Daron Cruickshank is not in Michigan anymore.
Heading into his Rizin Fighting Federation debut April 17 against Shinji Sasaki (16-8-3) at the Nippon Gaishi Hall in Nagoya, Japan, Cruickshank (16-8, one no-contest) finds himself far removed from Western Civilization – and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"They have some different things going on here [in Japan]," Cruickshank told MMA Fighting. "All the public toilets are basically just a hole in the ground, and I’m like, ‘Holy crap. How do I use this thing without shi**ing everywhere?’ The toilet in my room has a heater, so you can preheat it before you sit down on it. It also has water that sprays up your bunghole to wash it. It’s lovely."
Toilet technology aside, Cruickshank's reinvention under the Rizin FF banner marks yet another example of a UFC fighter testing the waters outside the Octagon and finding the wake quite pleasant. After a three-fight skid with the UFC, Cruickshank needed another fight, but the organization didn't comply. This sparked a conversation that ultimately ended in his release.
"The thing is, with the UFC, if you look at my career, I’m constantly fighting. I’m in one camp, I fight, then I’m back into another one," Cruickshank said. "I never take a break. I never get injured – knock on wood – I’ve never had an injury take me out from a fight. That’s throughout my whole college career wrestling, high school, and all that. I’ve never not taken competition because of an injury, so I’m constantly fighting.
"So after my last fight [at January's UFC Fight Night 81 event], the week after, I always hit them up, like, ‘Hey, when can I fight again? I need to stay active, blah, blah, blah.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, you’ve lost three in a row. We can’t really use you, we can’t put you on another card unless it’s way down the road or it’s a short-notice fight and we need to use you.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I need to keep fighting. I got bills. This is how I make my money.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, we could keep you but we’d have to bench you, basically, or we can cut you and you can go fight and maybe potentially go back or find your home somewhere else – it doesn’t matter.’ So it was like a mutual let-go kind of thing, because I can’t sit the bench, and they can’t use me right now."
While the free agency market in MMA is on the up-and-up – fighters such as Benson Henderson, Josh Thomson, Phil Davis, and Matt Mitrione successfully navigated the claymores and emerged richer for the experience – Cruickshank didn't necessarily enjoy smooth sailing. A three-fight losing streak didn't sit well in the eyes of his suitors, something that led to him accepting a three-fight, non-exclusive deal with Rizin.
This, to Cruickshank, is ultimately for the best.
"We did talk to some folks, different organizations, but being that I’m on a three-fight losing streak and that’s how they see it, they didn’t see my worth, and I’m like, ‘Well, I think I’m worth a lot more than you guys think. Just because I lost three fights in a row, did you ever see me fight? I’m super entertaining, I have a huge fan base, and I come to fight every single time,'" Cruickshank said. "I think Rizin really got an awesome deal picking me up at the price they did, but I also think I can make an awesome home, a huge fan base over here in Japan. The rules are different – I think they’re a little bit more vicious – and I think that’s more my style of fighting anyway.
"Currently, I have a three-fight, non-exclusive contract other than to other places in Japan. So I can fight for anybody else outside of Japan that I want to. But I have a three-fight contract within, I want to say it’s a year. Then we can renegotiate or go over different terms as far as price and stuff. I’m pretty happy with the contract that they gave me. It’s awesome, and I can’t wait to show them what I got."
The stand-up specialist makes his Rizin FF debut against Sasaki, a Japanese fighter boasting 10 submissions in 16 victories. Cruickshank acknowledges this threat through his training, and he's prepared to show off his improvements.
"Every time I train, I start with somebody on my back, and it’s a fight," Cruickshank said. "I’m working to get him off my back. Once, shame on me. Twice, shame on the other guy, but that’s all my fault. I believe, and my coaches believe, it’s because I wrestled for so long, in middle school, high school, throughout college. I still have some reactions, some muscle memory, that it’s OK for people to be on my back with my neck up. There’s no choking in wrestling, and that’s how you escape. I’m trying to break that habit and really, really concentrate on that. Hopefully, it comes out when I’m tired and I’m exhausted and I do the right thing instead of going back to muscle memory from when I wrestled as a kid.
"I’ve been drilling and going live from that position a lot. You can only tell in true competition, but I feel really confident."
Beyond his Rizin FF debut, Cruickshank is leaving each and every window open. A UFC return? He'll take it. World Series of Fighting (WSOF)? Bag 'em up. Kickboxing? That's an option he'd consider, too.
It all comes down to the dollar signs.
"I’m basically a whore, I guess you could say," Cruickshank said. "I’m going to go where the money’s at. It doesn’t matter. Kickboxing or whatever the name is, I’ll do it if it’s for the right money."
The money dwindles with a loss, though, so before any other conversation occurs, Cruickshank needs to make a splash in the Land of the Rising Sun. To do so, he'll embrace his American, gun-toting, mustache-having roots, first wowing the crowd with his theatrics then electrifying them with his fists, elbows, knees, and shins.
"I’m trying to be as American as I can be over here," Cruickshank said. "The mustache is just a must when it comes to American badass...It's going to get weird...
"Losing three straight sucks. Even in my wrestling career, my whole athletic career, I never dwell on the past. I never think, ‘Oh, shit, I have to win!’ I basically think that I want to go out there and put on the best show that I can, and then if I do that, I’ll more than likely win. The last couple fights, those are fights I could have won. On another other night, I would’ve won. It’s unfortunate, but I’m not dwelling on it. I’m looking forward, and I’m looking forward to knocking this dude’s head off April 17 for Rizin Fighting Federation."