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UFC 249: The return of Dominick Cruz

Having grown somewhat accustomed to Dominick Cruz dropping all kinds of knowledge cage side in the commentators booth, preparing for a fight night at which he is once again set to be one of the stars can feel a little odd.

Cruz (22-2) hasn’t seen the Octagon from the inside since his championship grudge match loss to Cody Garbrandt back in December of 2016 — three and a half years ago. Following a golden plaited career in spite of recurring injury struggles, some more recent health problems fueled speculation that maybe we’ve seen the last of the former Bantamweight king. But after two consecutive fight cancellations and a successful recovery from shoulder surgery, Cruz is determined to prove that he is not quite ready to hang up the gloves just yet.

“The Dominator” was first supposed to return in a bout against Jimmy Rivera back in 2017 and then most recently in a match up against John Lineker last year, but both of those dates failed to materialize. But, the vision was clear — the UFC wanted to ease Cruz back into action, assess his performances and then make a decision regarding how he fits into the top of the division.

As fate would want it though, Cruz’s stars aligned a little differently and pretty much out of the blue, the arguably greatest 135-pounder of all time is now in line to make a fairytale return. With the COVID-19 pandemic ruining the UFC’s plans of a title bout between current champ Henry Cejudo (15-2) and Jose Aldo, Cruz’s name got flung into the picture as the best and pretty much only availability to face the self proclaimed “Triple C” in the UFC’s big return to action.

Cruz has been healthy and in full training for some time now and it’s safe to say that the former champion did not think twice before accepting the opportunity to get straight back amongst the action at the very top of the division. And the fan reaction to this fight should tell you all you need to know about Cruz’s reputation. He is still regarded extremely highly within the MMA community despite coming off his second three year spell on the sidelines.

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The news that Cruz would be getting a shot at Cejudo’s throne went down a lot smoother than when Aldo was scheduled to get the title fight coming off a loss. Cruz never got his rematch following his loss to Garbrandt and this feels like a deserved opportunity for him to attend to some unfinished business.

The fans seem excited to see how Cruz will look come Saturday night as the cage doors slam shut but there is certainly nothing amicable about his matchup with “The Messenger.” Cejudo doesn’t exactly have a lot of good to say about any of his potential future opponents and Cruz slots right into that exclusive group. During the UFC Media Call on Tuesday, Cejudo did not lack confidence in his verbal exchanges with the former champion, exclaiming that he will be “serving up goat” this weekend. It’s nothing Cruz hasn’t seen before though. In fact, if anything, it’s familiar territory for him as the San Diego native has been involved in title fights across multiple promotions for the better part of his career.

This stage is the last thing Cruz remembers before he was forced to sit out. A high-profile co-headliner shouldn’t phase him and it didn’t sound like it did. In his first media obligation back, we got to witness the same old Cruz. Composed, never raising his tone, taking every backhand Cejudo fired at him in stride. The call went pretty much as expected.

Cruz knows that in spite of his absence, there is still a target on his back. And Cejudo knows that Cruz would be an enormous coup to add to his already outstanding resume. Having already defeated Demetrious Johnson and TJ Dillashaw, this fight is huge for Cejudo’s legacy. But, Cruz has victories over both of those gentlemen too and he is also aware that taking down the high-flying “Triple C” would be a massive statement and possibly the last piece needed for his greatest bantamweight of all time mantle. This matchup is big and arguably the most intriguing out of Saturday’s stacked card.

Stylistically, the pair match up very well. On paper, per the UFC Stats, both Cejudo and Cruz throw around 3.5 significant strikes per minute while absorbing approx. 2. Their respective striking accuracy is sub 50% and they are both accomplished at defending strikes and takedowns. As often is the case with title fights, this one too is very evenly matched in most statistical departments. Fights of such high caliber often come down to the acutest details and that may very well be the case here too.

Speaking of those details, Cruz will boast physical advantages in all areas — standing at four inches taller than Cejudo and possessing five extra inches in reach. That plays right into Cruz’s preferred style of efficient striking from distance in an attempt to pick off his opponents. It will be interesting to see if that’s indeed his approach in this one too. In addition, Cruz scores takedowns at a 50% clip in comparison to Cejudo’s 35%, but with that said, Cruz only shoots for one takedown more than Cejudo per 15 minutes, suggesting that it is neither of the fighter’s go to.

Cruz has proved on multiple occasions that more often than not, ‘ring rust’ is a myth, and he will need to do it again here in order to gain an upper hand over Cejudo from the get go. Factors such as Octagon control and grappling exchanges could prove to be the keys to victory in this fight and Cruz will need to be razor sharp in order to tame a fighter as dynamic and confident as Cejudo, with “The Messenger” coming into this fight with a ton of momentum riding a five fight win streak.

These are the kind of fights sports fans live for and the current circumstances make it feel that bit more special. The world has been starved of high level combat and this matchup promises to deliver exactly that. Two of the very best to ever do it set to battle it out for GOAT status at 135-pounds. A fight of this magnitude can be legacy defining. And no matter who comes out victorious, it’s going to be good to see Dominick Cruz back in action, trying to reclaim his throne again.

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UFC

Sports journalist based in CA, USA. Twitter: @ArionArmeniakos

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