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Coach: UFC 178 set to reintroduce fans to the 'madness' that is the method of Dominick Cruz

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The Team Alliance head grappling coach says the former UFC bantamweight champion is dialed in for his UFC 178 showdown against Takeya Mizugaki and has made significant improvements in the grappling department.

Esther Lin

Neil Melanson took over as head grappling coach of Team Alliance last year and was elated to get the opportunity to work with the former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, who at the time was not yet stripped of his title. That would happen after a groin injury forced him to pull out of a scheduled unification bout against then-interim champion, Renen Barao, earlier this year.

Cruz wasn't talking after that injury and Alliance head coach Eric del Fierro (and others) remained relatively quiet about the setback and the champion having to let go of the title that nobody defeated him for.

"I think the reason why he wasn't doing any interviews was because Eric told him not to," Melanson told MMAmania.com. "Eric wanted to focus on taking care of his mental state because it is difficult. I think to do what he's done, as far as coming back from all those surgeries, you lost your title and all those things going on. It takes tremendous character to stay strong and to stay driven to move forward and he seems to have really done that and it couldn't have been easy at all. Taking to him about it, I can't imagine having to be laid off all that time and you are watching the belt change hands a couple of times. It has got to be difficult."

Renen Barao getting finished by T.J. Dillashaw at UFC 173 would be the second time the belt changed hands, and the Team Alpha Male fighter seemed to take a page from the Cruz playbook with how he moved in and out and mixed up his striking attacks to dethrone the Brazilian.

"You know how TJ beat Barao? It was almost a taste of Dominick, but it's not Dominick," Melanson said. "The way he mixed things up and the way he moved was kind of like Dominick Cruz, but it wasn't Dominick Cruz. It was exciting for me, because to see other people recognize the madness in which Dominick Cruz exists. He's a madman."

Before Melanson had started to train Cruz, he said he thought there were "odd" and "strange" elements to the way he fought, but Bellator lightweight Michael Chandler -- who Melanson also trains -- made him aware there is a method to the madness and urged him out to San Diego at Team Alliance to see for himself.

"I started coming out and listening to him talk and watched him train and I said 'Wow, there is a method to this.' I know he has a lot to do with it and so does Eric del Fierro. Dominick has wrestled in High School, but I've seen him take down elite-level wrestlers in MMA and he is just a different animal altogether. As a coach, just as a grappler, just as a fan that loves the sport, you can see there is something special in this kid that you just don't see in a lot of athletes."

Cruz has always had a cerebral approach to fighting and is a constant student of the game. Listen to him as an analyst on the FOX Sports pre or post-fight shows and his knowledge of the sport is often immeasurable. There aren't many athletes who possess a mind like Cruz and Melanson says he is "brilliant."

"I really am crazily impressed with Dominick Cruz," said Melanson, who recently released the book Mastering Triangle Chokes via Victory Belt Publishing. "He's very, very intelligent. He chain wrestles the entire sport of MMA, everything. He is always four or five steps ahead of himself. He just has a brilliant mind for it. It's a brilliant mind and a lot of people couldn't learn or understand that way. You have to be a certain type of character and Dominick is that character."

In fact, Melanson has to implore a method he learned from one of the greatest American wrestlers of all time to use with Cruz, just so he won't jump ahead of him while he is teaching him.

"I had to do a different style of coaching with him because of that," he explained. "He will get ahead of you. I actually taught backwards, which is a trick I learned from Wade Schalles. You start with sequences. I'm a big fan of sequences. You start where the submissions are, where our ultimate goals are, and then we backtrack from scrambles and we backtrack through wrestling and striking. He's already rehearsed the finish a million times. It's a different way of learning and it keeps him from jumping ahead of me. I actually move backwards and it worked out fantastic with him. I couldn't be happier with the guy as far as this camp. I really couldn't ask for anything better."

Cruz is set to take on Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 178 on Saturday evening (Sept. 27, 2014) at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada (results here) and he as made it through this entire camp unscathed. According to Melanson, the former bantamweight champion had a "fantastic camp in all areas," including a new wrinkle that focused on preventing injuries.

"He brought in a good physical therapist guy named Roadie," he explained. "This guy is kind of like a torturer. You could use him to torture Al Qaeda members to find other terrorists because he is so painful. He is very knowledgeable and we've been able to make sure Dominick is healthy and warmed up before every practice. He wanted to make sure at all costs and it worked. He's been healthy all camp and is conditioning is great. He looks like regular Dominick."

"As far as my side of the house -- grappling -- he has improved significantly. I'm excited to see what he can actually do in the cage because we have had great rehearsals. He's developed a lot of finishes, he's not having to scramble as much as he used to need to and if he is on the bottom he scrambles out pretty amazing on his own. It's working out wonderfully. I'm excited."

Melanson has been around some of the very best of the sport throughout his career as a grappling coach including former UFC champion Randy Couture. While he is equally excited to work with any of the fighters he trains, to work with an athlete like Cruz is special and you can tell from talking to him that it is an opportunity he has relished. He's seen first hand the ups and downs with the injuries suffered and how the one-time champion has been pushed into the background of the bantamweight division. He has seen him "collect himself and stay focused" and also seen a supreme level of talent and what it is that made him a champion and what it is that makes the fighter he calls a "madman" tick.

Mizugaki may be ranked No. 5 in the current UFC bantamweight rankings, but to him Cruz is going to get his hand raised. "It's just a matter of walking through the crowd and getting into the cage again and doing the dance," Melanson said before breaking down the match up.

"He's very long," he said about the 5' 7" Mizugaki, who has won five straight fights. "He has good ways of stealing rounds. He's a good grinder. He's tough. He's durable, but he's not going to be able to keep up with the speed of the transitions with Dominick. It's a perfect fight back for us. It really is. I'm not talking trash on the kid. I like watching that kid fight. He's a tough kid. He grinds his ways to victories. To me, that takes a lot of gut checks. I can really respect someone like that. I don't really see -- unless he gets lucky and catches Dominick and scrambles him with something -- I don't see how he is going to do well against Dominick at all. I'm very confident in my fighter."

The Alliance grappling coach assures that Cruz has done "everything right this camp" and that the former champion is "dialed in" and that he has been "jacking up some of his training partners." Yes, it has been almost three years since Cruz graced the Octagon, and he has been through adversity, but Melanson explains that he has also gotten better in a lot of areas.

"Being well rounded and developing and being better technically at things then he was last year," he said. "That's a plus, when you have a high-level athlete like that develop. It was kind of like when you saw Georges (St-Pierre) take everybody down and beat them up and then all of a sudden he fights (Josh) Koscheck and his jab is unbelievable. You saw him actually get a little better at something. Like, Jesus, is this guy ever going to stop getting better?"

"In my mind, I feel like the fight is already won. I see what he does against some of the best in the world that come to our gym and I know what he is capable of. I'm just plain old excited."