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Dominick Cruz questions fighters who retire undefeated: ‘Could you have just pushed a little harder?’

Former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz has faced some of the most significant injury obstacles of anyone to hold a UFC belt: Two blown knees, a botched surgery, a torn quad, and other consequences of a decade in the cage.

They cost him almost four years of his career. When he looks back and looks forward, though, he can only feel gratitude at what he’s been able to survive.

“Everybody left me, nothing was going right, I was depressed,” Cruz said recently on The MMA Hour. “So I had to find a way to make a difference to get out of my own way.”

Commentary turned out to be the thing that saved Cruz. Putting all of his energy into the analysis of the sport was not only a way to stay in the game, but also to be a part of a community, and a way to provide a perspective on his and other’s journeys as fighters. When he eventually made his way back to the sport and won again inside the octagon, he looked differently at those who had gone through adversity — and those who’d left.

“I look at this sport from a completely different frame of mind these days than I ever looked at it before, because I’ve had to rewrite my belief systems as I’ve won and lost, won and lost,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m here. I’d never felt that much loss in two years of my life. And then to come back again and win again after feeling that loss, there’s no understanding of yourself like that. So any athlete who left the sport undefeated, I question: ‘Are you really undefeated, or did you not challenge yourself as hard as you could have? And if you did, what would it look like on the other side?’”

Cruz, who’s next set to face Pedro Munhoz at UFC 269, wouldn’t directly name Khabib Nurmagomedov as the object of his observation, but he indicated the now-retired undefeated former lightweight champion was a good example. If a fighter had never bounced back from a loss, he said it could deprive them of a worthwhile step in their martial arts journey.

“I get it, you’re undefeated — but like, are you undefeated, or could you have just pushed a little harder to get that next level and get that loss? And then come back and reclaim the loss with a win and see what your next level, your next evolution in life is? It’s not all about just winning and losing and being perfect. Nothing in life is that.

“You can’t dodge loss. You can’t dodge pain. You can’t dodge any of it. So what’s the point? You might as well just go right through it. The question is, when it does happen, what are you going to do with it? Are you going to just give up and say I’m retired and quit, or are you going to get back on the horse and see what else you can be?”

Nurmagomedov did, in fact, overcome immense loss prior to his final UFC fight, a title unifier at UFC 254 against then-interim champ Justin Gaethje. The bout was the first time he fought after the loss of his father and longtime trainer, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, and he suffered bouts of illness and injury in training camp before stepping into the cage. He overcame it all to submit Gaethje in the second round and notch his 29th professsional MMA victory.

Technically, Nurmagomedov is not undefeated in competition. In 2005, he was bested at the Russian Combat Sambo Championship by Magomed Ibragimov, who went on to have a successful amateur wrestling career. Nurmagomedov, of course, did his best work in the cage.

So perhaps Nurmagomedov isn’t the best example of a fighter who stepped away from adversity. But for Cruz, the experience of overcoming massive obstacles is the way he judges success.

“I was fortunate enough to have that experience, and I’m still on that ride, and let’s see what comes next,” he said.