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LAS VEGAS – Dominick Cruz may not be flashy and he doesn't often do things to bring a crowd to its feet. But the World Extreme Cagefighting bantamweight champion does so many things so well so often that it's going to take a near-perfect fight for someone to beat him.
Joseph Benavidez fought a very good fight against Cruz on Wednesday in the main event of WEC 50 at the Palms Resort, but very good wasn't quite good enough. Cruz won a split decision to retain his title and cement his place among the elite fighters in the world, if he hadn't before Wednesday's victory.
Judges had it 49-46, 48-47 for Cruz and 48-47 for Benavidez in the rematch of a non-title fight between them a year earlier at WEC 42.
Cruz is now 17-1 and unbeaten at 135 pounds, where he's reeled off a series of impressive wins. In his past three outings, he's beaten Benavidez twice and Brian Bowles once. They're ranked third and second in the world, respectively, in MMAWeekly's bantamweight rankings.
Cruz didn't have an easy path to the title and he's apparently not going to have an easy road to keep it. He'll likely face Scott Jorgensen, who won a rousing decision over Brad Pickett on Wednesday that was named Fight of the Night, in his next title defense. Jorgensen is ranked fifth by MMAWeekly.
"I have nine of the top 10 guys in the world [at bantamweight]," WEC general manager Reed Harris said. " … No matter who they're fighting, these guys are fighting the best in the world."
That's what makes Cruz's recent run so much more impressive. There wasn't much to choose from between him and Benavidez on Wednesday, though it turned out the takedowns were the difference. According to CompuStrike, Cruz landed 86 of 235 strikes on Benavidez, while Benavidez connected on 69 of 233. The difference was in takedowns, where Benavidez was 0 for 2 and Cruz was 6 for 7.
"The takedowns kind of tilted the scale in Dominick's favor," Jorgensen said. "It was a great fight."
Cruz is exceptionally quick and has a difficult-to-figure style. He presents all sorts of different angles and is hard to hit cleanly. Benavidez decided not to try to scramble up quickly once he was taken down, instead preferring to try to maneuver for position and hopefully land a few elbows from the top.
Cruz, though, rarely allowed Benavidez to gain a dominant position on the ground. When they were on their feet, Benavidez was frustrated by not being able to land that one big punch that could have altered the outcome.
"I felt this was the same fight [as their first meeting], man," Cruz said. "He's still quick. He's still got a good pace. He still threw a lot of good stuff. I think he was a little more cautious this time and didn't go as crazy on a lot of the striking. That kind of played to my advantage a little bit, in my opinion. I make good reads as the fight goes on and I get stronger and stronger as the fight goes on, as well."
Cruz and Benavidez could fight 20 times and 19 of them would turn out to be just about the same, but there won't be a third match anytime soon. Harris said he doubted he'd give Benavidez a rematch for a while, which isn't a bad decision given that Cruz won both bouts and that there is a plethora of legitimate challengers awaiting a shot.
Benavidez seemed to know it as the fight ended. He was upset at himself for being cut with an elbow in the final 10 seconds and seemed to know that he didn't do enough to win.
"I was disappointed right at the end of the fight because I realized I had gotten cut with about five seconds left," Benavidez said. "That didn't have to happen, but I was going for broke on the bottom. In the middle of the fight, I would have protected myself. [When it ended], I was like, 'Damn it. That didn't need to happen.' I also figured I didn't do enough to win.
"But I wasn't watching the fighting and when the judge did say my name, it was quite a surprise. I was like, 'Wow, this happened? Is it the work of God or something?' "
But after ring announcer Bruce Buffer read Nelson Hamilton's 48-47 score for Benavidez, the dream ended. After that, he read Adalaide Byrd's 49-46 and Lester Griffin's 48-47 for Cruz, who turned back yet another significant challenge.
No one is unbeatable in mixed martial arts and Cruz's day will come, just as it has for other elite fighters this year like Lyoto Machida, Fedor Emelianenko and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.
The fighter who beats Cruz, though, is going to have to be very talented and very precise.
"Dominick Cruz is a great fighter," Jorgensen said. "You have to give him that."