translate that energy over to being an analyst, and I'll be just fine. All the extra work I did in fighting, I did it to prepare for these fights before I went in and broke them down, and when I did that I came very prepared and ready and I understood everything that was going on.
The bantamweight champion is a machine. That same attitude and dedication not just to work but to overwork is a big part of what got him in trouble, though. "I overworked my body sometimes because I wasn't catering to the hints that my body was giving me," he told Heavy Hands. A substantial part of his maturation as a fighter and a person was learning how to dial it back.
No single thing has driven Cruz's transformation and resurgence. He has become a better and more willing talker. He understands the business side of the sport better than he did when he was 25. His mind is sharper, in large part due to his work as an analyst during his injuries. His dedication to preparation is still there, and he applies himself ever harder mentally while dialing back physically.
The combination of incredible skill with mental acuity, personality and business sense is rare. Faber looms once more, but if Cruz can clear that hurdle, his long-awaited breakthrough is just around the corner.