By Alistair Hendrie
“I look at this fight a lot differently than just belts,” said Dominick Cruz, talking on a conference call about his bantamweight title shot against Henry Cejudo on Saturday at UFC 249, which will be held behind closed doors. “What’s the value of championship belts when there are millions of Americans applying for unemployment benefit who can’t feed their families? I look at this fight as a time when I can make a huge difference.”
As such the leader in UFC and WEC bantamweight wins is aware of the moment of respite a UFC event can offer the world during the coronavirus pandemic. The 35-year-old, returning from a four-year absence due to a litany of arm and shoulder injuries, spoke of the millions of Americans who are being laid off work as the economy suffers. Indeed, Cruz wants to offer a glimmer of hope on Saturday.
“Realistically this fight is a stand for everyone who thinks they’re not a champion and to let them know that regardless of what anyone says, regardless of what their credentials are, if you believe something, if you want something, you have a greater purpose than just yourself. I’m gonna stand for that after a four-year lay-off – again – when everyone says ring rust exists even though it doesn’t.”
Cruz lost his bantamweight crown against Cody Garbrandt in 2016 in his latest outing in the UFC. He was outmanoeuvred and outboxed by his younger rival and famously accepted his humbling in good grace. That said, many pundits have said Aljamain Sterling or Petr Yan are more worthy of a shot at gold.
Still, after four years away from the Octagon, it’s worth recapping Cruz’s achievements. While picking up both WEC and UFC world championships, he bested luminaries such as TJ Dillashaw, Demetrious Johnson, Urijah Faber (twice), Ian McCall, Joseph Benavidez (twice) and Scott Jorgensen. “A murderer’s row,” as Cruz puts it. His footwork and head movement are some of the best in the sport and, as ever, Cruz insists he is in shape and primed to become the first man to win the UFC bantamweight crown on three separate occasions.
“I feel like money right now. I’m fast, I’m lean and I’m ready to go so that’s what I’m focused on. I enjoy training – it’s like a livelihood for me. It’s just how I like to live my life – in shape, feeling good, training hard. Transformation is a public event so I’m constantly trying to transform and this is the stage to do it, the first sport event to happen during coronavirus.
“I rehabbed my shoulder and then started training with Jeremy Stephens who is far bigger and stronger than anyone in my division. By training with him and mixing it up with other smaller fighters, I’ve got speed and size to work with. I’ve got tons of title fights, tons of time in the octagon so it’s just another day doing what I love. That really pieces together a good camp.”
And what about training in lockdown? “I don’t have a lot of people in the gym especially now in quarantine; we’ve all been having to train with perhaps 4-6 people max in the gym. It’s been pretty silent – I think it’s going to resemble a behind-closed-doors event.”
Whatever preparation the Alliance MMA man brings, Cejudo will be a tough test thanks to his precise boxing, excellent sprawls and world class mount. The American of Mexican heritage surged from behind to take out Marlon Moraes in June 2019, adding the bantamweight strap to his flyweight gold, and he is now tagging himself as the greatest combat sports athlete ever, owing to his 2008 Olympic wrestling gold medal, and his status as the fourth UFC competitor to hold world titles in two divisions at the same time.
While Cejudo has perhaps surpassed Cruz in the modern consciousness, “The Dominator” nevertheless described himself as “the Michael Jordan of the bantamweight division.” He added: “My win over Dillashaw will mean more because he’s a true 135er. Cejudo is still a 125er and he’ll go back to that division after I beat him.” Cejudo responded with confidence and promised to “execute” his nemesis, stating “you better sign your unemployment cheque because I’m taking your ass out. Dominique, you know I’m coming.”
Cruz shot back: “You’re short and I know you’re gonna have a hard time finding me. When you’re in there missing, you’re gonna find out real quick the difference. You’re just a wrestler, I’m gonna expose you real quick.”
Indeed, the hostility is building nicely, as is the drama. Cruz’s time at the top will be on the line, while Cejudo has a chance to win a fourth successive title bout and become only the third man to upend his iconic opponent. And yet, coronavirus offers a sense of perspective on the event, something Cruz recognises with clarity.
“There’s no vaccine and perhaps no end in sight right now so what’s the value of belts unless you can make a difference in people’s lives? A lot of people listen to us and like to hear what we have to say so it’s about coming up with something that matters. Every single person out there can do something if they choose to, whenever they want.
“Whenever anyone thinks something is difficult it’s equal to anything anyone’s ever done in sport – that’s how it becomes legendary. I’ve been pound-for-pound best at one time and I’ve done everything you can do in the sport, so to come out when nobody gives you a shot and beat up a 125er is going to be fun.”
Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more