Dominick Cruz has been here before.
It’s almost an eerily similar set of circumstances as the now 35-year-old veteran returns from a long layoff due to injury and he’s facing a champion in the division who has looked almost unbeatable lately.
The last time this happened, Cruz had been sidelined for 16 months when he returned to the UFC and defeated T.J. Dillashaw to become bantamweight champion for the second time. He had previously been stripped of his title after a string of injuries kept him out of action for nearly three years.
Now following almost four years away, Cruz returns again with hopes of conquering another bantamweight champion in Henry Cejudo in the co-main event at UFC 249. Considering the injuries and the time off, Cruz understands why he’s being doubted heading into Saturday night but he believes it will just make it that much sweeter when he pulls off the impossible once more.
“That’s how you become legendary in this thing,” Cruz said during Tuesday’s UFC 249 media conference call. “I’ve already done legendary things in the division and in the sport. More than half my fights are title fights alone. So just with the murderer’s row that I’ve faced, [Joseph] Benavidez, Urijah Faber, T.J. Dillashaw, Demetrious Johnson, the list goes on. With all these people I’ve beaten, I cleared out the division. I was ranked two behind only the No. 1 pound-for-pound man for a year, Demetrious Johnson, and I’ve beaten him.
“So I’ve pretty much been pound-for-pound the best at one time in this sport. I’ve done everything you can do. To come out after the layoff when nobody really gives you a shot and just beat up a 125er, it’s going to be fun.”
A lot has been made about Cruz’s injuries, over the past few years, which include multiple reconstructive surgeries on both of his knees, a torn groin, shoulder surgery and a broken arm. Cruz has only fought four times since 2011 and he’s about to return from his longest layoff yet after nearly three and a half years since his last appearance in the UFC.
Despite all those issues working against him, Cruz refuses to allow his past to serve as a crutch when discussing his future against Cejudo at UFC 249. Cruz has long discounted ring rust as a factor for any fighter coming back from an injury and he certainly won’t use that as an excuse as he seeks to tackle another seemingly insurmountable challenge.
“It’s about making sure that you prepare yourself the right way,” Cruz explained. “I live this life to train so when this is all said and done, I’m going to be in this shape still. I enjoy training. It’s like a livelihood for me. It’s just how I like to live my life is in shape, feeling good, and training hard.
“Transformation is a public event so I’m constantly trying to transform in my life. This is the place to do it on a stage in front of the first sports event to ever happen [since the coronavirus outbreak in March]. This is the stage where transformation happens. Every athlete on this card is putting themselves in a vulnerable position where they can be beaten or win and what’s the pleasure of winning if there’s no thought of losing? So all this comes together to create a lot of fire. I’m excited for it.”
As much as it would mean to his legacy to pull off the upset and reclaim the UFC bantamweight title, Cruz is also cognizant of the magnitude of this particular moment in time.
As the United States continues to face record numbers of infections from the novel coronavirus and more than 72,000 dead from the disease, Cruz believes he’s fighting for more than just his opportunity to become UFC champion again.
“It ranks up there as another history-making fight for me. But I really look at this a lot different than belts and all the things that we have,” Cruz said. “It’s more about the difference you can make in these times when you have a platform. I look at this as a time where I can make a huge difference. Like what’s the value of champions’ belts or Olympic gold medals when there’s 33 million Americans who just filed for unemployment benefits? They can’t feed their families since mid-March. 2,417 Americans died in the United States [today]. There’s no vaccine for COVID-19 coming. Probably no end in sight.
“So I’ve been in the question of what’s the value of belts or even Olympic gold medals unless you can use it to make a difference in the lives and the service of humanity essentially, really.”
Because some issues are bigger than the sport, Cruz looked to the past to find inspiration when gathering his thoughts on taking part of the first major sporting event to take place following the initial COVID-19 outbreak.
He’s now using that as a guideline of sorts when it comes to the statement he hopes to make with a win over Cejudo at UFC 249.
“The leader that made a difference for me in this way is Muhammad Ali. He was willing to give up the belt, possibly go to prison for five years to stand for what he saw as world peace,” Cruz said, referencing Ali’s stance to refuse to enter the military draft during the Vietnam War. “That put me in the question of what’s my purpose in all of my accomplishments here?
“Realistically, it’s to make a difference and stand for everybody who thinks that they’re not a champion and regardless of what everybody say, regardless of what everybody’s credentials are, none of that matters if you believe and if you want it and you have a bigger purpose than yourself, than just what you have just holding up your belts to everybody and saying I’m better than you cause I have this thing. How about every single person out there gets to be that if they choose it, whenever they want? I’m going to stand for that after a three-year layoff again when everybody says ring rust exists and it actually doesn’t. It’s all in your head.”