Cruz returns to claim title in five-round classic against Dillashaw

Former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz walked out to the Octagon to compete for the first time in over a year, and just the second time in four years, Sunday night. He began that walk with a smile and a bounce, as Nate Dogg and Warren G rang out through the Boston Garden loudspeakers.

"Nobody does it better than me."

That smile tightened into a focused scowl and that walk turned into a march, then jog from Cruz, as the music changed “How I Could Just Kill a Man” by Cypress Hill.

Five rounds later, Cruz was handed the title and belt that he’d lost to injuries, not to any opponent, and he screamed in joy before taking the strap outside of the cage, and raising it up in the air.

"No one is retiring me except me," he said, after beating defending champion TJ Dillashaw by split decision.

"I’ve been through too much."

Indeed he had. Dillashaw put him through much more, as well, over 25 minutes.

The fight was almost too close to score, with Cruz effectively using angles, footwork and takedowns to score points and Dillashaw stalking him, landing big kicks and notching up a similar tally of total strikes landed.

In the end, scores were 48-47, 49-46, and 46-49 in favor of Cruz.

"There’s no such thing as rust," he continued, afterwards.

"Rust does not exist unless you don’t train hard enough … now, I’m at another level."

The first round began with big swings from both men off of frenetic movement. Dillashaw threw his high kick over and over, while Cruz repeatedly angled-out, connected with a wide right hand to the head and scored with flash takedowns.

By mid-round, Cruz was huffing and puffing, but still scored with a great punch combo to the head and an inside leg kick. For his part, Dillashaw landed big right punches to the head, as well as body kicks.

Cruz slipped, ducked and weaved away from the champion’s strikes, and scored another brief takedown, before ending the period defending one from Dillashaw against the cage.

Early in the second, Dillashaw eagerly stalked Cruz, attempting to force him into a striking exchange in the pocket. Cruz refused to be pegged-down, and continued his lateral and in-and-out movement.

Still, Dillashaw caught Cruz with his hands down and landed a big right hand, followed by two leg kicks. Cruz finished a high-low-high punch combo with a left cross and then ate a right kick and left punch to the head from Dillashaw.

Cruz scored with a one-two to the head and then ducked under a punch from Dillashaw to score another takedown. Dillashaw popped up to his feet but was taken down once again.

The champion worked his way up to his feet, again, with under a minute left and continued to try and connect with his high kick as the round drew to a close.

The two men returned to their corners after the horn with their eyes locked on one another.

Dillashaw once again came out more aggressive and more stationary, trying to force a scrap with Cruz. The challenger continued to breathe heavily, but not let it affect his skillful movement.

Dillashaw connected with several big kicks and Cruz connected with another big right hand and takedown. Dillashaw scrambled to his knees, Cruz attempted a rolling D’Arce choke but could not sink it in.

In the final seconds of the third, Cruz connected with stiff punches to the head and was the more lightly moving feet. At the horn, Cruz clipped Dillashaw with yet another punch.

In between rounds, Dillashaw’s coach Duane Ludwig advised him to aim his strikes for the chest, instead of the head. At the start of the fourth, Dillashaw took that advice and connected with a right kick to the side of Cruz.

Cruz responded to another hard leg kick from Dillashaw with a straight punch combo to the head. Dillashaw hurt Cruz with yet another hard leg kick.

Cruz countered with another takedown. However, Dillashaw was able to get back to his feet, quickly, and Cruz visibly limped on his left leg once he returned to his feet.

Dillashaw cornered Cruz and landed a right and then left to the head. At this point, Dillashaw began to have the most success at keeping Cruz up against the cage that he’d had all fight.

Dillashaw followed up with his first takedown of the bout and though Cruz got up to his feet, the champion kept him pinned against the wall, delivering knees to the legs and body. With under a minute left, Cruz circled away from the cage and resumed his shuffling.

Dillashaw’s left eye had begun to bleed at this point, as his right eye swelled. He shot in for another takedown and was stuffed, but threw and connected with stiff punches on separation.

Heading into the fifth and final round, the strikes landed by each man were virtually equal. The defending champion started the period strong with leg and body kicks, and a nasty right punch to the head of Cruz, followed by a thudding high kick.

Cruz attempted a takedown after catching a kick, missed it but connected with a right punch to the head on separation. Two more leg kicks to the left knee of Cruz from Dillashaw stiffened up the former champ, though he did his best to hide his loss of balance with more hopping and movement.

Cruz slipped punches from Dillashaw, then lunge-feinted to set up three hard straight left punches to the head of Dillashaw. The two men traded unsuccessful takedown attempts and then wide punches to the head.

After the final horn, both men bled from their mouths. Though they didn’t touch gloves beforehand, they embraced afterwards, respect earned all-around.

TJ Dillashaw’s loss snapped a four-fight win streak and leaves his overall record to 13-3. The win for Cruz keeps him flawless at bantamweight and improved his mark to 21-1.