Dominick Cruz right where he needs to be before title fight — in a dark place

Former bantamweight world champion Dominick Cruz has plenty of mainstream appeal. The Southern California fighter is handsome, quietly charismatic and well-spoken, with a second career as a television broadcaster already well underway.

Though he’s poster-ready and a great brand ambassador, Cruz is a fight fiend first and foremost. And, that’s a dark thing.

It’s the thing that all great competitors have. It’s the stuff that produces amazing performances in the ring, and it’s something that you really can’t understand unless you’ve been there yourself.

Well, at least that’s what Dominick Cruz told me.

When I spoke to him a few months ago I asked Cruz what he most looked forward to about getting back into action for the first time since 2014, and just the second time in four years, when he challenges champ TJ Dillashaw this Sunday in Boston. "I’m looking forward to the looks on his and his coach’s faces," he said.

"I’m looking forward to seeing the shock and the disappointment on their faces after I crush everything they thought they knew."

Speaking with Dominick again last week, I asked him if there was anything more positive that he was looking forward to, this weekend, in addition getting to witness the tears of his enemies, up close. Either he didn’t understand the question, or he was just disgusted by it.

"You mean, is there anything positive or happy that I’m looking forward to in the fight?"

Yes, like perhaps the feeling of getting to once more do what you love to do, after three ACL surgeries, a torn groin, and years out. Or, maybe finally having the stage he deserves to show new fans what he can do in the cage.

"Listen, a fight isn’t a happy place," he began to explain, with a sniff.

"Someone is trying to hurt me in there. You could still die in there. It hasn’t happened [in the UFC] yet, but it could. So, when I’m in there, the only thing I enjoy is imposing my will, and hurting my opponent.

"Maybe that makes me a bad person, but I enjoy seeing my opponent confused out there, not able to hit me while I hit him, while I hurt him and bust him up. Once the fight is over, you can enjoy things but while you’re in there, you’re trying to survive and take out your opponent. You have to be a fighter to understand."

There are times for fun, and times for business. Fight night is serious business for Dominick Cruz.

What Cruz seemed to be trying to get across was that he and TJ Dillashaw won’t be bouncing inflated balls around, Sunday night — they will be attacking each other. To survive and thrive in that environment, no small amount of selectively-applied callousness is necessary.

A large part of what keeps society together is suspended between rounds on fight nights. Fighters have to think a bit differently, at least while competing.

It is something I know just a bit about, on a small scale, after fighting in amateur bouts. Normally, I’m a happy guy, and have never not shaken hands and genuinely embraced an opponent after a fight, win or lose.

Yet, I vividly remember being upset after one TKO win from ground strikes because the referee stopped the fight. I had wanted to hit my opponent often and hard enough to make him give up and tap out — signaling his complete submission — but he would not, even after about 20 uncontested punches.

During another fight, I managed to work my way into the full mount and threw punches down onto my game opponent. After one shot connected on his chin, I consciously recognized that he’d gone out-cold.

He was done, but I didn’t even consider stopping my punches and continued hitting him as he lay prone. Once the referee realized what had happened and stepped in, I stopped, but not a moment sooner.

I don’t think that says great things about me as a human being, but it’s what happens in fights.

To become "The Dominator," Cruz had to first be ruthless inside the ring. While he’s fighting, it is his job to stay alive and to do all he can to eliminate the threat in front of him, ceasing only when the referee intercedes.

Cruz seems like a happy, cheery guy, ordinarily. I bet after the fight with Dillashaw is done, he’ll be happy to have been able to finally compete again and do something he must love so much.

Right now, however, the fight is still in front of him. Right now, he’s on the eve of battle, and that’s necessarily an irritated, edgy place to be.

Dominick Cruz has had great times in the past, and will certainly have many more in the future. Right now, however, the 30-year-old is heading into darkness, and all he’s thinking about is coming out the other end intact, and with his star shining brighter than ever before.