There was speculation within the community - and Dominick Cruz himself - that the UFC bantamweight champion would never be here. 'Here', of course, is Cruz holding championship status with a successful defense against his top rival most recently at UFC 199.
Through roughly four years of injury layoff time, there was never any certainty Cruz would return to MMA at all, much less this lofty position. Those doubts have all but disappeared now. More than that, he told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour, he's not merely ready to put doubts about his long-term viability as a fighter to bed, but to put the defining competitive chapter of his career behind him as well.
"I'll be honest. I don't think so," Cruz said of ever facing Urijah Faber for a fourth time after winning their rubber match earlier this month. "It was a huge thing to kind of close out an ongoing chapter in my life in the sense of, that's the only loss I've ever had. I needed to close that out just so I didn't have any kind of questions set by anybody. It could've always been a question with me and Faber because we were competitive the second fight. He beat me the first fight and this fight I just closed it out. There's no question anymore. So, that I needed, for myself and for the fans, really, so I don't get that question anymore."
Interestingly, however, Cruz still does not regard this as his most-gratifying win. That fight comes in the form of the other biggest fight of Cruz's career, simply returning to the cage.
"I honestly believe probably the most fun and the most gratifying fight I've ever had in my career was against [Takeya] Mizugaki just because of the layoff that I was facing. I wasn't sure if I was ever going to do it again before that fight. I went out there and shocked myself. Like I say it all the time, I believe that's why we do this. Everybody says 'I want to have the belt and people will respect me and I'll be in the rankings' and all this, and all that. Really, when you want all those things, all you're really looking for is to validate yourself, not get the validation from everybody else.
"When I went out there and fought Mizugaki after three-and-a-half years off, I was able to teach myself something: validate my own thoughts for myself," Cruz argued. "Make sure that I knew that I can compete and be there. That was like winning five titles for me."
Still, Cruz speaks of Faber even now because he knows him best. He's spent more time fighting Faber and attached to him through P.R. events than any other fighter, by a wide margin. When asked what was the difference in terms of the gap between them now in skill, Cruz attributed it to the very aspect of Faber's personality that has propelled the Team Alpha Male head to greatness.
"I've said it in all the interviews before that I didn't have to beat Faber because he's already been beating himself for years. I think that he's an extremely good fighter and I think in any scenario, he's still top 3 in the division even with how the division's lined up now.
"He's one of the best in the world at this weight class," he continued. "He doesn't lose three-round fights and he's good. I knew he was talented, but I know that his ego and the fact that he's unwilling to face the things that have lost him those eight fights before this last fight that I fought him. He's unwilling to face, he's unwilling to take responsibility for the reasons he lost. All you hear are the things he did right in those fights and survived in those fights rather than what he could've done better and give kudos to the people that beat him.
"His own ego won't allow him to do that. He's a positive thinker and as a positive thinker, I understand that. But at a certain extent, you can't lie to yourself just to be positive. I felt like his ego won't allow him to tell the truth to himself. He'll always make up an excuse. He'll always say why he's better than that if he fought again next time, how he got lucky, how his thumb was up when he's knocked out. You're not really admitting your loss, which means you're not really learning from it. If you don't learn from your losses, you can't grow. It's hard to grow if you're not learning."
As for going forward, there's a serenity to Cruz's voice. The work in dealing with fighting Faber three times is over and the champion seems relieved to be able to explore new chapters in his career. "I don't hate the guy. We got that done. I fought him. It's done, it's good," Cruz noted, but finished discussing his long-time rival by sticking one more metaphorical knife in his belly. "I got no issues with him. I'm moving on with my career. I'm happy I'm moving on with my career. I just know the truth behind that guy. I've known him too long not to."
The real question for Cruz is what comes next. The bantamweight division has never been hotter, but there is no consensus top contender.
Cruz said he hasn't talked to UFC brass yet. He's also ready to heal his plantar fasciitis, to the extent possible. But the gears in his head are turning.
As it turns out, Cruz has not stated he doesn't care about being champion or is uninterested in defending his title. Yet, this isn't about what Cruz didn't say and more about what he's explicitly calling for: the biggest fights possible.
"I've been a world champion in this sport for a long time. I left, came back and became a world champion again. I don't need anything except these big fights. I've been fighting for so long against the best in the guys in the world. I want these big fights that people want to see that are going to pay the big money."
The ambiguity here is real. He has no intentions of giving up his title, nor is he saying the title is unimportant to him. When he speaks of possible match-ups, he mentions other bantamweight contenders. What he wants, though, is someone else who brings something to the table. He's a champion and television analyst. What, Cruz wondered, is his next opponent going to bring to the table?
"135 is looking amazing right now. The whole division is stacked. Everybody's pissed off. Everybody's fighting everybody right now. There was a time where you got certain guys like, 'Hey, I'm not fighting this guy. He's my teammate.' Well, how are you supposed to be the best in the world if you're unwilling to fight certain people?
"The question is: which one of these guys sells out an arena?', Cruz asked. "Which one of these guys does everybody want to see fight? Are they chomping at the bit to see any of these guys get in the ring and fight? Will they fill up a stadium to come watch any of those gentleman fight? I don't know, but I think that a lot of people would definitely come to see me lose or come to see me win. And I know that I can do that. The question is, who of these people that I can fight next brings something more to the table for me more than I make them famous?"
So, does this mean Cruz is going to call out his next opponent or has someone in mind? Not exactly. "I don't pick fights. I never have," he explained. "That's not what I'm trying to say here. What I'm saying is, I want these guys to fight and do what they're saying, which is, be ranked and get in the right position. Sell some tickets. Make people want to see you fight. Sell something out. We talk about [T.J.] Dillashaw and [Renan] Barao fighting. They fought two times and had some of the worst ticket sales ever in the history of 135 pounds. No one showed up for their fight."
Right now, Cruz isn't making any decisions. There's healing and resting to be had before anything else. And he isn't deaf. He hears how often his name is mentioned by contenders who want what he has. Cruz's point, however, is there is some sorting and ascending to do for those who are currently asking for opportunities before they're deserving.
Who is going to face Cruz next? No one knows, least of all the champion. But Cruz also knows there is work to be done in the division before someone is ready. Once they're there, he hopes, they'll be ready to fight him physically and mentally while contributing financially.
"I've been called out six different times in the past month, Ariel. It's everybody's job to call out the champion," he observed.
"That's the easy part. The hard part is fighting to deserve it in the sense of beating the best guys in the division to challenge yourself so you think that when you get in there with me, you're actually prepared for it. You didn't just talk like you're prepared for it because those are two completely different things when you're facing me."