Dominick Cruz is in a very good place, and I don’t just mean the oceanfront room in San Diego, where the breeze is hitting perfectly as we speak over the phone on Tuesday afternoon.
More than 17 years into a career that has produced a WEC title, two UFC title reigns, and a resume that establishes him as the best bantamweight in the history of the sport, the 36-year-old enters this weekend’s matchup with Marlon “Chito” Vera in his adopted hometown of San Diego, California on a two-fight run of success.
He’s back in the Top 10 after a rare moment where he was unranked and then outside of that elite group, paired off with a streaking contender looking to remain active and collect a victory over the best in the division’s history while those in front of him sort things out.
After years of being “The Hunted,” he’s now the one doing the hunting, at least in terms of where the two men stand in the rankings and the betting odds are concerned, but Cruz sees himself more as a builder, a creator, an artist, and Saturday’s fight with Vera as an opportunity to once again build something new.
“I’ve been an underdog most of my career, up until I was champion, and then when I was champion, I became the favorite all of a sudden, so to be an underdog again, it is what it is,” says Cruz, stringing together quick sentences and thoughts like he does movements and attacks inside the Octagon. “It doesn’t surprise me — the division is frickin’ stacked. Vera is very good. Everybody above me is very, very, very good, so I just show up and be prepared with my camp, and do what I’ve gotta do.
“For me to look at it like, ‘I should be favored’ or ‘I should be this because I was champion,’ who cares what the past looked like? That would be the prison of past conditioning that I already created, and none of that…”
He paused ever so briefly, making sure to get his thought across clearly.
“That becomes a prison for you if you hold on to it,” he says, picking up where he left off. “I’m moving forward, growing what I’ve got to grow, step-by-step. Vera is the next fertile ground of creativity and freedom that I get to be in, and we’ll see what I get to build.”
That phrase — “the fertile ground of creativity and freedom” — is how Indian-American author and alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra defines uncertainty, which is something Cruz has come to embrace.
Like many people, he spent years worrying about the past and the future, stressing over things that were ultimately outside of his control.
But in navigating the euphoric highs and crushing lows of a career limited by injuries and watching how various people floated into and out of his life, depending on where he was at in that journey, the thoughtful, reflective bantamweight reached a point where he needed to let go of all of it and embrace the uncertainty of the moment.
“It sounds cheesy, but I have really gotten to a point where I can be unattached to the outcome,” says Cruz, chuckling, because it does, in fact, sound cheesy, even if it’s true. “What generally scares human beings is the unknown — in life, forget about a fight— but if I knew what was going to happen, if you knew what was going to happen every single day, would you even want to live? It would be boring, wouldn’t it? Life would be stale and Groundhog Day and it would suck.
“It would feel safe, which is what naturally we want as humans, because we naturally put ourselves into a state of survival. In fighting, I feel like in my past, I’ve been in a big state of survival, and through all the wins, losses, draws, people going into my life, and out of my life, I’ve really learned that the quality of your life is the quality of your relationships.
“If I knew the outcome before this started — if I knew for a fact, 100 percent, no doubt in my mind and the whole world knew 100 percent, no doubt in their minds who was going to win this fight, it wouldn’t be interesting to any of us,” continues Cruz, speaking in the focused tone that has become synonymous with his work as a broadcaster. “The uncertainty is actually what I’m embracing.
Dominick Cruz Reflects On Injuries | UFC Fight Night: Vera vs Cruz
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Dominick Cruz Reflects On Injuries | UFC Fight Night: Vera vs Cruz
“That’s what I crave because that’s where the freedom and creativity can take place, and who knows what I can do there. It’s a brand-new slate, a brand-new fight, a brand-new matchup — new things can be created compared to what I’ve already created, which has been pretty awesome, but what else can I create?”
But it’s not just about being unattached to the outcome of the fight that has brought about this very Zen version of the former bantamweight champion; there is another piece to it, as well.
“What’s cool about this is that the people that are around now will be around win, lose, or draw, and those are the type of people that I have in my life now,” he says. “They don’t stick around because I win — they stick around because they love me and I can trust them, and it hasn’t always been that way; I haven’t really chosen those types of people in my life.
“So, I know that I can walk into this with freedom, knowing those relationships will be there and I’ll be loved when it’s all done.
“I’ve got a very good life, I’m really grateful for it, and win, lose, or draw, I’m going to be here at the end of this thing…or I die on that night and I’m happy with what I created.”
He laughs, but is completely serious, both in terms of how grateful for everything he has and the legacy he’ll leave behind when this is all over, regardless of when that comes.
Even though he’s found this new mindset, reached this new way of looking at life and his career and everything that comes with each, that doesn’t mean that he’s completely unaffected by the fact that it’s fight week, and on Saturday night, he’s going to have to step into the Octagon and face a dangerous, confident Vera.
“Obviously I’m nervous — and you’re gonna be nervous,” he says, shifting his focus to the task at hand and making sure it’s clear that he’s not detached from the realities of what will transpire in the next several days. “I’m a human being — I’m not a robot — so I’m nervous. My stomach is bubbling every other hour, but I’ll do what I’ve got to do to work through that.
“I’ve got a shake-out after I’m done with these interviews, and that will settle some of the nerves. The real battle next is getting this weight off; that’s the fight before the fight. The nasty baptism is coming, so I’ll start that up and go from there.”
Along with his mindset being different these days, one other noticeable difference for Cruz as he readies for the weekend is that he’s healthy.
Saturday marks his third fight in less than 18 months and fourth fight in a little over two years, the most frequently he’s competed since a three-fight run in 2016 that saw him regain the bantamweight title he lost due to injury, nor defeat, before closing out his trilogy with long-time rival Urijah Faber and losing the bantamweight strap to Cody Garbrandt at UFC 207.
“I attribute that to my mindset,” says Cruz, who will only be making his 10th UFC appearance on Saturday, despite making his promotional debut at UFC 132 on July 2, 2011. “I realize that all that stress that I used to have and the mindset I used to have of needing to create something put a lot of extra stress on me, and maybe I formulated a lot of the injuries on myself by being so stressed.
“Being in this free mindset has helped keep me injury-free. I’m doing a lot of physical therapy. I do a lot of prehab, which is taking care of the body before anything happens, so that nothing does happen. Between those choices and the mindset that I have, it’s been nice to put together a win streak without injuries.”
It’s also got him feeling a familiar kind of way.
“I feel — it’s almost kind of eerie to be this healthy and walking into another fight this healthy,” he admits. “You get the best version of me when I’m healthy — you get the guy that you’ve seen win world championships, and that’s the kind of performance I’m going to show up with because I’m so healthy.
“If I did hold on to any kind of past,” Cruz says, tethering to his previous comment, “I would say that it would be the thought of how many fights I won with blown out knees and broken hands.”
A beat passes.
“I won them anyways and now I don’t have to do that; what a gift!”
UFC Fight Night: Vera vs Cruz took place live from Pechanga Arena in San Diego, California on August 13, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive all the action on UFC Fight Pass!