When UFC 169 kicks off on Super Bowl Eve Saturday in Newark, N.J., the thoughts of most fans will be of champions Jose Aldo and Renan Barao, who will be defending their titles against Ricardo Lamas and Urijah Faber, respectively.
It's not hard to understand why. Aldo just may be the greatest fighter on Earth, a spectacular combination of speed, power and athleticism.
But when the fights begin, I'll be thinking of Dominick Cruz.
Cruz is the former UFC bantamweight champion, and was supposed to defend his title against Barao on Saturday. That would have been a spectacular bout. Barao has been incredible and would have presented Cruz with his most difficult challenge. Barao is unbeaten in 31 fights and has won 21 in a row, with only a no-contest marring his record.
Cruz, of course, was a top five pound-for-pound fighter whose elite record included wins over the likes of Demetrious Johnson, Joseph Benavidez and Faber. Cruz himself is on a 10-fight winning streak and has lost just once in 20 career fights.
A Cruz-Barao bout had the potential to be the 2014 Fight of the Year.
Instead, as has happened so often, Cruz was seriously injured just a month before the fight and had to withdraw. He hasn't competed since Oct. 1, 2011, and there is no telling when he might fight again.
Cruz declined to be interviewed for this column, and as much as I would have loved to have spoken to him to get his insights, who could blame him for not talking? He's been injured consistently since his career was about to take off, and even for a smart, insightful man like Cruz, it's hard to know what to say.
He's been brilliant in a part-time role as a UFC analyst on Fox Sports broadcasts and clearly has a future in that business when his fight career is over.
He's only 28, though, and even though he hasn't fought since he was but a few days past his 26th birthday, retirement seems a long way off.
As hard as it must be for Cruz to take, there is plenty of precedent in professional sports to suggest he'll not only make it back, but that he'll make it back at the top of his game.
George Foreman retired as a boxer in 1977 after losing a Fight of the Year bout to Jimmy Young in Puerto Rico on St. Patrick's Day. He returned eight days shy of 10 years later, and would go on to not only become the heavyweight champion, but also to become one of the sport's biggest attractions.
Foreman, though, fought a bunch of nobodies on his way back up the ladder, and that's not a luxury that Cruz will be afforded. When he returns, he'll either fight for the title or one of the top contenders.
That's a lot to ask an athlete who hasn't been active, to come back against the best or one of the best in the world, but that, too, has been done before.
Boxer Sugar Ray Leonard ended a two-year, three-month retirement to fight Kevin Howard on May 11, 1984. Leonard knocked Howard out in the ninth and promptly retired again.
He didn't return to active competition until April 6, 1987, a period of two years, 10 months and 27 days. Cruz on Saturday will have been inactive for two years, four months and one day.
Leonard, though, came back and didn't fight a jabroni. He faced middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler, a fearsome foe many considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport.
Leonard, of course, won a split decision over Hagler in perhaps the greatest victory of his Hall of Fame career.
There are plenty of other examples from professional sports where star players missed extraordinary amounts of time and came back to compete at the highest level.
Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams won the Triple Crown in 1942. He led the American League that year not only in homers, RBIs and batting average, but he led in total bases; runs for the third year in a row; walks for the second year in a row; on-base percentage for the third year in a row; slugging percentage for the second year in a row and OPS for the second year in a row.
With World War II on, Williams was in the military and missed the 1943, '44 and '45 seasons. When he returned to the Red Sox after having missed three full years, he led the American League in 1946 in runs, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS and total bases and was named the MVP.
The only issue Cruz will face in his return is whether his mobility has been negatively affected by his two ACL surgeries and his groin tear.
Cruz relied on quickness, timing and, most of all, expert footwork to become one of the elite fighters in the world.
While he was in training camp to face Barao, there were no indications that he was struggling to return to normal, though if he were, it's something his team undoubtedly would have wanted to keep quiet.
Cruz, though, knows the truth. And he should know that if his knees are healthy and he can move like he did before, a torn muscle will inevitably heal.
As much as Fox Sports would benefit by having Cruz as a full-time analyst for its UFC broadcasts, that can wait a few years.
Despite the interminably long wait, Cruz still has plenty of fight left in him.
If he wants to come back – and all indications are that he does – he can still be a major force in the UFC's bantamweight division.
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