Former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz's triumphant return to the Octagon in September of 2014 was short-lived. While Cruz was able to dominate Takeya Mizugaki in a way few expected, he was robbed of the chance to build on the momentum. Despite returning to the division with authority, the Alliance MMA standout tore his ACL again, this time in his previously uninjured knee.
In all likelihood, Cruz would be out up to another year, bringing the total amount of injury time in his career where he couldn't compete a total of four years. Nearly all of that four years would take place during the fighter's prime.
Fans and media alike wondered if that would be the career end for Cruz given how much time was and would now be lost. Yet, 'The Dominator' remains undeterred, if not outright defiant about his chances of a successful comeback.
"Real well," Cruz said of his most recent ACL surgery to Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "I've obviously done this more times than I'd like, but I've become pretty used to the sequence of events that takes place. Right now, I'm in the machine that kind of bends my leg and I get to move it 10 degrees every day. I'm on 80 degrees today. I go to 90 degrees tomorrow. Then I go see the doctor on Thursday and then rehab starts. I'm right on track. Every surgery was very successful, and I'm feeling absolutely optimistic."
Leave it to Cruz to not only remain upbeat about the process, but turn the entire ordeal into a series of best practices on how to recuperate. This time. Cruz says, he's doing things a bit different. All of the medical health professionals - from the surgeon to the various physical therapists - are all talking to each other. They all know what's happening with his progress, they're all working with the same information and able to understand what Cruz needs at each stage of his recovery.
"That was something that never took place in my first two surgeries. That, in my opinion, is one of the hardest things to do because doctors separate themselves so much from recovery that it just becomes you and the therapist," he noted.
Cruz even insisted his rehabilitation specialist attend and watch the surgery to better understand how his anatomy was being affected.
"Everybody's been very helpful in making sure that this surgery is completely successful, at the highest level the first time around instead of it failing the first time. I've definitely made sure that everything, all my i's were dotted and my t's were crossed on this surgery to get back in there as soon as possible."
The key for Cruz was not how badly he was setback, although he doesn't deny that happened. Instead, he focuses on what happens as a way to better understand himself and the requirements of the long road back to competitive fighting.
"I said it. I don't know if anybody listened to my interviews or heard the words that I was saying. I tried to say exactly how I am and where I'm at and be real with it every time I talk," Cruz insisted. "Something I said in all my interviews in the past were how much I found myself over that time where I was just sitting idle and had nothing to do. I literally how to find out who I am and who I was outside of fighting.
"I legitimately had to rebuild my persona because all I knew of myself up to that point, I was young when I first hurt my knee. I was only 26 and I had four world titles. That's all I knew of myself, was being a world champion and becoming the best fighter on the earth. That's all I wanted. That's the only thing I saw for myself."
Being on ice for so long, Cruz claimed, forced him to reevaluate who he was. He had to view himself as a different person, albeit one capable of still accomplishing his original goals.
"When I blew my knee out, it completely derailed any of my goals, any of the things I chose that I wanted to do for myself, any of my future that I saw. It kinda just got thrown in a dumpster, in a sense, because I was so hurt and I knew I was out for so long.
"Dealing with that kind of depression, dealing with that kind of low, it really taught me how to deal with ultimate lows, and what I need to do to get through it," Cruz observed. "100 percent, going through those first two surgeries that I've gone through, had absolutely equipped me for this third one and given me a different mindset as to what I need to do to get through it, strategically and personally just as strong as I did before."
As for a timeline on a return, Cruz pointed at nine months as an approximate window. Six months, he said, would be the absolute earliest and unlikely, but didn't rule out potentially coming back before the nine-month window.
If there's been any surprise during the most recent injury recovery process, it's not what has happened with his internal dialogue, but rather, the outside world offering their collective and entirely unsolicited opinion.
"I see the tweets and stuff. It's hilarious to me because I've gone through this so much, I'm ready for the 'Dominick's done! His knees are like paper! He's never going to make it! Hang up your gloves!'
"You know what's shocking to me?," he continued. "When I get tweets from people that tell me, 'What's the point, Dominick? I think it's time to hang 'em up. You can't do it?' It shocked me how people go out of their way to tweet me how I can't do something. That shocks me more than anything. It doesn't bother me, it's just people are literally going out of their way, who don't know me on a personal level, to go onto their Twitter account and tell me 'You can't do anything, your knees are too thin, you won't be back'. It's like, you really needed to do that for yourself to feel better for your day today, guy?"
Despite the clear annoyance he finds with these sentiments, he still views them more as a bizarre curiosity than unwelcome foreshadowing. Cruz claimed he's not blind to the reality of the challenges, but hasn't lost even a little of his optimism about a return to the Octagon.
"I'm here looking positive. People are saying, 'What's this guy going to do? How's he going to do it?' I'm saying, why can't I? I can't wait to get back there. In the meantime, I'm going to make the best of my life. I'm going to enjoy fighting. I'm going to enjoy commentating with you and the rest of the guys. I promise you I'm going to keep getting better.
"I'm going to be in the gym," Cruz said enthusiastically. "Don't think I'm not in the gym."