For once, Dominick Cruz was the slower fighter. Fortunately for him, he was also the bigger and smarter one Saturday night at UFC on Versus 6.
The UFC's bantamweight champ was gasping for air early in the fight, but changed up his game plan, and used his size and wrestling to slow down the ultra-quick Demetrious Johnson. It earned Cruz a hard-fought unanimous decision, 50-45, 49-46 and 50-45, in the main event at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C.
Cruz (19-1, 2-0 UFC) has now won 10 straight fights and added to his reputation as a near-impossible riddle to solve. Previously, he'd built his game around a dynamic, dipping and darting striking attack, but tonight it was all about his grappling.
"It was tough. The kid's got a sick pace so I had to outwrestle him," Cruz told UFC analyst Joe Rogan. "He didn't surprise me, I was ready for a wicked grind, a wicked pace. I knew I just had to slow him down by using my strength and size."
Cruz scored 10 takedowns in 19 attempts. He also dropped Johnson with two beautiful whizzers, a judo-style takedown, and executed two nice suplexes.
Cruz got a wake-up call in the opening round. He tried to employ his confusing striking style, but couldn't catch the 5-foot-3 Johnson. "Mighty Mouse" was the slicker fighter. About four minutes into the fight, Cruz, normally a cardio machine, was breathing deep. It was time to stop Johnson's movement by putting his back on the mat.
"You gotta be able to switch everything up. You can't fight everybody the same. I wanted to show a little bit of my grappling in this fight," said Cruz.
The second round was also close, but in the third Cruz began to take over.
At 5-8, Cruz's size gave Johnson difficulties. With 3:33 left in the round, Cruz got standing control of Johnson's back and chucked him over his head. At this level of MMA, you don't often see a suplex that impressive.
Cruz's jiu-jitsu was on full display from there as he transitioned to take Johnson's back on the ground and flatten him out. Cruz locked on a rear-naked choke on two occasions, but Johnson's defense was excellent. He was in the predicaments for nearly 50 seconds, but survived both and escaped.
"I was looking for that finish, but he toughed it out. I had that choke in deep twice and he toughed it out. He was gurgling and he just toughed it, but that's what you do for title fights," Cruz said. "That's what happens when you're fighting the best in the world."
The undersized Johnson, 23, has nothing to be embarrassed about. Cruz made high-level fighters like Brian Bowles and Joe Benavidez look silly in three mega-fights. Johnson (9-2, 2-1 UFC) hung with him in every round and lost the strikes landed battle by one (Cruz 146-145). He was a just a little too small to defend Cruz's power takedowns.
The UFC plans on introducing a 125-pound flyweight division sometime in 2012. Look for Johnson to become an immediate challenger for that title right out of the gates.