Dominick Cruz is the king of the UFC’s bantamweight division — and he got there by doing things his way.
One minute Dominick Cruz is being accosted by fans for autographs and pictures in the lobby of the Westin Castle Harbour, the next we’re speeding down Toronto’s 404 freeway in a 1991 GMC pickup—three across the cab—and he’s saying that in San Diego, with so many celebrities around, nobody cares about Dominick Cruz. This happens in the space of five minutes. He juxtaposes as easily in person as he does in the cage. Can’t pinpoint him—Dominick Cruz is shifty.
Earlier in the day, Cruz was on stage for the Super Seven event the UFC put on as part of the Fan Expo in Toronto, where all the champions from all the weight classes were consolidated on a stage and grilled (gently) by Joe Rogan. Cruz is the least known of that monster’s ball, and, as a bantamweight, he’s certainly the smallest. He might also be the hardest working. It’s happy hour on a Friday night, yet we are being driven to Lin Martial Arts in the suburb of Markham, Ontario, by a guy named Shane Chin because Cruz insists on it. While other fighters not on the historic UFC 129 card are taking in the atmosphere of the city and the largesse of on-hand sponsors, vendors, and dutiful concierges, Cruz wants to train.
“I can’t go without training for a couple of days,” Cruz says. “I would freak out.”
From the looks of it, his repaired left hand has healed up fine after he fought with a fractured finger in his WEC 53 bout against Scott Jorgensen. The grotesque images he posted after the surgery come to mind, but he doesn’t mention it. Besides, there are other ailments. For instance, there’s a thick purple incision on his neck that he says “came from that gremlin training partner of mine, Danny Martinez, who forgot to clip his nails before practice.” And his knee is jacked up—it’s full of annoying fluid. He flicks a finger at it and says, “Look at that,” letting the ripple effect speak for itself.
“It happened while I was training with the Marines,” he says, lamenting the fact that he shared the experience with his next opponent, Urijah Faber. “I was out there on the course and they were not playing—we were like recruits and those drill instructors were out there trying to kill us. I was going through some barbed wire, and they had simulated bomb sounds, and the smoke bombs went over the barbed wire as I was running over it. I tripped over the barbed wire, hit my knee, and had to finish the course.”
If it were the 1920s, Dominick’s name could have been Bugsy and he’d have been at home carrying a Tommy gun. He has that dark hair that shoots into a widow’s peak. It’s all from a bygone day. From profile, with his ears a little cauliflowered from his wrestling days, he looks like a young Ken Shamrock who’s been reduced by Martian shrink rays. Faber once said Cruz looks like Eddie Munster, the little Dracula dude in the 1960s show “The Munsters.” By association, this means he looks a little like Kenny Florian, who is also accused of resembling Eddie Munster. I bring it up.
“I’d have to look at it, I’ve never heard that,” he says. “I’m not going to deny it.”
This is a confusing answer. Why deny or not deny something you’re unaware of? We’re almost to Lin’s. Cruz is jiggling his knee.
“It’s full of blood and fluid right now, and I still have to train around it, because nobody cares if you’re hurt in this sport,” Cruz says. “If you’re hurt—they forget about you. Either you’re fighting or you’re not, and that’s all they care about.”
By “they” he means the whole lot of us. You, me, the UFC, the defunct WEC, the fans, the haters—the general, at-large they. The first thing to know about Dominick Cruz is that he has an extraordinarily large chip on his shoulder for a man shaped into something as diminutive as a banty. He’d rather you didn’t try and knock it off, though. It’s what stokes his fire.
It’s why he’s motivated to train while everyone else is having fun. To put it differently, it’s why he wins.
Cruz isn’t the first fighter to be fueled by naysayers—the history of the fight game is dotted with them. Where his story gets novel is that he ascended all the way up the ranks to become a champion with this fuel. Yet, where it becomes completely original is that he started out by revolutionizing the game. Dominick Cruz became the WEC’s 135-pound champion (now carried over to the UFC) by using a formula that could have trickled down from the doctrine of Buddhist simplicity: 1) Hit your opponent often. 2) Don’t get hit.
“It’s something I’ve focused on since the beginning of my career, since I was 19 years old,” he says. “My brain told me to fight that way. I didn’t think I’d be good enough to beat a pure boxer who’s been boxing since they were six years old. But I knew I could wrestle. So I thought, right off the bat, something’s got to be different with the boxing that I do in MMA because I’m not just going to be able to put my hands up and hit hard like a boxer. It doesn’t work that way because a four-ounce glove will sneak right through all the holes that a boxing defensive guard has.”
A standout high school wrestler in Tucson, Arizona, at Flowing Wells High School, controlling the action in the cage might have been the easy thing to do. Wrestlers are commonly great at neutralizing opponent strengths. Cruz’s fight signature, though—other than having some of the best cardio in the game—is to infuse that ability with something as unlikely as evasiveness. It doesn’t take a fight game scholar to realize that evasiveness and cage control are opposites. But then there’s Cruz.
In his title defense against Joseph Benavidez at WEC 50, Cruz out-landed the southpaw 103-46 in total strikes. In eight fights in the WEC, he was never knocked down. Not once. He was taken down just four times in 25 attempts during that stretch. Out of every five strike attempts, opponents connected only once. If there were sabermetricians in MMA, Cruz would be the most highlighted and discussed fighter out there. As it is, he’s merely a glossed-over, statistical anomaly.
“I said from the beginning, I had to figure out a way to change my style—I’m not a boxer, I’m not a kickboxer, I’m not a wrestler, I’m an MMA fighter,” Cruz says. “So I don’t want to take any damage. If I can go in and not take any damage but figure out a way to hit the guy three times to his zero, there’s no way I can lose. The numbers will speak for themselves. That’s exactly what’s happened to this day, and it’s fucking crazy. People don’t really think that way. People think there’s no way I can go into a fight and not get hit.”
Cruz has made a habit of conforming naysayers to the idea that he can shape reality. They may say there’s no way he won’t get hit…but then he goes out there and essentially doesn’t get hit. Against Jorgensen with a broken finger at WEC 53, he landed 243 total strikes—a WEC record—while getting hit only 69 times over 25 minutes. Five to one—that’s why he’s the “Dominator.”
“It’s something where you’ve got to make people miss and then make them pay for missing,” he says. “That’s what I do. I might not have a lot of knockouts, but my numbers are so much higher than everybody else’s on the little amount of damage, the amount of strikes I land on people, the amount of takedowns, the amount of kicks, everything. I may not be getting the knockouts, but I’m quadrupling everything else. That’s a big reason why fans have had a hard time embracing me right now, they just haven’t seen the stats for themselves. All they see is me out there hopping around, and they think it’s annoying. Think that’s annoying? Dude, try fighting me.”
That’s what Urijah Faber will do at UFC 132 on July 2 in Las Vegas. What Faber will need to bear in mind going in is, not only is Cruz a flickering, punishing, hard-to-hit target in the Octagon that is nearly impossible to take down and can last for days cardio-wise but, to top it all off, he’s hyper-aware of the fact.
Of course, Faber was the first (and only) fighter to beat Cruz. That happened in Cruz’s WEC debut as a featherweight at WEC 26 in 2007. Cruz (now 17-1) was choked out in less than two minutes. Faber caught lightning in a bottle to take home the 145-pound title. Now, with Jose Aldo restructuring career outlooks at featherweight, they’ll fight in lighter pastures for the bantamweight strap.
It’s for that reason that Cruz is bouncing to the sounds of Prodigy’s “Firestarter,” syncing up his shadow punches to the beat just northeast of Toronto. He loves music. Rap, rock, crunk, any galvanizing beat— he’s not finicky. Right now, a little more than eight weeks out from his first UFC main event spot in Las Vegas, the shadow he’s boxing is Faber. He’s already beaten the consensus No. 2 and No. 3 guys in the division— Joseph Benavidez (twice) and Brian Bowles (once) respectively.
“Without Urijah Faber, these lighter divisions wouldn’t exist, let’s keep it real,” he says. “That has to be recognized, and you’ve got to give him thanks for that, because I didn’t do it. I didn’t have the notoriety to do it, or the business mind for it that he did. He’s just been in the sport a little longer. Do I give him respect for that? Yeah, I’m not stupid.”
He warms up forever—laps, squats, bear crawls, shadow boxing, push-ups, conglomerations. He points to the sky and whispers something to what I presume to be his surveilling deity. Then he begins wrestling with Steve Lin’s assortment of guys in five-minute tussles, all of them happy to roll with the dynamo. They all bring different girths and techniques and belt colors, and Cruz welcomes each without words.
“There’s a big difference between a professional and an amateur,” a purple belt named Tyler Mason says afterwards. “Even though Dom’s the best in the world, he doesn’t have an ego.”
There is an ego in play, only it’s not exactly vanity—it has a lot of overriding “Id” mixed into it. Cruz says he fights because he has that compulsion to be the best. There are other driving factors—he wants to make a better life for his mother, who raised him single-handedly until he was 12 years old, and for his friends in Tucson, who felt fixed into a lifestyle that they couldn’t escape. In other words, Cruz literally fights for possibility. To prove that little ol’ him can, and by extension, so can little ol’ you. He’s hell-bent on proving things are possible if you’re willing to pay the price.
“But the bottom line is I don’t care,” he says getting back to Faber’s legacy in the sport. “It’s my time. I’m the champion now. He was the old champion. They’re not going to take that from him. And while I respect what he’s done for the weight classes and for the sport, it doesn’t make me respect him as a person. That’s basically how I feel about him. I think he’s kind of bigheaded and he’s very full of himself and loves to hear himself talk, and that rubs me the wrong way. Because of that, we have our differences.”
Cruz is exhausting to watch train. He is in constant motion. He’s a blurry thing to study. By the ninth opponent in the seemingly endless rotation of Lin’s fighters, Cruz rolls over, clutching his knee and writhing around in pain. Steve Lin goes about getting ice and everyone gets tense with the sobering idea that this little side session might’ve just taken him out of UFC 132. Instead, after a minute he pops up and says he’s alright, no ice needed.
Then he says, “Let’s keep going—who’s next?”
“I’m very proud to be Mexican, actually,” Cruz says on the ride back to the hotel, nearly three hours later. It’s dark now, and he’s late for a mandatory UFC party and really not that concerned. “I love my Mexican heritage. It sounds weird to say it, but I just love the way Mexicans are. They’re so loyal. They’re tough. If you think about it, I’m Irish, Mexican, and German. It’s no wonder I fight.”
Cruz grew up without a lot of money in Tucson, without a father figure around the house for him and his brother. These weren’t necessarily deprivations he was meant to dwell on. His mother worked to give him every opportunity she could afford, and later his stepfather—after butting heads plenty through adolescence—helped meld him into who he is today.
“It was hard growing up out there,” he says of life in Southern Arizona. “I didn’t grow up easy. I remember that every single day. That’s the key to me remaining grounded. My biological dad wasn’t around most of my life. My mom raised me and my brothers single-handedly, up until I was in sixth grade. Then my step dad came into my life, and we weren’t always the tightest. But what he did do for me was show me the right way to treat people. He respected my mom and took care of me and my brother and my little sister. He took care of us fairly—he was never unfair to me and my brother. He came into my life at a critical moment where I was still growing up,
becoming a teen, finding myself. I have nothing but respect for him.”
Cruz now trains out of San Diego at Brandon Vera’s Alliance MMA alongside guys like coach Eric Del Fierro, Phil Davis, and Ed Ratcliff. He says in the last two years his biological dad and him have become close. But he also talks about his mother’s unorthodox approach to decision making when it came down to choosing which direction he wanted to go in life.
“She never gave me one foul word for dropping out of college to pursue a fight career,” he says. “I was going to community college to get my associate’s degree, and I decided I was going to quit that and pursue a full-time fighting career. My mom was a big influence on that because she always said follow your heart, do what you love to do because you don’t have to go to school to make a living. My mom always told me that, and it’s crazy, but it tells you where my mom came from—where her mind is and where she came from and what she’s been through to say something like that to her son. My mom knows what’s up.”
Truthfully, this sort of biological detail is fine, Cruz has no trouble discussing his back-story, but he doesn’t expect to touch you with it. He makes it clear that it’s his depths to plumb. One thing he is fond of saying is, “I’m Tucson built and San Diego made.” Cruz emerged from the gun-wielding, nether-part of Tucson that Drew Fickett and Ed West came from, and put himself on the map in San Diego, where he trains as a champion in the UFC. He could retire now—at 26 years old—and that fact doesn’t change. But if you’ve hung around Cruz before, you know there’s something uncommon going on with that kid’s drive.
It’s the fourth time Cruz has worked out at Lin’s since coming to Toronto. He is grateful that owner Steve Lin has accommodated him, chauffeuring him back and forth the half-hour each direction. This is the only amenity he asked for.
“I think that it’s not a question of fighters looking past me anymore,” Cruz says. “Fighters know what I’m doing. I’ve gotten shout outs from other fighters— Matt Mitrione is a good example of that, somebody who knows what I’m doing in this sport. How many times have you heard other professional fighters say they want to fight like another fighter? Not often. You hear it about BJ Penn. You hear it about the greats, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Back at the hotel, the fighter periphery is abuzz with drinks and banter, the media, trainers, behind-the-scenes people, fighters out for a good time. Cruz explains to a UFC coordinator over his cell phone that he “lost track of time,” and he’s sorry to be late. But before he heads off to the UFC party, he speaks a little bit about this ticked off internal drive of his.
“I think I get it because people still don’t believe in me,” he says. “People still don’t think I’m good enough. People still think that somebody will beat me for the belt. I have so much to prove, and every single day I live to prove everybody wrong who doesn’t believe in me. I definitely feel underrated. But it’s cool—keep looking past me. Haters fuel my fire. And there’s so many of them, I guess I’ll never get tired of winning.”
Having said that, he darts through the crowd in the atrium and to his next appointment. The least known of the Super Seven, and the most elusive— gone in a flash. If there’s one thing about Dominick Cruz that is certain, whether it’s for print or in fighting, it’s this—he is very difficult to keep up with.