It’s safe to say Dominick Cruz has gone through more setbacks than almost any fighter at the top of the sport has ever had to endure. But the culmination of what will likely go down as the greatest comeback in the history of mixed martial arts was completed on Sunday as he returned to defeat TJ Dillashaw and regain the bantamweight title he never actually lost.
Cruz has suffered more injuries over the last few years than most fighters will go through during an entire career, and yet he never doubted his ability to step back into the Octagon and prove he was the best 135-pound fighter in the world.
Cruz’s misery started in 2012 when he was poised to make the biggest payday of his career in a fight against Urijah Faber after coaching a season of "The Ultimate Fighter." He suffered a torn ACL while training on the show, which forced him out of the fight and off the card featuring the rematch between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen.
The card ended up being one of the biggest shows of all time, and Cruz would have likely been staring down a title defense on a massive stage, not to mention the potential of a seven-figure check when the night was over.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Cruz’s knee rejected the cadaver ligament that was used to repair the injury and he was forced to underdog a second surgery that restarted the calendar on a potential return to action. After all that, just before Cruz was expected to return in 2014, he suffered a torn groin and the UFC had finally waited long enough and they stripped him of the bantamweight title.
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?
— Dominick Cruz in Sept. 2014
To that point, he was the only bantamweight champion in UFC history.
Cruz stormed back later that year and tore through top-10 contender Takeya Mizugaki in his return to action. Just when it looked like he was poised for another run at the belt, the improbable happened again. Cruz suffered another ACL tear, this time in the opposite leg, and he was sat down on the bench again for the next year.
So to watch Cruz come back on Sunday night and put on the kind of performance he did over five rounds to take the belt away from Dillashaw, who had looked virtually unstoppable over his last few fights, made what he did that much more special.
Injuries are part of sports, and it’s expected that every fighter is going to suffer some kind of disappointment at one point or another during a long career. But what Cruz went through would have likely broken most people to the point of no return.
Maybe the craziest part about Cruz’s comeback, but also the most telling about his incredible journey, is that he never lost faith.
While the world was touting Renan Barao as champion and calling TJ Dillashaw the new breed of bantamweight, Cruz just continued to sit back and quietly become one of the best analysts of the sport on television, paying both of them compliments while plotting their demise once he got back into the Octagon.
When the naysayers remarked that there was no way Cruz could come back and still employ the same kind of footwork and movement that made him famous, he just put in a few more grueling hours of rehabilitation to ensure that his legs were strong and his mind was right.
For all the doubters who never thought Cruz could do it — he never doubted himself for a second.
"I’m still the best bantamweight in the world in my mind, yes," Cruz told FOX Sports back in 2014, ahead of his first return to action against Mizugaki at UFC 178. "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."
Cruz could never fight again and he would already go down as one of the most inspirational stories in the history of the sport.
While crazy trash talk often rules the headlines, Cruz’s victory should be seen as one of the most uplifting stories to ever take place in sports, not just mixed martial arts. There are likely dozens upon dozens of professional athletes who would have gone through half of what Cruz suffered and called it a career and said enough is enough.
Cruz refused to give up, give in or even put his head down and think that the end was near. He always maintained his resolve, and on Sunday night he returned to reclaim the title in one of the most spectacular fights in recent memory.
Whether he defends the title 10 consecutive times or never fights again, when you look up the words perseverance, self-belief and determination from here on out, think of what Cruz did with his return to action and his title fight victory.
It’s not likely we’ll ever see something like this again.