The last time Dominick Cruz fought in the UFC, the promotion hadn’t debuted on FOX television yet. Neither the women’s nor flyweight divisions had been created. Anderson Silva was still king of the mountain and T.J. Dillashaw wasn’t even a UFC fighter.
Three years is a long time to be away from any sport, but for Cruz it was a crippling experience both personally and professionally. At the time when he fell out, he was coaching The Ultimate Fighter back in 2012 against longtime rival Urijah Faber with their trilogy rubber match scheduled to take place on the same card as Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen 2, which ended up being one of the biggest shows of all time.
It would have been a financial windfall for Cruz as well as a chance to prove he belonged right beside a name like Silva as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in all of MMA.
The moment Cruz’s knee buckled during training and he ended up on the surgeon’s table everything changed forever. Matters only got worse when the original surgery and repair failed and Cruz was forced to undergo the same surgery a second time. The result was nearly almost 36 months out of action and he was forced to surrender his UFC bantamweight title.
Nothing has been easy. I wanted to fight every second of every ounce of the last three years
— Dominick Cruz
Now as Cruz is finally set to return to the Octagon this weekend at UFC 178 in the main event of the preliminary card airing on FOX Sports 1, he’d like to pretend this is just like any other fight during his career, but even he can’t fake normalcy at a moment like this.
"I’ve had a fight around the corner before and it was exciting, but not as exciting as it is now," Cruz told FOX Sports. "Right now, it sounds crazy, but this is the healthiest I’ve been since I last fought (Urijah) Faber for the second time. Because even when I went into that fight with Demetrious Johnson, I had a broken hand.
"Now I don’t have one injury in my whole body, I’ve had this long layoff unfortunately but it’s also given me a lot of time to heal, understand and learn about my body, build my mind, build my spirit, so I’m feeling really good and really confident."
Cruz battled just about every emotion while he was on the sidelines. He was sad. He was depressed. He was anxious. And the worst part about it all was Cruz could control very little of what was going on in his life. He did manage to spend a lot of time as an analyst working for FOX during several UFC shows, but even that was tough to handle especially when it was his belt up for grabs.
"It wasn’t easy to watch Faber and (Renan) Barao compete for my title. What I earned and worked so hard to have. It wasn’t easy for me to watch Joe Soto go out there and break down these guys, being an analytical guy. Nothing has been easy," Cruz said. "I wanted to fight every second of every ounce of the last three years."
Now that Cruz is finally back you might expect him to feel animus towards the UFC, the bantamweight division or the man currently holding the gold belt that once belonged to him, but the former champion is more concerned with his own battle within.
He’s not worried about proving he can still be the best in the world to the fans or anyone else. If Cruz performs the way he knows he can, all the questions that remain out there will be answered quite emphatically on Saturday night.
"My brain works kind of weird and what I mean by that is I’m challenging myself all the time. So it’s not about what anybody else wants to see me do out there. It’s not what my mom wants or the UFC wants or what my brother wants or anybody who loves or cares about me — it’s about what I can do for myself," Cruz said.
"If I’m challenging myself, everybody else is going to be impressed with what I do because I really am my own worst critic. To be honest I needed to get back in there and I felt like I almost needed to earn my shot at the title. Regardless of whether I lost my title due to injury or never lost it or whatever anybody wants to say, I have something to prove to myself."
I’m still the best bantamweight in the world in my mind, yes
— Dominick Cruz
Whether Cruz really believes he needs to earn his way back to the title is debatable, but he’s not shying away from how he feels about his standing in the division. The belt may not be around his waist right now, but if all goes well this weekend against Takeya Mizugaki, Cruz will remedy that void in short order.
"I’m still the best bantamweight in the world in my mind, yes," Cruz said. "That’s still something I need to go in there and fight. It’s been a long time since I fought. If I had any doubt that I was the best in the world then I shouldn’t be competing. If you don’t think you’re going to be the best, what’s the point?
"I choose to be the best bantamweight on the planet and I’m going to make it happen."
Virtually the only questions Cruz has answered for the last two plus years have been about his knee and his recovery. He’s still going to field a lot of those this week as he gets ready for his return to the Octagon, but the other obvious inquiry will be about what comes next.
Cruz returning to face a top five opponent in Mizugaki, but chances are the name on everyone’s mind when talking to the former champion will be current bantamweight king T.J. Dillashaw.
Cruz will be happy to address him when the time is right.
"I’m gunning for the title. If you’re in this sport and you’re not gunning for the title, you’re in the wrong sport," Cruz said when Dillashaw’s name came up. "But I’m just taking one step in front of the other and I’m not skipping any steps. When you start to skip steps you start looking past people.