Dominick Cruz (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)UFC 178: Dominick Cruz’s First Step on The Road to Redemption Aidan O'Connor September 23, 2014 Events, Spotlight 1,092 days. That will be the difference between Dominick Cruz’s last competitive fight in 2011 and his return on September 27 at UFC 178. The much anticipated return of the former bantamweight champion raises several questions about what we can expect from Cruz, currently ranked No. 12, when he faces No. 5 Takeya Mizugaki in Las Vegas. The bantamweight landscape has changed drastically since Cruz (19-1) was last seen in the Octagon. Mizugaki (20-7-2) represents a new wave of contenders at 135 pounds as the division finds new depth and quality among a litany of names including Raphael Assuncao, Iuri Alcantara, Michael McDonald, and the current champion, T.J. Dillashaw. To reassert his claim as the king of the division, we may see a modified fighting style from Cruz. Having undergone two surgeries on a torn ACL and forced to withdraw from a February 1 bout against then-interim bantamweight champion, Renan Barão, after suffering a torn groin, injuries to Cruz’s lower extremities might encourage the Arizona native to adapt his signature style to one with a lower tempo. Perhaps Cruz will place less focus on his unorthodox footwork, feints, and technical angles, in favor of a game plan of taking Mizugaki to the ground. Cruz has shown strength and proficiency on the mat before, most recently against current UFC flyweight champion Demetrius Johnson when the duo met in October 2011. Cruz’s savvy, educated outlook on MMA performance is well documented, notably in his role as a Fox Sports analyst. Any transition to a slower style to minimize risk of injury would be further evidence of his intellect on the sport. One variable that will undoubtedly benefit Cruz is his return to a scheduled three round bout, which will be his first in five years since defeating Joseph Benavidez for the first time at WEC 42. Compared to the physical demands of preparing for a five round fight, fresh off a streak of career threatening injuries, the three round bout—as observed by Cruz himself on ‘The MMA Hour’—offers a physically less demanding path to getting back into action. Of course no speculation of Cruz’s performance would be complete without taking his opponent into account. Mizugaki has quietly earned five victories in a row, proving he is receptive to striking engagements in each of those fights. Most recently the Japanese standout calmly countered the vicious haymakers of Francisco Rivera to claim another unanimous decision. A sixth victory over the man who never lost his title in competition would elevate the Kanagawa resident to new heights in the mind of fans and UFC executives alike. However, if Cruz treats us to the same stand-up game that left viewers dumbfounded before, Mizugaki faces a very different test. Regardless of which Dominick Cruz shows up on September 27, absence has made the heart grow fonder and an air of intrigue surrounds this bout in spite of its lower position on a stacked card. As Tamdem McCrory recently showed with a stellar knockout win at Bellator 123, a lengthy period of time away from the cage does not always end in tears, nor should it. The MGM Grand Garden Arena’s packed crowd will watch the former champion with keen interest in a bout that all but cements Cruz or Mizugaki’s title contendership. For Cruz especially, UFC 178 reflects a momentous task weighted by great expectations, as he faces not only Mizugaki, but the elements and rigors of a vicious and unkind sport he once ruled as king.