Long-time Bantamweight kingpin, Dominick Cruz, will work toward regaining his throne by taking out ultra violent contender, Marlon Vera, this Saturday (Aug. 13, 2022) at UFC San Diego inside Pechanga Arena in southern California.
Cruz is a 36-year-old Bantamweight who’s undergone myriad knee surgeries over the years. For him to be a Top 10-ranked contender at this stage of his career is incredible, but Cruz is not satisfied. He remains motivated to keep chasing the world title, and he fully believes that goal is possible. You don’t agree to fight a killer like Vera unless you’re truly confident you can be the best fighter in the world again.
Whether or not reality aligns with his self-belief remains to be seen. Until then, let’s take a closer look at the former champion’s skill set.
Cruz changed the game with his focus on stance-shifting, feints and angles. Nowadays, many of the tactics he employed are common place, even if some of the awkwardness in his movements remain completely his own.
Cruz is at his best when his opponent cannot keep track of him. He utilizes feints, jerky movements and sudden stance shifts to keep his opponents off-balance, keeping a watchful eye on his opponent throughout. Cruz is always judging reactions and planning his next attack.
The other key element of Cruz’s game is distance. His movement may be erratic, but the vast majority of Cruz’s attacks begin from outside the boxing range. He’s not a fighter content to stand in the pocket, as Cruz makes full use of his lengthy frame.
While Cruz relies quite a bit on his ability to safely bounce forward and close the distance with unorthodox combinations, he also does a large amount of work from the outside. For example, Cruz makes good use of the jab, snapping his opponent’s head back with the long punch (GIF). Cruz may not be the first fighter thought of when thinking of slick jabbers, but Cruz uses the boxing fundamental for its primary purpose of range control quite well.
Additionally, Cruz loves to attack with kicks from range. Primarily, he uses the left high kick and right low kick. While he mostly uses the high kick to get his opponents to cover up and pin them in place, Cruz commits to the low kick and does damage with it more often than most of his strikes (GIF).
Despite these range tools, Cruz’s objective is not simply to keep his opponent stymied at the end of his strikes. Instead, Cruz comes forward with combinations, lands in a high volume, and often does it in a way where he is rarely hit.
Cruz often builds off his long distance strikes, throwing them as one-off shots before next throwing them as part of a combination. For example, Cruz loves to dart in with the right hand. After bouncing in with the long right hand, Cruz will continue running by his opponent and be far out of range of counters.
On its own, that’s a fine and effective strike. However, Cruz will add to it by stringing together more right hands, bouncing back in with more punches, or simply capping off his angled movement with a hard low kick (GIF).
Similarly, Cruz loves to start combinations with the left high kick. It’s very common for him to follow the kick up with the aforementioned right hand, which can be built into an even longer combination (GIF). Additionally, Cruz likes to follow his high kick with an immediate low kick.
Whenever Cruz lands his shots, he does his best to exit at a strong angle or with significant head movement. There’s a reason he’s generally so defensively sound, and that’s because of his focus on finishing his combinations safely.
Additionally, Cruz uses strikes to cover his movement well. Again, he usually stands outside of his opponent’s punching range, so many fighters are trying to reach for him. That makes the follow techniques far easier to perform, as reaching for an opponent is the surest way to get hit with counter shots.
When his opponent starts reaching, Cruz will look for counter shots. Often, he’ll throw a wide, looping hook as he backs away into a different stance. Cruz throws a lot of his strikes without much snap — serving to setup other shots more than anything else — but this is a major exception, as Cruz tries to slam home these long hooks and deter his opponent from charging (GIF).
Similarly, Cruz likes to use the switch uppercut. As his opponent comes forward, Cruz will throw the uppercut while stepping backward into his opposite stance. While this can be used to then counter further with the new stance, Cruz usually just uses it as an opportunity to circle well out of range (GIF).
The stylistic weaknesses of Cruz’s approach to combat have definitely been revealed. Namely, Cruz’s style works because he’s a tremendous athlete with great wrestling. On the rare occasions that he’s faced with an opponent who can match both his speed and wrestling — men like Cody Garbrandt and Henry Cejudo — his awkwardness seems like far less of an advantage. In addition, stances are safety in MMA. A majority of the times that Cruz has been knocked down, it’s been because he gets punched while shifting his feet. With his legs square, he’s in poor position to absorb an impact.
As Cruz has grown a bit slower due to age and wear, more fighters are starting to match Cruz’s speed, and that’s a problem.
Based largely on the strength of his setups and timing, Cruz has earned his reputation as one of the best wrestlers at Bantamweight.
Most of the time, Cruz’s takedowns come immediately. On the whole, he does not grind for takedowns against the fence or work transitions. Instead, Cruz finishes his shot immediately or abandons it to strike. In fact, the few times he has been taken down — such as by Urijah Faber and Scott Jorgensen — it was because his opponent slowed down the wrestling exchanges and eventually won those battles.
For the most part, Cruz relies on reactive takedowns. His style has a habit of infuriating his opponents enough to make them swing wildly, which results in easy takedowns. However, there’s more to Cruz’s reactive shots than mere speed and athleticism.
For example, Cruz often utilizes the knee pick, or at least a variation of it (GIF). In this example, Cruz draws his opponent’s right hand before slipping outside the strike. After missing that wide power shot, Faber was well out of position, allowing Cruz to immediately take him off his feet.
In his comeback performance from knee surgery, Cruz masterfully used a lead right hand to set up his reactive shot on Takeya Mizugaki (GIF). The Japanese fighter was stalking Cruz, who simply backed away to his right. Then, Cruz suddenly planted his feet and sprung into a right hand, a common strike from Cruz that forced his opponent’s hands to raise. While throwing the right hand, Cruz rolled into an outside double leg and caught his opponent completely off-guard.
The major exception to this came in Cruz’s title defense opposite Demetrious Johnson. Early on, Cruz struggled with Johnson’s more fundamental kickboxing, as the future flyweight kingpin could switch stances and move equally well but relied on more proven setups and attacks.
However, Cruz had a pretty significant size advantage and made great use of it. He repeatedly pushed his way into the clinch, where he was able to throw Johnson around and score 10 takedowns across the five round fight. In particular, Cruz made great use of the back clinch, from which he suplexed Johnson multiple times (GIF).
Semi-recent fights with Faber, Garbrandt, and Cejudo have continually proven Cruz nearly impossible to hold down. He does such an excellent job of continually forcing wrestling-style scrambles. As soon as he hits the canvas, Cruz is turning to all fours, looking to knee slide away from his opponent. If he can, he’ll stand up immediately and start fighting hands, but Cruz also really excels at Granby rolling as his opponent tries to cling to his hips.
Cruz will continue scrambling as long as is necessary, abiding by the number one rule of wrestling one’s way out of bottom position: don’t ever settle!
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Cruz rarely does any grappling from bottom position. When on top, Bantamweights are generally hard to hold down, so it’s fairly common that Cruz lands a few shots then his opponent pops back up.
The main exception is the “Mighty Mouse” fight. Cruz was able to repeatedly gain the back mount and threaten with the rear naked choke. He never managed to finish the choke, but that is also the method in which he earned his sole submission victory.
Cruz is widely regarded as the greatest Bantamweight in history for good reason. He’s a pioneer of modern mixed martial arts (MMA) striking, but in this match up, Cruz seeks to prove he’s an active title threat rather than legend that’s still hanging around.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.
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