The last time Dominick Cruz fought he was in the main event against speedster Demetrious Johnson, a fight being bandied as perhaps "the fastest-paced fight in UFC history." Johnson, it might be recalled, was coming off an unconvincing victory over Miguel Torres at UFC 130, which opened up a can of heat about how competitors can dictate a fight from the bottom, recalling the bout between Matt Hughes and "Charuto" Verissimo.
Obviously, Cruz -- the jitteriest, shufflingest, most mesmerizing defensive striker the game had known -- was expected to retain his bantamweight title, and there was a pomp to that expectation when he said in the promos, "I’m in there to make history and create a legacy for myself."
And he did win that night in Washington D.C. That’s what Cruz did and that’s what Cruz does, and it’s the only Cruz we’ve ever known.
Three years later, nothing has changed…except, you know…for the fact that everything has changed. The world has moved on while Cruz has repaired himself again and again (and again). Now here he is almost three years to the day since he last step foot in the Octagon, on a prelim, beltless, on a pay-per-view headlined by "Mighty Mouse" Johnson, champion of a weight class that didn’t exist in his day, and who just happens to be the same guy he beat the last time he took off his shoes for meaningful hand-to-hand combat.
Renan Barao, the man who stood atop the division in his stead, had a whole era that came and went. T.J. Dillashaw, who’d not yet had a fight in the UFC when Cruz last competed, is now the champion. Dillashaw’s coach, Duane Ludwig, fought three more times in the UFC since Oct. 1 2011, became a coach of the year in Sacramento, and is now moving his brand to Colorado.
Cruz has been gone a long, long time. He became a statue in a time-lapse.
And really, there’s no need recounting the many surgeries and false starts and cadaver tendons that didn’t take and torn groins and booth gigs where he flourished and private hours he spent wondering if fate was against him -- that stuff is well documented. It’s enough to just say, with a little knock on wood, that Cruz is back.
And when the "Dominator" steps into the cage tonight at UFC 178 to fight Takeya Mizugaki, it feels like a big deal. It’s the kind of big deal that is actually a little too difficult to fathom for people used to the breezy CliffsNotes. It’s difficult to even promote properly; what he’s been through is too exhausting, too mentally taxing, too superstitious, and too frustrating for easy empathy. He was just a dude bumping into the wall there for awhile, like remote control car stuck in a corner. It’s hard to sell a man returning from the void.
And in that way, it’s not a feel good story just yet, because we’re not sure if Cruz is Cruz, or if Cruz is something else. It doesn’t feel like a new beginning, because there’s a chance this might be beginning of the end. It doesn’t feel like he’s not still a pound-for-pound kingpin, either, because -- given his work ethic -- there’s a strong hunch his ability never went away.
What will we get? Hopefully anything like we remember, including the rough bits that drew the criticism.
It feels like eons ago, but the knock on Cruz back in the day was that he didn’t finish fights. None of his title defenses in the UFC -- and there were only two -- were finishes. That streak extends to his reign in the WEC.
What he did was far more baffling, though; he beat people through something like elusive preternatural movement. His combos came from awkward angles, cutting the cage by degrees at shutter-speed. There was an upright buoyancy to his style that was off-putting for some, but majestic for others. His footwork carried his frame in ways that at times looked comical, movements set to the twitching pace of early film, complete with the skips, blips and a saloon music score. He was hit less than any man competing, and yet he timed counters and landed his share through the erratic dance. Part of his offense was evasion, which didn’t always compute for everyone.
And it’s true, it looked like an exercise in futility to fight him.
But then again, the bantamweight division was new for people back in 2011. Years later, people have began to appreciate the lighter weight aesthetic, the technical side of the movements and the frenetic sequences. Of these, Cruz was a pioneer. In fact, Dillashaw mimicked Cruz’s lively footwork and head movement to defeat Barao. He did it again against Joe Soto in his first title defense. As the old cliche goes, imitation remains the sincerest form of flattery.
If Cruz is anything like Cruz tonight, the three missing years will feel like a long detour back to where we were. Some will love his style, and some will hate it. And here’s guessing that after thousands of hours working as a forgotten man, he won’t give a damn whichever way we choose.