When Sandy Koufax retired from professional baseball, he’d just won the Cy Young Award as baseball’s best pitcher, an award he won three of the last four years of his career. He was also coming off his two straight World Series appearances. Then crippling arthritis forced his retirement – he was only thirty.
Dominick Cruz is the Sandy Koufax of MMA.
Debates always rage over who is the Greatest Of All Time, with baseball focusing on Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and so on; MMA looks at Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, and Fedor. Koufax’s name has an unspoken asterisks next to it, a trailing off sadness of, “He was already that great but how much greater could he have become?” Those whispers now haunt Cruz.
Like Koufax, Cruz’s career is defined by injury as much as it is success. No matter that Cruz has a win over every single man he’s ever faced, and that his absurd 21-1 record while competing at the highest levels possible drops jaws, there is no way to ignore the elephant that is his having fought just twice since October of 2011. In the past 4+ years, the poor man tore his groin and has had three ACL surgeries. 31 now, he missed four years of his athletic peak. That sweet spot of an athlete’s career when they’ve gained enough knowledge but still retain physical gifts was stripped from Cruz. Hell, at least Koufax got to play during his late 20s!
And there’s no evidence to suggest that Cruz would have been anything but dominant had he not been injured. After his first multi-year break, he came back and ran through Takeya Mizugaki in 61 seconds; one of the best bantamweights on earth, a former title challenger, a guy ranked in the top 10 forever, was made to look like an amateur by someone who had almost 1000 days between fights.
After the injury bug struck again, how does Cruz return? He beats TJ Dillashaw to win back his UFC Bantamweight Championship, the belt that had been stripped from him because of those injuries. Dillashaw looked flawless prior to fighting Cruz, seemingly becoming Cruz 2.0 as far as movement and skill was concerned. He was no paper champion, no fraud, no gimmie. To beat not just a champion but a champion that other champions looked at with awe, and to do so having only had those 61 seconds of cage time over the previous 1569 days is unheard of.
Cruz Brings a Gun to a Knife Fight
He has yet to rack up all of the accomplishments of others but his actual in-cage fighting ability is at a different level than any and everyone in the sport. The ideal MMArtist wasn’t a secret: a guy who could do everything and bring it all together in a way that is truly unique. Most fighters – and this is no knock on them – are good to great at the individual aspects of the sport. But they’re still doing each aspect of the game, just at different times. BJ Penn had great jiu-jitsu, great boxing, and great wrestling. But each of them was used separate from one another. You can see it in that, “OK, now he’s boxing. And now he’s decided to wrestle. And now grapple.” And there have been guys who mix and match every skill needed to great success. When Frankie Edgar fights, he’s magnificent at combining his boxing with his wrestling but that’s more or less where it ends; he isn’t a threat to kick or submit. They aren’t Cruz.
Cruz is impossible to decipher. He doesn’t throw a jab and then transition to a takedown, his jabs look like the setups for takedowns; his takedowns the set up for kicks; his ground and pound becomes smooth positional transitions and submission attacks. The movements fighters are taught – and rightfully so in most cases – are useless against Cruz. How do you try to slip a jab and counter when you have no idea if a jab is ever going to come? Trying to sprawl is a bit silly when he’s actually throwing an uppercut. It isn’t just that he switches stances and uses feints like they’re second nature, it’s that for every technique in every area of the game, he has a different way to do it. Both hands jab, both legs kick, he takes you down from bodylocks and outside shots, he scrambles from top and bottom, and so on. It’s like fighting with the lights turned off but he can see in the dark.
Dominick Cruz truly practices a new form of fighting: he’s actually doing Mixed Martial Arts while other guys are still mixing martial arts. Others are fumbling with matches while he’s wielding a flamethrower. Some have attempted to mimic his style. Dillashaw ran through the 135 lb class using a style similar to Cruz’s but it was still a copy of a masterpiece. You might trace every single brush stroke of the Mona Lisa but it’ll never quite be the same.
Define the greatest by accomplishments if you want; beating every single fighter you ever faced is as good as any and never losing your title is impressive. But it is in fighting like no one ever has, and maybe ever will, that makes Dominck Cruz the greatest of all time.