When former 135-pound world champion Dominick Cruz (20-1) last competed, in September 2014, it had been almost three years to the day since he had previously fought inside the Octagon, due to multiple ACL tears and surgeries. Cruz made up for lost time by knocking out former title challenger Takeya Mizugaki in just over a minute.
It was a triumphant return, and Cruz looked to be ready for another world championship fight. Then, he tore an ACL, again. That meant more lost time for Cruz, and more pain -- physical and financial.
The fighter let himself feel bad, but not for long. "I had lots of practice coming back from injuries," he recently told FOX Sports.
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"I let myself be sad for three days. I gave myself time to feel sorry for myself. Then, I put my head down and began working, again."
Cruz has indeed worked hard for the past year to come back, once again. When he next fights, this coming January against current bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw, it will be for only the second time since 2011.
Still, the 30-year-old doesn't seem the least bit daunted about the bantamweight landscape he's returning to. "I cleaned out the division by the time I was 26. I'm 30 now, and the division hasn't changed, other than Dillashaw," he says.
"That means that I really cleaned out the division well. For me, it's not a big deal to come back. It's the same division, essentially, that I already cleaned out."
Cruz has to make it through another training camp, but when he does he'll get his chance to prove that nothing and no one in MMA has passed him by. Talking to him, it is clear that "The Dominator" has an extra edge about him after having not fought in so long.
He's tired of only being able to talk. "I'm happy to have another fight," he sighed.
"The hardest part of being out for so long was mixing all of those obstacles together. You are hurt, you are frustrated. You have the financial issues of not getting fight purses. I am a four-time world champion who never got a million dollar pay day because I got hurt right before my big shot [of coaching The Ultimate Fighter opposite rival Urijah Faber, and then headlining a pay-per-view, with buy percentage points on his contract].
"I've been living on the bare minimum, trying to hold myself together with work on FOX Sports, and through sponsors who struck with me, like Monster. People don't want to stick through things with you. I'm thankful that some did. I'm thankful that the UFC kept me busy and in the limelight, to some extent. I feel like I worked for that myself, though, because I got the FOX Sports work. But, let's be honest, the UFC could have shut me down if they wanted to. So, I've been blessed that I didn't have to give up fighting and that I stayed pretty relevant."
In typical confident and combative Cruz style, the returning champion uses this as a chance to lob an insult at current champion TJ Dillashaw and his coach Duane Ludwig, with whom he has long been embroiled in a battle of words. "I was able to stay relevant because of how well I can break down fights, and analyze the sport," he explains.
"I understand what is going on in the cage. If I couldn't talk about it, and explain to people, if I were like TJ and Duane -- idiots -- then I would've been written off a long time ago. They say they are going to knock me out. Come on. Who has come close to knocking me out? I've got an 80% striking defense. You're not knocking me out. What are you talking about?"