ByDanny Acosta, writer at Creators.co
Danny Acosta

CHULA VISTA, Calif.—On a dreary day in the San Diego area, UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz went about his normal business as Alliance MMA’s workhorse.

He warmed up with shadowboxing movement on the black puzzle mats next to the boxing ring. It was so fast, his light blue shoes created countless black marks tracing his steps. Wearing long black spandex shorts and a grey Monster shirt with black short sleeves, Cruz switched motions from takedowns to sprawls versus an imaginary opponent. The pro team began filtering in and following Cruz’s lead.

Then Cruz added black kneepads, black Rival 16-ounce boxing gloves with red trim, and bright red shin pads, jumping into the blue-matted cage for five mixed martial arts sparring rounds. Teammates gazed through the chain-link mesh to watch Cruz time takedowns on WEC veteran Rolando Perez and whip low leg kicks. Cruz sat in the open cage door following the 25-minute session meant to mimic a title fight’s rigors and discussed the finer points of what just transpired with his confidants.

Onward to five wrestling rounds, tussling in the black and red mat area highlighted with overhanging American and Californian flags. Twenty-plus pros combined for a cool down abs routine, calling one exercise for a count of 30 until everyone led the group. Finally, the team ran the day’s training’s pain off.

Almost two full hours later, another championship practice was logged in the books for Cruz, who has been at championship level for nearly a decade.

Photos props: Amy Kaplan
Photos props: Amy Kaplan

“The Dominator” has lived up to that nickname thanks to the preparations he undertakes here. But if not for an injury, the Dominick Cruz the world knows today may not be.

It’s not one of Cruz’s numerous injuries either. Cruz is the only champion to lose his UFC title to inactivity from training injuries (Frank Mir lost the heavyweight crown to a motorcycle accident). He was the last WEC bantamweight champion ever and the first UFC champion in the division. The key culprits that cut Cruz’s historic title stretch short were ACL injuries to both knees and a groin injury. After arriving in the Octagon with a pair of successful title defenses in 2011, the injury bug plagued Cruz, causing the UFC to strip his championship in January 2014.

Yet he might not have reached those accolades if he didn’t venture to San Diego and become a pivotal figure at Alliance MMA. He might not have done the improbable and reclaimed his stripped championship from T.J. Dillashaw this past January, two years following the UFC taking the title off him.

The Dominick Cruz known today came to be on one day’s notice.

July 2006: Dave Hisquierdo needed a late replacement opponent on Eric Del Fierro’s San Diego local fight show, Total Combat, on 24 hours notice. Someone recommended a kid from Arizona. His name? Dominick Cruz. The kid gutted out a split decision victory in 15 minutes. Toughness, skillset, Del Fierro saw something in the raw product Cruz. He invited Cruz to crash at his house and the rest is history. Cruz never left San Diego.

Cruz’s lone loss came around the same time. Barely two years into his pro career in March 2007, he accepted a WEC featherweight title match against Urijah Faber. He submitted to “The California Kid” in 98 seconds. His next appearance in the organization featured Cruz in his new weight class, 135 pounds. Eleven fights and eight years later, Cruz has never been defeated at bantamweight.

The problem is Cruz has only had three of those successful bantamweight appearances in the last five years due to injury.

The 30-year-old champion is now in the midst of his second title run thanks to edging out Dillashaw. It begs the question, is it possible to tell Dominick Cruz’s story without injury? Cruz declared it’s not for him to decide. However, he estimates his hardships humanized him to a fan base that struggled to connect with him during his initial rise.

“I think that what happened is people could identify with me better after being hurt so bad, so low and so out,” Cruz told Champions.co, sitting in an Alliance back office post-training. “People want to see the best suffer. It’s just the way it is. People want to see the best suffer because they can’t identify with the best.”

That suffering was out in the open with Cruz being regularly on television in an analyst role rather than in competition, which he was known for, as bantamweight champion.

“Once people could understand, I could hit lows and I could get through it to get back to the high point, they could ride the high point with me,” continued Cruz. “Now I share my highs as much as I shared my lows with all this fan base. I can give every win to the people that followed me through my lows.”

Cruz knows about new territory, having ushered the bantamweight division into the Octagon. This connection with fans though is admittedly “a different feeling that I ever felt before when I was winning.”

Previously, it was about proving to himself he was as good as he thought he was. Now, he asserted, he knows.

“I know I’m a champion. I know I’m the best ‘35er to ever compete in the division thus far,” Cruz said. “I feel I can set a precedent for the division for the rest of time.”