In his most recent fight, he worked his way to a unanimous decision win over Demetrious Johnson despite injuring himself early in the bout. Earlier this week, the 26-year-old Cruz underwent successful surgery on his right hand that will keep him out of action for the foreseeable future. But when he returns, who will be there waiting for him? As I noted in an interview with Cruz, he's kind of gone through the division's top five.
"Not kind of," Cruz told MMA Fighting. "I have.
"The bottom line is it looks like I'm going to run into rematches wherever I go," he continued. "That's where I'm like, I fought everybody, so why do I really care? I'm trying to fight for the best position in the world. If they give me [Brian] Bowles, they give me Bowles. If they give me [Urijah] Faber or [Miguel] Torres or [Joseph] Benavidez, OK. I've fought everybody. I believe and I know I'm the best in the world, and anybody that's going to come challenge me for it, I'm ready for it."
If we're talking rematches, perhaps Bowles would be the most interesting possibility of the group. He's the man Cruz (19-1) beat for the championship back in March 2010, a fight that was halted after the second round when Bowles broke his hand. Bowles is set to fight Faber at UFC 139, and a win might propel him to a title shot.
Maybe since that was not a clear-cut win, it would be a more interesting matchup?
"It wasn't conclusive to people who say he broke his hand, but I broke my hand several times in a few fights now, but I never stopped, and I finished those fights," he said. "Need I say more?"
Cruz doesn't have any patience for the injury excuse because of what he himself has gone through. For his first injury, he not only suffered through it during the fight itself, but also through training camp. And his most recent injury against Johnson came in the first round of a five-round battle, meaning he fought hurt for more than 20 minutes.
How headstrong is he? He even delayed meeting with a specialist until after taking care of previously scheduled commitments, including appearances at last week's UFC Fan Expo in Houston. During those appearances, Cruz simply had his middle and ring fingers taped together, and was forced to shake hands with his left.
Despite that, he went five rounds, refusing to surrender his title due to pain.
"It's not an option to stop," he said. "Anything wrong with your body, you ignore it. You get your minute to rest between rounds, and you try to take your instructions from your corner and make the adjustments in your mind, and then keep fighting."
The performance was vintage Cruz, using his length and footwork to mix up strikes and takedowns. Cruz said it took him one round to absorb Johnson's gameplan and understand how to properly attack the speedy challenger. He grades himself an "A" for his efforts, saying that the biggest in-fight adjustment was working off of Johnson's constant stance switches and punch combinations.
So the past is in clear focus, but the future is a bit more murky. Cruz declines to name anyone on his wish list of opponents. According to him, though, it's easy to stay motivated when you're defending the No. 1 spot.
"If I have to fight them five times and beat them five times to prove I'm still better than them, I'll do it," he said. "That's my job and what I love to do. To compete and prove what I'm capable of."
But for now, that will have to wait as he lets his hand heal.
It seems that finally, he'll treat himself to the fruits of his labor. Despite being the champ for well over one year, Cruz still rides around San Diego in a Honda Civic. But he's got his eye on a significant upgrade, a Cadillac CTS-V. The car is the world's fastest production sedan, going 0-60 in 3.9 seconds. Somehow that seems fitting for Cruz. Fast-healer, fast on his feet, fast car.
But he promises he won't get complacent. Though he admits he may take a small vacation, he plans to work around his injured hand, focusing on conditioning with roadwork and running bleachers. He'll build up his leg strength. He'll still be in the gym helping out his team. In short, he won't sit around being lazy.
One of Cruz's goals is to the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. Right now, most MMA rankings have him somewhere around the top five, within shooting distance.
"When you're the best pound-for-pound on the planet, rankings do matter because you can't contest the spot," he said. "Anderson Silva right now is the best on the planet and you can't contest that. That's what I like about that. I want to add to my legacy. And pound-for-pound best? That's superhero stuff right there."