It's been a hard road to recovery for Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. He coached opposite of Urijah Faber on The Ultimate Fighter: Live, with the two scheduled to meet for the bantamweight title at UFC 148 in Las Vegas.
Unfortunately, while training for the fight, Cruz tore his ACL and was forced to pull out. He underwent surgery, with the doctor replacing his ACL with one from a cadaver. Things were looking up until his body rejected the surgery and he needed to undergo another surgery in December.
Now, nine months later, he's finally back on the mats and sparring at the Alliance Training Center in Chula Vista, California. He isn't looking ahead to his eventual return. No, instead he's working eight weeks at a time and allowing his doctors to evaluate his progress in real time.
I recently made the trip out to San Diego to sit in on the pro practice at Alliance and speak with Cruz about his rehabilitation and goals when he's finally able to reenter the Octagon.
"The knee is on point. I'm doing what's really made a huge difference is the eight week increments that I've given myself, that way I'm not thinking too far ahead and I'm not thinking too short," he said. "It made it a lot easier because instead of looking far ahead where I'm supposed to be, I just look where I'm supposed to be every eight weeks. So, everything will piece together over time until I'm exactly where I should be."
He's obviously come a long way since his body rejecting the first surgery. With each needing at least six to eight months recovery time, he was initially planning on making his UFC return early Spring of 2012. That seems almost a lifetime ago in terms of the fight game.
He spoke at length about his state of mind when he found out that his plans would be changing, and he'd have to be under the knife again in order to return to competition. There was an honesty in his words when he talked about how much he sacrificed to get to where he was and how much more he'll to do to finally return to form.
"10 months ago, I was probably at the lowest place I've ever been, cause I've just given so many relationships up, friendships, relationships with family, everything, you name it. Not to mention free time and all the work that I put in to get myself to the point I was at before I hurt myself again."
He continued, "all those things came into my head immediately, like 'man, can I catch a break?' No pun intended. Can I catch a break here so I can get back and do my job and do what I love to be doing? So, you go through the 'woe is me' phase and I said it in a lot of different interviews, you have a period of time that you gotta let yourself go through that and then you get through it and start thinking positive."
"So right now, every single day is a mental battle for me still. Every single day is trying to find out what I'm made of. I'm challenging myself so that's what it comes down to, getting through each challenge of each day and getting the most out of every single day that comes at you, instead of thinking where I should be every day."
Throughout this entire process, the UFC has stood by and supported their Bantamweight champion. Maybe it's because UFC President Dana White and UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta have seen a similar injury sideline Welterweight champion, Georges St. Pierre.
But as understanding as the UFC has been, Cruz also recognizes that the support will only be there as long as he continues to improve and rehab his injury.
"Of course 'dude you gotta get better', but at the same time, they've been understanding as they can be. Lorenzo's had several knee surgeries. Dana knows, he's been an athlete before he was running the MMA business. So these guys know first hand what this injury is about," Cruz said.
"They've seen GSP go through it, they've seen lots of guys go through this stuff. So it's not like it's new for Dana and Lorenzo and all these guys, they know. That being said they've been supportive, they've done everything they can to support me so that I can come back strong, but it's not like they're just giving me things, I'm earning them day by day.
"And I'm working day by day. We have the understanding that as long as I continue to grind and work and do my job, they will continue to back me because they know I'm working to be back strong. They know that."
Despite his time away from the mats, Cruz' role hasn't changed in the gym. Perhaps it's because he's an incredibly humble guy who didn't develop an ego when he won the title, but he doesn't believe that the injury and subsequent time on the sidelines has changed the way the rest of the gym views him as a fighter.
"You know, your role only changes if you act different depending on where you're at. So for me, I just act the same as I did before I hurt my knee and I'm doing the same stuff. The only thing that's changed is that now we've got more studs stacked on top of the studs we already had."
They're amazing athletes with incredible work ethics and together we've all learned that off of each other. These guys drive me as much as I drive them. We all work as a team, as a unit. That's why it's called 'Alliance'. It's really true if you come in here and watch. You can see it," he added.
"So that being said, my role in the gym hasn't changed. If anything, the guys probably pick my brain more for my knowledge and I pick their brains on where I can be every single day getting back through this injury. And with each stipulation, I'm drilling more and I'm drilling with these guys. So until I'm able to kick, punch, wrestle, do jiu jitsu, I'm kind of holding myself back. Once I can do all those things, it's just going to be another day. It's work."
Perhaps not a benefit to being injured, but definitely as a result, Cruz has been able to transition into a broadcast role with Fox Sports 1 to break down and analyze the fights. It's a role that he was made for as he's always been analytical when approaching fights.
That mindset allows him to breakdown opponents based on their strengths and weaknesses and has earned him a reputation as being one of the most cerebral fighters in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
"I think what happened is, it fell into my lap because I couldn't compete and I had to make an adjustment in my life. I couldn't just sit back and feel sorry for myself. I have to be working. If I'm not working, then what am I doing? I wasn't able to fight so I had to change my job for a little while. And I changed my job to an analyst."
"And the truth is, that's kind of how I've been winning fights in the first place is I break down fights very strategically. It's part of the thing that's helped me a lot. It's just how my brain works. I see fights in a different way. And on top of it I add to the fact that now I get to spar and now I get to drill. I'm all smiles right now."
Cruz hasn't defended his belt in almost two years, yet the UFC has refused to strip him of the title. This has created some controversy amongst fans, yet for Cruz, he doesn't view the Bantamweight championship as his. Instead, his belief is that whenever he wins a title fight, he immediately needs to start looking ahead with who he'll fight next.
"The way I've always looked at it is after I win a title, and this is the truth, you win a title, your hands go up in the air and you've got a belt. Once I walk down those stairs, my brain goes to 'who am I fighting next? Who are they already matching me up with?' What does that mean? That means the belt is up for grabs when you walk out that night. It's not anybody's belt."
"It's up for grabs because there's already another fight lined up once you walk out of that cage. So, how does that make it yours if there's always going to be somebody with a chance to take it from you? Who can come up and fight you for it. So that being said, I didn't think I had the belt to after I won it. I've never thought I had the belt. It's always up for grabs."
"All I've thought is, I went out and I won that night. And I won the way I was supposed to and now I have a belt to prove the win. That's the difference. You have something to show for the win. Whereas the fights before that, you fight to get your hand raised and work to the place to show what you've done. I've done that a few times. I've got four titles. Of course I've gotta go in there and beat Renan Barao to prove I'm the champion. There's no doubt about it."