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UFC 178 preview: Meet Dominick Cruz, stranger in a strange land

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"The good thing is that I know the truth, and so will anybody who gets that belt. They haven't fought the real champ, period. Basically, anyone who gets that belt is the number one contender, so that's fine with me. I'll be ready to fight in the future and they will challenge me to fight for the real belt." -- Dominick Cruz

Ethan Miller

Time flies when you're having fun.

For most mixed martial arts (MMA) fans, the current combat sports landscape feels normal. Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) uncorks a major pay-per-view (PPV) event every month, then sprinkles in weekly offerings on FOX Sports 1 and Fight Pass.

Because "fastest growing sport in the world" and all that jazz.

Heck, sometimes we even have two events in one day on opposite ends of the globe. Just another day at the office for the MMA media and the rabid fan base who tunes in for another weekend of slam-bang action.

But this is foreign territory for Dominick Cruz.

When the "Dominator" steps back into the cage this Saturday night (Sept. 27, 2014) on the UFC 178 "Prelims," it will be nearly three years since he last competed. Once the baddest man at 135 pounds, Cruz has been sidelined with injuries which forced him to watch the sport evolve from the bench.

And MMA years are like dog years.

Consider that when Cruz walked out of the Octagon in October of 2011, he was tying a ribbon around a unanimous decision win over Demetrious Johnson. That's because the promotion didn't have a flyweight division and "Mighty Mouse" was forced to compete above his natural weight.

On the "Versus" channel.

There was no such thing as FOX Sports 1 at the time, either. In fact, UFC had yet to make its FOX broadcast debut and Fight Pass? The very idea of streaming entire events online -- at least in 2011 -- would have likely gotten you laughed out of the room.

There was also some unknown female fighter named Ronda Rousey competing for Strikeforce: "Challengers," because then-CEO Scott Coker was the only promoter with a major television deal who believed in women's MMA. It also meant any strawweight hoping to ply their trade needed a passport and a Japanese dictionary.

But that's nothing compared to what has happened inside his own division.

When Cruz disposed of Johnson in the nation's capital, current UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw was still just a wannabe UFC fighter, trying to get noticed on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 14, which featured Michael Bisping and long-since deposed Jason "Mayhem" Miller as head coaches.

In addition, Renan Barao was just 1-0 inside the Octagon and it looked like Urijah Faber would finally be able to call himself a UFC champion. But then he sat out until the Brazilian was ready to contend for the interim strap and they went on to dominate the 135-pound scene for the next two years (until this happened).

And all Cruz could do was sit and watch.

But now the time for spectating is over, as the former World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) bantamweight titleholder will get back into the hurt business with a three-round contest opposite streaking division contender Takeya Mizugaki, also of WEC fame, this Saturday night in "Sin City."

What can we expect?

No one can say for sure. Not even Cruz, who re-emerges after a hiatus so lengthy that many new fans may not even recognize him, or understand why he was (is?) a big deal. Prior to blowing out his knee, the "Dominator" lived up to his moniker with a sensational 19-1 record and the kind of footwork that left most of the competition dumbfounded.

Not that it matters anymore.

The 135-pound weight class has undergone such a dramatic transformation that those tasked with deciding the best of the best -- as well as the best of the rest -- have sent Cruz tumbling down the ladder. Once the king of kings, the longtime staple of Alliance MMA has dropped all the way down to No. 12 in the official rankings (see them here).

Perhaps we should be grateful he's even ranked at all, if you consider this.

When the cage door closes and the FOX Sports 1 cameras start rolling, Cruz will look as strange to us as we do to him. But like his quest to regain the title he never lost, it will probably take a few minutes to shake the rust off before we can settle in and remind ourselves why they call him the "Dominator."

Or in the case of a Mizugaki upset, shrug our shoulders and remember the Three Odes from The Claudia Quintet: Admiration, Nostalgia, and Pity.