The past few weeks, I'd been planning a trip to San Diego to spend a few days with the now-former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.
I wanted to do a longer story on the final days of Cruz's training camp as he prepared to return from a very long layoff against Renan Barao, the man many already considered to be the best 135-pound fighter in the world despite holding an interim version of the UFC belt. Where Cruz was once considered a puzzle without a plausible solution, Barao is now a truly feared and well-rounded fighter who would be installed as a heavy favorite against any competition Sean Shelby threw at him.
I wanted to delve into Cruz's mindset. Were there any nerves? Was there any doubt in his mind that he'd be the same fighter he was when he first went on the shelf back in 2011? Was he dismayed that Barao was installed as a sizable favorite despite holding an inferior version of his own championship?
As I went about the process of preparing to report on the story, I had a nagging thought in the back of my brain: What if Cruz was injured again and had to pull out of the fight?
I didn't allow myself to dwell on the question. Surely whatever deity governs the sporting landscape had already taken more than a pound of flesh in putting Cruz on the sidelines for over two years in the prime of his career. He (or she) had taken speed and movement from a fighter that relies more heavily on those two traits than any other. I couldn't imagine, or at least didn't want to imagine, the idea of Cruz suffering another injury and being forced back to the sidelines he'd just hobbled from.
But the gods are nothing if not cruel, or perhaps they are too busy running through mythical jungles with Vitor Belfort. And though Monday's news that Cruz had suffered yet another injury was not surprising, it was disheartening to those who follow the sport and enjoy seeing the best matching skills with their peers. For Cruz, it was likely a crushing blow.
At least this time it wasn't his knee. That's one thing Cruz can take solace in, though I doubt it does much to console a man who was forced to give up his place on top of the UFC's bantamweight division simply because he couldn't compete in a reasonable time frame. If given a choice between vacating the title, as he was forced to do on Monday, or going in the cage and going down swinging, I have little doubt Cruz would've chosen to limp to the cage and do his level best against Barao.
But that isn't the way these things work. Plenty of fighters still hide injuries from their coaches, managers and the UFC. They go in the cage and don't fight to their potential, and then they blame the injury for the loss. It's a ready-made excuse.
But Cruz doesn't operate that way. He's a professional. He realizes there is no benefit to going in the cage and facing Barao at anything less than 100 percent. Doing so could be costly, and once he loses to Barao, Cruz would find himself in a hole that's hard to get out of. Though I imagine it hurts like hell, giving the bantamweight title back to the UFC until he's 100 percent is the correct and smart decision.
I imagine that isn't much consolation for Cruz, who must sit at home and watch while nemesis Urijah Faber gets a shot at the belt Cruz never lost in the cage. But Cruz can also take solace in the fact that he's still just 28 years old. He has many years left in the sport. This latest injury, and giving back the championship he earned in the cage, may seem like the worst thing Cruz has ever faced.
But he'll be back. You know how I know he'll be back? Because he reached the top of the mountain in the first place. He reached the pinnacle, and then refused to be knocked off when unfortunate injury after injury threatened to end his career, to take the speed and life from his fighting style.
He is a fighter, and he will surely be back.
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