Shortly after settling his near 10-year feud with Urijah Faber and making his first successful title defense of his second UFC championship run, bantamweight king Dominick Cruz was already being asked about another up-and-coming challenger to his belt.
The question was about Faber’s teammate and seventh-ranked bantamweight Cody Garbrandt. And while Cruz largely brushed the suggestion to the side, claiming he "doesn’t know" who Garbrandt is, he definitely understands that his second title run will be against a far more talent-rich division than the first.
"Look, these fight are hard, all these fights are difficult. This fight tonight, it was difficult," Cruz said Saturday at the UFC 199 postfight press conference. "I did well, I won, thank God. I really thank God for it. But I want to be humble in defeat and when I win, to an extent. He’s talking, so I’m talking back, that’s how it goes. But the truth is, this division’s on fire. It’s my job to come in here and be the champion. Now everybody’s talking about 135 pounds. It’s stacked right now, there’s tons of guys that look amazing … it fires me up, and I think the division is fired up for me coming back after a four-year layoff."
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Cruz ruled the WEC bantamweight division in 2010 before beating Faber for the UFC 135-pound belt in 2011. He defended his title against Demetrious Johnson, but injuries forced "The Dominator" to the sidelines for almost three years. He beat Takeya Mizukagi in his return in 2014, and then, in his first fight in over 18 months, took down TJ Dillashaw to regain the title.
The division changed significantly in Cruz’s absence. Gone are division stalwarts Scott Jorgensen, Eddie Wineland and Renan Barao, and in is a fresh crop of young talent like Garbrandt, Aljamain Sterling, Thomas Almeida, John Dodson and Michael McDonald.
The faces might have changed, but Cruz says the game has remained the same.
"I’ve been in the trenches. I’m always in the trenches. I was in the trenches on the desk analyzing fights of people saying they were better than me. It’s always been that way, never changed. People have always been calling me out, people have always been saying they’re better than me. It’s the way it is. It’s part of being the best," Cruz said.
Whoever emerges victorious from the upcoming slate of exciting bantamweight fights (Dillashaw vs. Assuncao 2 at UFC 200, McDonald vs. Linker in South Dakota) and earns a shot at the 135-pound title, will need to bring his A-game for a highly motivated Cruz.
"The target is on my back," Cruz said. "I feel it, I love it, bask in it. Bring it."