When Dominick Cruz lost his bantamweight title to Cody Garbrandt at UFC 207, it had been a little over nine years and nine months since he’d suffered his last defeat. A decade is a long time to go without losing, but Cruz handled himself afterwards like a man given to exploration. He didn’t present excuses, nor did he lean on stock fight game adages to pull him through as he faced the media. He simply accepted that he lost to Garbrandt that night, right there on the spot, and it was up to everyone else to reach his level of acceptance.
An hour after losing his belt, he was well into the process of moving on.
Now three months later, Garbrandt is coaching opposite his nemesis T.J. Dillashaw on The Ultimate Fighter in preamble to a fight between the two, and Cruz is left to pick up the pieces. His longtime coach at Alliance MMA, Eric Del Fierro, says Cruz has been much the same man he’s always been in dealing with a loss.
“It’s no different than dealing with Dominick after a win,” Del Fierro told MMA Fighting recently. “You go back and you look at what went great, and you look at what went wrong. We do that when we win, as well. This sport is evolving everyday, and we knew this was going to be a tough fight — there’s no such thing as Dominick having an easy fight, period. Win or lose, he knows what he needs to do. He knows what little mistakes to work on, and what Cody shined on. At this point, it’s just sitting back and making the right decision on when he wants to fight again.”
Though Cruz hadn’t lost a fight in that 10-year span as the WEC and UFC champion, he’d suffered plenty of setbacks throughout his career — namely with his health. He dealt with a series of hand and knee injuries and a severe groin tear that kept him out of action for a prolonged period of time. Between late 2011 and early 2016, Cruz fought just once, against Takeya Mizugaki in 2014. That fight lasted just 61 seconds.
Yet even after being stripped of his title and watching others in his division fight for it, Cruz made a triumphant return at a UFC Fight Night in Boston in 2016 against Dillashaw. After winning a five-round unanimous decision to regain the title, he was asked if — given all he’d been through — holding the belt again was the greatest moment of his life.
“No,” he deadpanned. “The greatest moment of my life was realizing that I didn’t need a belt to be happy.”
In winning back his title, Cruz held onto an ounce of melancholy. In losing it, he clung to his resolve. Del Fierro said that’s Cruz in a nutshell, a unique fighter in that he can assess the big picture as well as he can a single jab in a fight.
“I’ve been blessed in the sense that he’s been with me for so long,” he said. “I know when everything is 100 percent perfect, and I know when certain things are missing, or when things weren’t executed, due to him or due to Cody. It just didn’t work out the right way. He knows it and I know it, and you just go back and make adjustments. It’s no different if he had won the fight. We would still make the adjustments, and we’d figure out what went right and what went wrong.”
Cruz has demonstrated through his analyst work with FOX that he’s one of the brightest minds in the game. During the UFC 209 pay-per-view, he sat in with Jon Anik and Joe Rogan and effectively gave the in-cage action meaning to a casual viewer, walking through set-ups, pointing out inclinations and offering crystal clear ideas on how to counter what it was he was seeing. In short, he gave a fight a sense of telegraphy, making even the most chaotic sequences come off as not only accessible, but perfectly reasonable.
Not an easy thing to do.
Del Fierro says that Cruz sees his own fights with similar clarity. “It’s easy for me to sit back and look at the video game of it, and say, ‘do this, this, and this,’” Del Fierro said. “It’s getting the opponent to cooperate, and Dominick going in there and executing. Does Dominick have all the tools in his arsenal that he needs to win that fight [with Garbrandt]? For sure. But my job’s a lot easier than the actual athlete.”
Recently Cruz did an in-depth, two-hour interview on the Joe Rogan Experience, in which he talked about life growing up, his family, why he got into fighting, and why he was equipped to get over losing his title as quickly as he did.
If you listen to that, his coach says, you’ll see why “Dominick is in a good place.” Building a normal fighter after a loss can be a process of rebuilding a psyche. With Cruz it’s an experience.
“He’s learned a lot about himself and who he is. And honestly, fighting is a big part of his life, but it’s something he’s still having fun with. When it becomes a job, or when it becomes more than that, maybe it’ll be too much of him. But right now he loves it, and he’s looking forward to competing again. I think this is the best version of Dominick that’ll be coming back to fight again.”
Del Fierro said that right now he’s not sure who Cruz will fight next, but the inclination is to wait and see how Garbrandt-Dillashaw plays out. If it’s Garbrandt, it’s a chance to right the ship (like he did with Urijah Faber). If it’s Dillashaw, it’s a chance to do better than he did the first time out in Boston.
In either case, Del Fierro said Cruz took what he needed from both fights, and — if anything — losing for the first time in 10 years contains some novelty.
“Don’t get me wrong, Dominick is human like everybody else,” he said. “There’s no happiness in losing. We’re happy to be alive, happy to be competing, happy to have these gifts, but we’re all competitors here, and he is too. He’s not 100 percent happy with losing, let’s just say that.”