Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Bantamweight standouts TJ Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz will clash TONIGHT (Jan. 17, 2016) at UFC Fight Night 81 inside TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
Dillashaw's improvement has been both rapid and devastating. He captured the title in just his eighth UFC fight and has finished each of his opponents in title fights via knockout.
Meanwhile, Cruz has struggled with injury for the last four years, which cost him his strap. He's fought just once in that time frame -- a blistering knockout victory over Takeya Mizugaki -- and will look to replicate that victory here.
Let's take a look at the keys to victory for both athletes:
Key Wins: Renan Barao (UFC on FOX 16, UFC 173), Joe Soto (UFC 177), Mike Easton (UFC Fight Night 35)
Key Losses: Raphael Assuncao (UFC Fight Night 29)
Keys to Victory: Dillashaw is a devastatingly effective kickboxer, as evidenced by his string of recent knockout victories. Prior to that, Dillashaw relied more upon his D-1 wrestling background and quick submission skills, which could make a return in this bout.
In this bout, Dillashaw's main objective should be to pressure Cruz and force him to exchange. Cruz loves to dart in-and-out with his strikes and throws at a high-volume, but he's far less comfortable in straight up exchanges. In fact, the last person to successfully prevent Cruz from circling freely was Demetrious Johnson, who found a great deal of success on the feet with "The Dominator."
One of the main ways Dillashaw can effectively pressure Cruz is to cut him off with kicks. Cruz loves to duck out after throwing his punches, and some swift high kicks -- whether they connect clean or not -- could pin him in place and leave him vulnerable to follow up punches.
Additionally, Dillashaw needs to take advantage of the cage. Cruz likes to run at an angle while he punches, and he occasionally angles straight into the fence. This is a golden opportunity for Dillashaw, as Cruz is stuck inside of his distance and will be quite hittable.
Key Victories: Urijah Faber (UFC 132), Demetrious Johnson (UFC on Versus 6), Takeya Mizugaki (UFC 178)
Key Losses: Urijah Faber (WEC 26)
Keys to Victory: Even years later, Cruz is still one of the most unique fighters around. "The Dominator" never stops moving, using his erratic movement to catch his opponents off-guard with punches and slick takedowns.
Cruz may have stormed out of the gate to maul Mizugaki, but that would not be a wise strategy opposite Dillashaw. Instead, Cruz must return to form and use his unpredictability and excellent timing to score takedowns.
Not an easy strategy considering Dillashaw has yet to be taken down, but it will be necessary for Cruz to take the victory.
In order to take Dillashaw down, Cruz's timing will have to be perfect. Luckily, Dillashaw is an aggressive fighter who's sure to be in a rush to lay hands on Cruz, so the former champion should look for opportunities to nail reactive takedowns.
However, just scoring momentary takedowns may not be enough. If Cruz wants to really raise his chance of victory, he must try to control the wrestler and punish him on his way back up to the feet, as he did to Mizugaki.
Bottom Line: This fight is a longtime in the making, and the result will shape the Bantamweight division.
Since winning the title, Dillashaw has been plagued by doubters despite his incredible performances. Part of that stems from Cruz and his series of injuries, as some fans hold that against the Bang Muay Thai striker. If Dillashaw can put Cruz away, his grip on the title and his legacy are strengthened significantly.
On the other hand, this could be a costly loss for the champion. He wouldn't be far from another shot at the strap -- Bantamweight is not exactly filled with contenders -- but the last thing Dillashaw needs following recent controversy is a loss.
This is obviously a huge moment for Cruz. He's been working so hard to get back in the cage and fight for the strap he never truly lost, and this is that opportunity. Regardless of the outcome, the consequences for Cruz are drastic.
If Cruz is successful, he's pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in UFC history, and there are plenty of up-and-coming Bantamweights who would love to challenge Cruz. Alternatively, a loss means that Cruz has to work his way back up the ladder and earn a second title shot, which is a strange situation for the man who won his title in 2010.
TONIGHT at UFC Fight Night 81, TJ Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz will throw down in a battle of champions. Which man will hold the title at the end of the night?