ByThe Naked Gambler, writer at
MMA hierophant. Follow me on Twitter at @NakedGambling for mostly nonsense with some analysis mixed in.
The Naked Gambler

At UFC 207, MMA’s most indomitable champion and greatest-ever bantamweight will defend his title against the most physically gifted and technically threatening of a new generation of contenders.

Prior to a series of injuries which would see him stripped of his championship, seemed untouchable, both figuratively and literally. After securing the bantamweight title, Cruz would go on to defend it twice under the WEC banner, before receiving the UFC bantamweight championship following the merger between the two organizations.

On the heels of two convincing decision wins over Urijah Faber and future flyweight king Demetrious Johnson, Cruz seemed to have no worthy challengers remaining. To describe Cruz’s game as “cutting edge” would be a disservice to him; as time would come to show, Cruz was not only ahead of his contemporaries, he was many, many years ahead, crafting a style which seems in retrospect to be both revolutionary and a logical next step in the development of mixed martial arts.

Cruz’s style does not conform to any conventional martial art, and is tailored specifically to MMA. “The Dominator’s" repertoire does not contain angles specifically for boxing or specifically for wrestling, every step that the evasive great takes is taken with the intent of exposing opponents to the full breadth of his game, a game which runs incredibly deep, and contains more layering than any other in the sport.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The champion’s style is one of options. His footwork is not only bizarre and unorthodox, but remarkably calculated. He is capable of leveraging the angles he takes into a variety of punches and kicks, high, low, and to the body, along with razor-sharp reflexive takedowns, all executed from the same starting motions.

This ability to interject offense at any point of his movement sequences makes him highly unpredictable, and this unpredictability is what he thrives on. To many, his style has often seemed inefficient, with much unnecessary movement. However, this view may be too traditional for a fighter such as Cruz, whose style defies conventions, and is specifically tailored to a set of offensive and defensive goals. Once he establishes his rhythm and the great diversity of strikes available to him, the mere movements of his body serves almost as a series of feints.

Unable to predict his next attack, opponents are left staring, mesmerized by him as he maneuvers across the Octagon. It is difficult not to be befuddled by such a fighter; the way Cruz moves is deeply unnatural, and there is no trainer in the world who trains fighters to move as he does.

Every single step he takes is part of a broader sequence, and the wide variety of offensive tools available to him within any given part of that sequence could not be integrated so seamlessly without years of tireless dedication to his craft. To be so effortless in such unnatural movements, one must refine them constantly until they are second nature, so deeply ingrained in muscle memory that they come forth even without thought.

Cruz is a monumentally important technician, furthering the combative arts and developing an all-terrain, MMA-centric style all of his own, in a way which no other fighter has managed. When one thinks of Dominick Cruz, labels like “analytical” are more likely to come to mind than those typically ascribed to the average fighter, such as “gritty” or “tough”. He is a brilliant mind and a thinking man’s fighter, above all else.

Obsessed with defensive masterminds, the two-time bantamweight champion is a man who has long studied the great technicians of the past to craft a style likely to be emulated in the distant future. Much of what he does is completely innovative, with no set framework in place on which to base his style. To Cruz, the greatest feat of movement is the ability to steer not only yourself, but an opponent, into the space you desire.

Part of his defensive wizardry comes from his ability to bait the reactions he wants from his foes. Holding his hands by his waist, Cruz’s head, often leaned forward at the waist towards an opponent, is a very appealing target, only amplified by his tendency to keep his mouth open and breathe heavily. This is by design. While appearing to be exposed and vulnerable, the timing with which Cruz selects his engagements and his ability to quickly traverse space, in combination with razor-sharp head and trunk movement, make it very difficult to land clean, meaningful head strikes against him.

His head serves as a constant target, and he presents it on a platter to any opponent foolish enough to take his bait. Naked head strikes rarely work on Cruz, as discovered in their championship fight. Only through targeting the legs and body was Dillashaw able to find real success attacking Cruz’s head.

By comparison, ’s style is relatively simple, but simplicity should not be confused with a lack of effectiveness.

David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports
David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports

On the outside, Garbrandt’s game is hazily defined. He has a wide arsenal of kicks, both high and to the legs, which he throws sporadically. Where he truly shines, however, is in the infight.

Garbrandt’s rock-solid boxing fundamentals are the cornerstone of his success. He cuts beautiful offensive angles and has a diverse array of punches, each thrown with the same natural comfort, often in intricate strings of combinations to the head and body. His jab and cross are picture-perfect, with no wasted motion.

The challenger’s physicality is nothing short of phenomenal; possessing some of the quickest hands in the sport, Garbrandt may be the first opponent to hold a significant hand speed advantage over Cruz. He leverages this hand speed well, with the lead right cross being a staple of his game in a way usually not seen in MMA. In addition, he packs thunderous, ambidextrous power, present in every strike thrown in his combinations.

A constant KO threat, Garbrandt is unafraid to interject high-risk techniques; against both Takeya Mizugaki and Thomas Almeida, Garbrandt opened by planting his left hand on the mat before swinging a round kick at the head of his opponent. After backing Almeida into the fence, “No Love” followed with a flying knee.

The footwork and angular sense which permeate Garbrandt's game lend his combinations a high degree of unpredictability, only bolstered by his immense hand speed.

In the sequence which originally staggered Almeida, an orthodox fighter, Garbrandt, also a primarily orthodox fighter, stepped to the inside with his left foot, before launching a lead right straight. As he sensed Almeida leaning to the inside, away from Garbrandt’s power hand, “No Love” stepped to Almeida’s outside with his right foot, taking southpaw positioning, and launched a left hook which intercepted Almeida, and then a right-left hook combination which left the Brazilian wrecking machine badly staggered.

Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports
Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

The talent is far from a finished product; with just ten professional fights and four years of pro experience, Garbrandt is likely to show refinement heading into his first championship fight.

Cruz, meanwhile, is likely to showcase technical growth of his own. Previously a fighter who was at times too averse to pocket engagements, Cruz found himself repeatedly punished with low kicks and intercepting hooks as he attempted to escape the cage against former champion Dillashaw.

Perhaps realizing this, Cruz showcased newfound confidence in the pocket during his most recent outing against Urijah Faber. The conventional wisdom was that Faber, like all Cruz opponents, needed to strip the champion of his spatial options in order to land meaningful offense on the inside.

Cruz, unexpectedly, allowed Faber this exact spacing on several occasions, but things did not go as Faber may have hoped. As "The California Kid” would enter the pocket with his signature overhand right, Cruz would deftly step back, landing sharp counter punches and stringing together combinations instead of simply evading the infight, dropping Faber multiple times in the process. In particular, he showed a vastly improved step-back lead hook, which he threw in a wide arc, often catching Faber on the very end of the strike, well out of range of the Alpha Male leader’s return fire.

Cruz’s counter punching was always an afterthought in an otherwise stellar technical game, but through developing this skill, he has become the most multi-dimensional threat he has ever been. Opponents cannot rely on the safety of the infight, and even if they are able to bypass his near-impenetrable defense, this new wrinkle in his game allows him to compete on even, or advantageous, terms in the pocket with aggressive pressure strikers.

If the fight is to hit the mat, it will likely be on Cruz’s terms. While Garbrandt’s defensive wrestling is staunch, he has not used his wrestling in an offensive capacity to any notable degree. Cruz’s takedown game, meanwhile, has been irresistible.

The angles with which Cruz pursues takedowns and his uncanny timing make him one of the best takedown artists in the sport, perhaps the very best. The level change with which he attempts his lower-body takedowns is identical to the one which precedes his lean-in jabs and right crosses. His double and single leg takedowns are both flawless, and his kneetap is rivaled only by Georges St-Pierre. Even Dillashaw, who has never conceded a takedown in his career before or after Cruz, was taken down by the bantamweight champion four times.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Cruz’s diversity of attack, comprising all conceivable punches and takedowns attempted across every angular plane, is a difficult proposition for any fighter, but Garbrandt’s deep specialization in pocket boxing grants him at least an intriguing opportunity for an upset.

As Cruz artfully sways across the Octagon, he must constantly be aware that he is traversing a thunderstorm. This contest will be one of inches, in which the champion regularly finds himself a hair's breadth removed from the sudden, disastrous jolt of Garbrandt's right cross. This is part of the appeal of a Dominick Cruz fight; the champion is fearless, his grace inexhaustible, even as lightning singes his feet.

The battle between the bantamweight division’s most beautiful mind and its most explosive knockout artist has divided many fans, but a remarkable outcome is all but assured. Whether Cruz’s defensive wizardry stifles the premier stand-out of bantamweight’s recent surge of contenders, or whether Garbrandt’s dynamic offensive striking fells the all-time great, the shock waves will resonate throughout the sport for months, or even years, to come.

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