We all know the story by now. The once-UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz has had arguably the worst luck of any fighter on the roster, at least in terms of physical health.
Not one, but two knee complications. Then a groin injury. All told, he'll have been away from competition for three years by the time he returns against Takeya Mizugaki at on September 27th at UFC 178.
Naturally, everyone wants to know: is Cruz finally ready to return? Is this it? Will he make it to the finish line ready to go? According to 'The Dominator', it's full steam ahead.
"It was about two, three months ago maybe, tops? I was completely cleared," Cruz said of his doctor's approval to begin full training on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani. "They were just saying that everything's strong with the quad [muscle] and that I could start picking up the training. Once they cleared me to start picking up the training, then I started easing my body into it. That way I wouldn't go too hard or re-injure something else. It's been a process, but now my body's at full strength. I'm doing everything I need to and I'm very confident in myself and the durability of my body."
Cruz said he was happy to get the medical clearance, but that, in and of itself, wasn't necessary a cause for celebration. It was another fighting formality that really forced him to stop and think about this long, arduous journey he's been on to get healthy.
"I trained," Cruz said, describing what he did when his doctor gave him the green light to train like a fighter. "Honestly, there wasn't any celebration. There wasn't any of kind of, 'Oh my gosh' moment. I train because I love to train. I'm very passionate about what I do and I enjoy working out. So, to be able to work out progressively at a higher and higher pace, harder and harder, it just relieves me. It makes me feel better as a human being. It makes me feel more alive. It was just to be back to me again. I didn't really care about anything other than being allowed to go in there and fight people in the gym. Once I together a month of solid training, two months of solid training, I was like, 'Man. I'm back. I'm feeling great. I'm feeling sharp. I'm feeling fast.'
"Once I signed that bout agreement, that was probably the only weird moment for me," he noted. "That was the realization of, 'Wow, here I am again, getting ready to do this.' Writing on that piece of paper, that's when it clicked in my brain that finally I'm here. I got through all that crap. I got through all the rehab. I got through the quad injury after going through two knee injuries. It was really surreal kind of, in a weird way."
The two knee surgeries were bad enough and sidelined the Alliance MMA bantamweight for nearly two years, but when they healed, something else went wrong: a torn groin. Cruz was slated to defend his title against then-interim champion Renan Barao, but instead not only went back to rehab to heal his injury, he relinquished his UFC title.
"That was killer, man. That was really testing me at that point," Cruz said of the moment in his life. "My will was really being tested at that point. I'm a firm believer in God and that's my higher power in my belief system. I'm just sitting there going like, 'What do you want from me, man? What do you want me to do here? What am I supposed to do with this?'
"This is my job, this is how I make a living, this is what I believe God has put me on this earth to do and I can't do my job. I can't do what I feel he's given me the stage to do. It took a lot of mind control and it's been a lot of learning to just really understand what this is all about. I've gotten a lot stronger through the process, to say the least. It's been a huge learning experience and I matured a lot through it."
And despite all the challenges, did retiring or quitting the sport ever cross his mind?
"Absolutely not. I'm too young and I just have too much passion and my body's too capable of doing it. So, it's never even been a remote thought. It's just been, 'How much longer until I can punch somebody in the gym?' That's how it's been. Now I'm there," he said.
Given the physical proximity of the injuries, some have wondered whether the injuries were related. As it turns, out, they were, at least a little bit. More importantly, the healing process Cruz had to endure made him address all of the problems at once, a journey he says has been as much a learning lesson as a rehabilitation.
"It was kind of related to the knee injuries and the reason is my knee caused my lower half...I had to really make my lower half a lot stronger. And then I didn't want to work out the upper half of my body too much because then I'd look like Joe from Family Guy," Cruz joked.
"It's been really difficult with the double surgery to keep my body in line," he continued. "It's been a real challenge because literally, therapists don't know what's going on. You have to figure out your own body and you have to find these people that know what to do. MMA is relatively new and therapists and doctors don't know how to prepare a high-level athlete in mixed martial arts to go back into a fight. I had to really learn this myself after being out for so long. I've had to rebuild every single muscle to get it to all work together.
"What was happening is, when I hurt my knee the second time I had to be out even longer on my butt. So now my muscles were out of whack. They weren't working together. Each muscle was working separately on its own instead of unison like it needs to. So, my body was literally fighting against each other to protect the muscles that were weaker than the strong ones."
If he's healthy and ready to return, that's all good and well, but it doesn't mean he can simply forget about the past three years. Most notably, he's no longer the champion even though he never technically lost his title in a fight. That's something he acknowledges still doesn't sit right with him.
"It's a weird thing because, like you said, I never really lost the belt, but there's people out there that are holding it and it's just weird. I don't really know what to think. I'm just going to fight," he said defiantly. He argues in his mind he's still the champion. If he lost a fight, it's to himself in the gym by beating "the crap out of" himself. "I'm here now," he notes quickly, :and I'm ready to get it back."
As aforementioned, that road back to the title starts with Mizugaki, a bantamweight war horse who is on a five-fight win streak. Cruz argues the Mizugaki fight is the right one to take even if he's got his sights set on the ultimate prize. Besides, there's a benefit to take a fight like this before jumping into championship rigors.
"Mizugaki is up for the title next. He's on a five-fight win streak and other than fighting me, he's looking at a title shot. He's top 5 and he's up there in a contender's position. So, for me, that is a very tough fight, first of all. Second of all, I didn't take that fight because when I jumped into that Barao camp, that's when I realized it wasn't about fighting the fight that was the problem. It was about doing the workload of a five-round camp. I don't think anybody in the world understands except for a fighter that when you go from a three-round camp to a five-round camp, the amount of workload just shoots up. It skyrockets. It can't even be compared."
In terms of the competition itself, Cruz sees Mizugaki as no walkover. The three-round fight camp will get his body, but beating Mizugaki will prove Cruz is as legit as he needs to be to warrant a title shot.
"Tune-up and warm-up fights do not exist in mixed martial arts," he argued. "That's a boxing thing and it doesn't happy in this fighting scene that we're in in mixed martial arts. Going against a top 5 guy right off the beat is a big feat for me and I'm excited to do it. Mizugaki is extremely durable, extremely tough, he's got a lot of cardio and he's got a lot of momentum. He believes in himself right now.
"It's a big challenge for me. I'm up for it and I'm excited for it, but after feeling my body in that five-round camp, realized I need to take my time in this camp because that's the hard part. The fight itself is literally the easy part. That's the fun part for me. That's why I come out smiling. I'm loving life on that night of fighting."
And maybe he will prove he's better than Mizugaki and deserves a shot at the winner of the rematch between T.J. Dillashaw and Barao. But how will he look? Will his style have changed? Does he breeze past Mizugaki or squeak? In Cruz's mind, he's picking back up right where he left off.
"I believe I'm me right now," he contended. "I have no question in my mind. I believe I am who I always was. You're going to see it, September 27th. I'm going to be me. Just who you've always seen."