For some reason, the news that Dominick Cruz was being forced out of yet another UFC title fight took me by surprise. Sure, “The Dominator” has been out of action since October 2011 and had almost a handful of fights canceled over the past few years, but for some reason I felt that Cruz would have no problem getting to the Octagon this time around. In hindsight, that was a major rookie mistake.

Fighters are liable to get hurt at any moment during the grueling training that proceeds a fight, and as the intensity of that training picks up closer to fight day, so does the likelihood of injury. With a fighter like Cruz, who has been on the sidelines far more often than not since he joined the UFC roster in 2011, the amount of skepticism towards “The Dominator” actually making it to the cage should have been at an all-time high.

Despite all of that, Cruz’s injury and subsequent vacancy of the UFC’s bantamweight title blindsided me. Maybe I just didn’t think that any fighter’s luck was that bad, or I was just blinded by my desire to see “The Dominator” step back into the cage.  Maybe I was still all hopped up on holiday spirit(s). Either way, over the past few days, I’ve quickly gone from wondering whether Cruz would be able to shake off the ring rust and beat Renan Barao to wondering whether we’ll ever have the chance to watch Cruz compete again.

Calling Cruz’s third major leg injury in less than three years career-ending is probably a bit much, but at this point, one has to wonder if the former bantamweight champion will ever be the same inside the Octagon. More so than almost any fighter on the UFC roster, Cruz relies on his footwork and movement to open up opportunities inside the cage. “The Dominator” is so light on his feet that it almost seems like he’s floating around the cage at times, and it’s that skill set that allows Cruz to open up with his unorthodox striking attack. Take some of that movement away, and it’s hard to prove that Cruz is still among the top two or three bantamweights in the sport. If it almost completely goes away, it will be interesting to see if Cruz is able to hang in the UFC at all.

Cruz doesn’t possess the raw power of Barao, and he probably can’t finish fighters in as many ways as Urijah Faber, but “The Dominator” is a master at making his opponents fight his style and at his pace. The term “point fighter” is often used as a negative by MMA fans, but Cruz has turned it into an art form. Cruz’s ability to dart in and out while landing combinations is a thing of beauty when he’s on, and it’s his ability to score points while retaining his elusiveness that helped him become a world champion. It’s tough to believe he’s going to be able to fight at the same level with a leg that’s practically been built from scratch over the last few years.

Even though I felt that Cruz-Barao was the most intriguing fight the UFC could pull together this year, I still spent plenty of time wondering if Cruz would be better off taking a tune-up fight before stepping into the cage with a killer like Barao. Cruz was an excellent fighter a few years ago, but it seems impossible to expect him to pick up exactly where he left off inside the cage. If you account for the injuries, the likelihood of “The Dominator” coming out and being, well, dominant, takes an even bigger hit. There’s no denying that the MMA community feels for Cruz and wants him to get back to full strength, but throwing in another leg injury is only going to lead to more unconvinced fans by the time that Cruz steps back into the cage.

While we may not be able to predict how well Cruz is going to perform when he finally returns from his hiatus, it will be interesting to see what the UFC decides to do with its former champion upon his return. Until his latest injury, Cruz was still the owner of the bantamweight strap, and that was going to force him into a high-stakes bout with Barao regardless of when he returned. With the belt now officially belonging to Barao, UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby has a few options for Cruz when he’s finally ready to step back into the cage.

As tempting as it will be to immediately make plans to throw Cruz into the cage against the winner of the Barao-Faber fight set for next month, “The Dominator’s” injury history makes that a dangerous situation. If Cruz goes down a month before fight time again, will there be another Faber willing to step up? If not, could that possibly lead to a repeat of the infamous UFC 151 incident and another canceled pay-per-view? That’s a huge risk for Zuffa to take, and even if Cruz is by far the most deserving man for a title fight, it probably makes more sense to force “The Dominator” to prove he can make it to the cage before signing him up for another main event.

Through no fault of his own, the road back to a bantamweight title fight may be much longer than Cruz both anticipates and deserves. In his mind, Cruz is still the best bantamweight on the planet, and that likely won’t change any time soon. The fact that he never lost his belt is enough for many fans to think he should be able to jump right back into a title fight without missing a beat, and I’m sure Cruz feels the same way. However, although Cruz has never let the UFC down, his body has and that may be more than enough of a reason to keep “The Dominator” on the outside looking in when he makes his eventual return. There’s no denying that Cruz was the best bantamweight in the world the last time he stepped into the cage, but the window to try to earn that title back keeps on getting smaller. Sadly for Cruz, if he doesn’t return soon, that window may end up closing entirely.

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.