Dominick Cruz (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)The Long Road Back: After Two Years Away, Can Dominick Cruz Return to Glory? Sal DeRose December 27, 2013 Spotlight There is a daunting and unprecedented task awaiting Dominick Cruz at UFC 169. The walkout music will play, Cruz will walk to the cage and those cage doors will shut. Cruz will look directly across the cage at Renan Barao and hear the crowd roar, hear his name announced, and then he will be asked if he is ready to fight for the first time in over two years. Injuries are a killer to any athlete, and the response to something as significant as an ACL tear is totally unpredictable. Injuries are one of the toughest things an athlete can face. It plays with your head. Get a concussion in football after being blindsided, and you could start hearing footsteps. Get knocked out or punched too hard in a fight, and you could turn to turtling up as your default response. Cruz’s ACL tear has created so much time off that it is hard to say whether he will be the same fighter ever again. This sort of time off is nearly unprecedented for a champion like Cruz in the sport of MMA. Not only that, but Cruz is going directly from the surgery bed straight to the cage to face a killer in Barao, the interim champion, in a five-round title fight. That’s hardly a means of easing back into competition. Barao isn’t your ordinary champion either. He has gone 32 straight fights without a loss and, since coming to the UFC, he has looked unbeatable. While Cruz has been fighting off the pain in his knee, Barao has been fighting the top names the bantamweight division has to offer. Urijah Faber? Five-round decision victory. Michael McDonald? Fourth-round submission victory. Eddie Wineland? Second-round knockout victory. Cruz’s layoff from the cage can only hurt him going into this fight with one of the most feared men in the bantamweight division. Nobody has been able to answer Barao’s skill and especially his striking. Cruz has the toughest challenge he will ever face in his life when he steps inside that cage at UFC 169 in February. While interest in him fighting may have dwindled—especially since he fights in a division that doesn’t quite get the attention the bigger boys get—Cruz has a lot to accomplish when he returns. Ring rust is a very nasty thing, and Cruz has no time to shake off the cobwebs before his heroic showdown with Barao. It has been more than two years for Cruz, and while he was a dominant champion before, the landscape at 135 pounds has changed and Barao has taken Cruz’s place as the king of the mountain. Cruz benefited from an amazing fight style to get to where he was. His ability to move and outpoint everybody was extraordinary. Nobody could figure out the puzzle. Faber got close, but in the end his valiant effort was for naught as Cruz yet again was crowned champion. That high-paced, movement-centered fight style could possibly be damaged, however, with the injuries to his knees. It is very possible any sort of bouncing or movement could be diminished due to a serious injury like an ACL tear. That style is something Cruz would need to rely upon to outpoint Barao. If Cruz can’t move fast enough or can’t shake Barao easily enough, Cruz’s title could very well be gone. Both physically and mentally, Cruz is facing an uphill battle against Barao, but if there is any man in the bantamweight division that could end Barao’s streak, it would be Cruz. Although Cruz may face these challenges in training, by fight night he should answer the call with extraordinary results. Cruz has a great team around him at Alliance MMA, which is a crucial element in the lead-up to this fight. Furthemore, Cruz doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would let an injury get to him as badly as some. He has dealt with major injuries before, having a couple hand injuries delay his previous fights, including his second with Faber. Muhammad Ali put it best when he said, “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you down. It’s the pebble in your shoe.” Cruz needs to shake off the past two years just like one would shake a pebble from their shoe. It’s easy to let a simple thing like an injury get in your way mentally. It’s easy to put limitations on yourself. But in actuality, it doesn’t make you a different fighter. Cruz still has the same hands that made him the lightning-quick champion and the feet that made him the fighter with the best movement. If we can look somewhere for a comparison of Cruz’s injury and subsequent path to a return, it would be Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. Peterson came back from far worse, having torn his ACL and MCL, to not only become a 2,000-yard rusher, but also the MVP of the entire NFL. It took hard work and dedication to get there—and if there is anybody on this planet who works harder than Peterson, please show them to me—and Cruz has that. Cruz didn’t become champion for no reason. Cruz hasn’t fought in two years, but that means he should be well rested, and that is how he should look at it. Fans have short attention spans at times and, given Barao’s reign, they might not have a vivid memory of Cruz as the champion. Yet, that’s exactly where he stood before injuries sidelined him for two years. In the end though, fan interest doesn’t matter. The only thing that should matter to Cruz is hearing these words: “and, still, the UFC bantamweight champion of the world, Dominick Cruz.” FlyPrezidente Go Dominator!