Eric Del Fierro says 'devastated' Dominick Cruz will '100 percent' return to MMA

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When it rains, it pours. Just when the MMA community was ready for the long-awaited return of Dominick Cruz, disaster struck. Of course, that's already after disaster had struck twice before.

News broke earlier this month that Cruz, who had been away from the cage for two years, would not be able to defend his title opposite interim champ Renan Barao at UFC 169 in February. Instead, a groin tear would not only force him out of the bout, but out of his title as well. Rival Urijah Faber would step in to face Barao as a replacement.

When it rains, it pours and right now, Cruz is getting soaked.

The former champion isn't interested in speaking to the media at the moment, but luckily, his long-time coach at Alliance MMA, Eric Del Fierro, was willing to take a moment to explain to fans and Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour just what happened and what's next for the embattled bantamweight.

"He has a grade 2 and grade 3-level groin tear," Del Fierro said. "It's one of the big muscles in his groin. So, it doesn't require surgery, but there's just no way to get around it. That's basically what he was trying to do, figure out how to still fight and it finally came to the point where he just couldn't do it. We had to pull him from the fight."

Del Fierro said the really bad injury happened roughly a week ago, but the reality is Cruz had been struggling with the injury for much longer, albeit in a different, more benign state. While it was manageable then, it only got worse before it forced a collapse in his plans altogether.

"I think it happened a week or so ago. The day before we let the UFC know," he continued. "[Cruz] actually strained his groin probably 9 weeks before the fight. A very minor strain. Some ibuprofen, he was fine. He was able to work through it, kept going through camp. I think not really addressing the severity of it, I just think it came back and it came back worse the second time when he finally strained it because he was doing great. He was feeling great. Sparring was going perfect and like I said, somehow he over extended himself and created a bigger tear, I think, or a strain in that area."

But what caused the strain? A freak accident? Over training? How could something like this happen? Del Fierro says while the final injury did happen in sparring, it may have not been the sparring session itself that 'caused' the final injury.

"[Cruz] was sparring, actually. He was sparring and just threw and kick and felt the pull or strain there. Like I said, he's always had pain for the last 4 weeks or so. For whatever reason, it caused a greater strain in the groin area."

If there's a plus side in this entire matter, it's that the injury won't require surgery. Del Fierro says the team consulted with numerous doctors, the majority of which recommended not going under the knife.

The other is Cruz is only expected to let this heal 6 to 8 weeks before resume full training. This injury, while serious, is not like the two ACLs repairs that have sidelined Cruz the last two years. Perhaps most importantly, Del Fierro said the doctors believe this injury isn't related to those ACL repairs. Cruz wasn't compensating in any way that caused this.

For Cruz, though, that's hardly any comfort.

"If you know Dominick, he doesn't pull out of fights. That's the problem," Del Fierro noted. "I actually talked to Dominick, sat him down. I've been with Dominick almost a decade. I know what he can do and I know what his limitations are. I'm the one that had him call [UFC President] Dana [White] and talk to Dana and give him the situation, obviously, being the main event. Respecting Barao and the rest of the UFC, we have to let them know what's going on and the UFC's always helpful. They tried to get us to their doctors as fast as possible. We just felt he wasn't going to be able to fight."

For his part, Del Fierro feels some measure of responsibility, but isn't sure what they really could've done differently. He would never have cleared Cruz to train if he wasn't ready. By all accounts, everything was going normal. Or, at least, as normal as things can be in fight sports.

"We're trying to figure out what are we doing wrong that caused this," he continued. "Like I said, he was looking great in camp. He was training fine, he was sparring. He was 100 percent. He was doing what he was supposed to be doing. I really don't know. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary that happened. His leg didn't go one way and his body went the other. It was nothing like that. It was a freak accident."

Knowing all this raises the obvious question: how did Cruz look? Was this the Cruz of old, fast on his feet and moving with all sorts of motion and precision? Del Fierro believes Cruz was looking as good as ever.

"100 percent," Del Fierro said of Cruz's ability to fight and retain his title. "I wouldn't put him in the fight if I didn't think we were going in there to win. I didn't think he was going through the motions or wasn't 100 percent. For the most part, most of these guys in the sport go into these fights not ever at 100 percent. Everybody's got injuries or little nagging things that go on, but Dominick's always been able to power through it and go in there and take care of business.

"This fight was no different. He was looking sharp. He was doing great. Even prior to taking the fight he was already sparring 100 percent and training 100 percent. Like I said, I can't put my finger on what actually caused this injury."

That, too, is likely small comfort for Cruz. Not only has he now lost his title, he's lost his ability to generate income and carve out a legacy as one of the sport's greats. Del Fierro said this latest injury has been crushing to him.

"Obviously it's devastating to him. All of us that follow the sport, his fans and guys involved in the sport know that all these guys all strive to be a champion in a division. When you lose the belt to an opponent, it's a different feeling. When you lose it to yourself, I can't put in words what he's feeling because I really don't know, but I know he's just devastated. He wanted to go in there and fight Barao and see who the best guy was. It's a huge setback for him. I think he's just analyzing himself, analyzing what's happening and why this happened.

"I can't imagine being in his shoes," Del Fierro lamented. "It's like someone telling you you're not going to work again for the next three months. This is your passion and this is what you love to do. It's gotta be devastating."

With all that said, a fight is still going to take place for the bantamweight title on February 1st in New Jersey. Cruz never fought Barao, but the team has an intimate knowledge of Faber. For his money, Del Fierro believes Barao is likely to repeat the success he had against 'The California Kid' at UFC 149 in July.

"I'm a fan of both guys, actually. It's interesting. I'd like to see what adjustments Faber makes in this fight. I think both guys are good for the division. I think they're fun and exciting to watch.

"I think Barao's going to win," Del Fierro opined. "I think same way. Just stylistically they give each other problems and they're both counter fighters that don't necessarily set a pace. Faber, he always has trouble with guys that are counter fighters that sit back and wait for him. Faber likes for guys to be aggressive. When they're aggressive, it's when he does the best."

No one at Alliance is really worried about who wins that bout. At least not right now. They're all still trying to absorb their new reality. Del Fierro doesn't know precisely what's next. With no title to defend, they're going to take their time in getting back to the Octagon. They want to be prepared and healed. No rushing or over eager returns. It has to be done correctly. Del Fierro also isn't sure if Cruz wants a title fight as soon as they return. They'll make that determination sometime in the months ahead.

He is, though, quick to remind everyone Cruz is far from done. He is adamant the former WEC and UFC bantamweight champion will return and when he does, he'll pick right back where he left off, no matter how long the layoff. In the mind of Del Fierro, it's only a matter of time before Cruz gets his title back.

"I'm 100 percent confident he'll get it back," Del Fierro said. "That's just the type of guy he is."

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