Dominick Cruz’s defeat in UFC 207 came as a surprise to many in the MMA community, as every aspect from the opponent to the fact that he lost by decision (a victory method for which he was known) shocked a majority of fight analysts. Even analysts at the highest and most prominent levels of the game found the result of the bout to be unprecedented. Indeed, Cody Garbrandt, a young, undefeated prospect from Team Alpha Male, a camp that produced fighters like Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes and Joseph Benavidez, was, in hindsight, egregiously overlooked. Yet in his last 13 fights, Cruz had never shown any signs of being outfought or outmatched. He seemed to be light-years ahead of everyone in his division, even after suffering three separate ACL tears. After nearly five years of being sidelined due to injuries, Cruz was able to come back to professional fighting and put a beating on Takeya Mizugaki in 2014, granting him the opportunity to regain the title he never lost from former Alpha Male prospect TJ Dillashaw, who many believed was the one to beat Cruz. Still, after 5 rounds, Dominick Cruz seemed to prove that he was undoubtedly still the best 135 pounder to ever grace the octagon when he won a close split decision victory over Dillashaw. Following this victory, Cruz fought his old rival, founder of Team Alpha Male and the only man to ever best him in a fight, Urijah Faber. For five rounds, Cruz put a beating on Faber that went unanswered, dominating both on the ground and on the feet. Indeed, Cruz seemed unstoppable. This was the third fight between these two rivals, and Cruz ended the trilogy with two wins against the Bantamweight legend. Faber would retire after his very next fight, where he picked apart and destroyed Brad Pickett, proving that Cruz’s two victories were a testament to his skill as opposed to Urijah’s lack thereof. Yet, none of these victories, accolades or achievements clarified Cruz’s status as the G.O.A.T. in the bantamweight division as clearly as his fight on in UFC 207 did.
Because of the stellar year Cruz has had in addition to his 13-fight win streak and his decade without a loss, one could be forgiven for assuming Cruz would stomp Garbrandt. Garbrandt, a young knockout artist whose fights in the UFC had all concluded with a quick rush forward to finish his opponents, didn’t seem to have much of a chance against the only man to ever hold the lineal UFC Bantamweight Championship. After all, Garbrandt seemed to be the type of fighter that Cruz is so famous for toying with. A fighter won’t get knocked out if they don’t get hit, and out of Cruz’s opponents, only Demetrious Johnson (the current #1 P4P fighter in the world) landed more than 30% of the strikes he attempted. Additionally, the fact that Garbrandt was from Team Alpha Male, a gym that had gone up against Cruz and come up short over the course of five separate fights contributed to the likelihood of Cruz’s victory for many viewers. Yet, as we saw on Friday, these factors worked positively for Garbrandt rather than against him. His quick finishes meant that we had seen little of his true potential. By training at Team Alpha Male, Garbrandt was able to draw on the experiences of his teammates and use the game plans of all the fighters who fought Cruz in the past. What we saw was in UFC 207 was not only the product of Garbrandt’s skill, but also the repeated hard work of Team Alpha Male. Cruz found out quickly that fighter intel becomes one of the biggest drawbacks of being at the top of the sport as long as Cruz had been.
Into the third round, it was clear that Cruz was losing the fight. He found himself out-fought and out-predicted at every turn, his patterns laid bare by Garbrandt’s dodges and counterpunches. Garbrandt forced Cruz to take the lead, predicted his every move and countered him in almost every position, always just out of range. Garbrandt got Cruz to overcommit and used Cruz’s intricate footwork to his advantage, in order to counterpunch effectively. For the first time in his career, Dominick Cruz was not the matador, but the bull. By the fourth round, it was clear that Cruz had to win by knockout or submission, a feat he only achieved once in his career, against a man he was currently unable to hit. Garbrandt began taunting Cruz, dropping him with hooks and laughing at him. It was surreal to see the champion, the best in the world, so thoroughly humiliated. By the fifth, it was past the point where most fighters, even professional fighters of the highest calibre, would stop trying and try to minimize the damage they took. Not Cruz. Cruz began to throw everything and the kitchen sink at Garbrandt. He attempted flying knees, spinning backfists, feints, hooks, head kicks and anything else he could think of. He was a violent whirling dervish borne of desperation. Nothing landed. It didn’t matter. Cruz kept throwing. When the final bell sounded, there was no doubt as to who had won the match. Dominick Cruz would face the defeat that had destroyed champions like Ronda Rousey, and left Jose Aldo sobbing in his locker room.
Then something magical happened. At the post fight media press conference, Cruz showed up, dark glasses on and suit perfect. The first question was from Luke Thomas, a well known MMA journalist. Having seen many dominant champions lose their belts over the past 2 years, Luke knew to use kid gloves. He said, “Dominick, I know this is a really tough night for you-“
“Why is it tough?” Cruz shot back, before Luke could finish his question.
Luke’s answer was noticeably quieter. “Because you lost”, he said, unsure of how to approach the situation or cushion it in softer language.
“This isn’t tough, this is life.”, replied Dominick. That set the tone for the rest of the conference. The press repeatedly handed him softballs; “Were you at 100%? Do you feel you won? What about an instant rematch?” He went on to dismiss questions that he wasn’t at 100%, or make excuses about his opponent a la Conor McGregor. He didn’t clamor for an instant rematch like Jose Aldo, nor did he hide from the media like Ronda Rousey. Cruz stood right in front of the media and told the world he lost. He then began to analyze the fight in his head, right in front of the media.
“Cody controlled the distance, he caught me in transitions, he read my patterns.” Then he began to make adjustments; “I could have let him lead more, I could have tweaked this or that.”
Just like that, Cruz was finding ways to make the fight closer, to make it harder for Garbrandt.
After Cruz won his title for the second time, an MMA journalist asked him if it was the greatest moment in his life. He replied, “The greatest moment of my life was when I realized I don’t need a belt to be happy.”
Despite a tiny blemish in a storied fighting career, Dominick Cruz is still the Greatest Bantamweight of All Time, and Cruz Control ain’t going anywhere.