It has been a long road back to the cage for current Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz, who has been sitting on the sidelines for a year-and-a-half watching the rest of the 135-pound division go on without him thanks to a nagging ACL injury that required two surgeries.
Furthermore, "The Dominator" has also had to sit back and resist the urge to get back into the cage early after watching Renan Barao capture the interim 135-pound title and defend it twice against Michael McDonald and Eddie Wineland.
Though I'm sure he didn't mind seeing Renan win the interim belt against Urijah Faber at UFC 149.
But now that Cruz has finally been given the green light to return, he's happy that he gets to face Barao in his first fight back in a headlining title unification fight at UFC 169 on Feb. 2, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.
A fight Dominick told "The MMA Hour" he wanted all along, becasue fighting anyone else would just be taking a step backward.
"That's the fight I wanted since I hurt myself. That's a fight I wanted before I hurt myself. He brings so much to the table, he's done so much in the sport, he's done so much for the division. That's why I'm in this. I'm in this to challenge myself, not to go back to the No. 10 guy in the division and take a step back. If I was coming off no fights and they offered me the best guy on the planet, I'd take it. Because what's the point of taking steps backward in the sport?"
While many were calling for Cruz to be stripped of the title, Dominick never wavered and kept the faith that he would eventually make a return. And it was the backing of the higher-ups at ZUFFA that helped him through one of the toughest stages of his combat sports career.
"At a certain point, when you're injured ... and you know you're coming back and coming back strong, you have to turn your brain off to all the outside noise, because there's nothing I could have done about it with my standing in the situation. Me and Dana had talked, me and Lorenzo had talked, that was the most I could do to rest my brain and prepare for my comeback, because you know, they're the bosses. When it all comes down to it, no matter what media says and no matter what fans say, what Dana and Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta says, goes. They've had my back this whole time in the sense of being supportive and knowing I was coming back."
But as Cruz prepares to face perhaps the toughest challenge of his mixed martial arts (MMA) career, taking on a man who hasn't tasted defeat in over eight years, one can't help but to wonder if ring rust will play a factor in the five-round championship fight.
A gap that will be exactly 28 months in between fights when he steps into the cage next year in New Jersey.