LAS VEGAS – Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber were the two smallest men to ever headline an event in the 18-year history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. But they came through with one of the biggest matches ever on Saturday night, as Cruz retained his bantamweight title on a unanimous decision in the main event of UFC 132.
The five-round fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena was easily the fastest-paced championship bout in UFC history, a battle of attrition in which Cruz ultimately achieved something he wanted for four years, avenging his only career loss.
"This was a chance to show what 135-pounders can do and what I can do," Cruz said. "I'm proud of what I've done." Cruz appeared to survive the war best, having his strongest showing in the final round. But it was a bout where neither man was ever able to put a sustainable beating on the other.
Faber scored the heaviest blows in the mostly standup fight, knocking Cruz down in the first, second and fourth rounds. But aside from those blows, Faber was unable to solve Cruz's puzzling stick-and-move style.
Judges gave Cruz a unanimous decision on scores of 50-45, 49-46 and 48-47. Yahoo! Sports had a 49-46 score, with Faber winning the fourth round.
In the initial bout back in 2007, when the two were battling over the World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight title, Faber was able to submit the novice Cruz just 1:38 into the first round. The rematch was decidedly different, and was determined by the quickness of the younger man.
Unlike in previous fights, where Cruz's opponents couldn't stop his constant movement and get a hold of him, Faber managed to clinch him several times. But even with Faber's superior wrestling pedigree, it was the champion who had more takedowns. Neither man was able to do any damage on the ground and in reality, it wasn't the takedowns by Cruz, but Faber's inability to score takedowns, that enabled Cruz to fight his style of fight. Each time one fighter got a takedown, the other immediately scrambled to his feet.
Another reason Cruz got the decision was the appearance of being busier in a fight where the majority of his punches didn't actually land. Cruz landed 99 of his 245 punches, according to CompuStrike stats, in a fight where 23:45 of the 25:00 took place on the fighters' feet. Faber connected on 74 of 154 punches, but had the advantage on power shots by a 45-38 margin. Cruz never put Faber in danger with his punches, but he seemed to be the one controlling where the fight took place and the pacing in all five rounds.
The fight, one of the best of the year, was criticized in some quarters when it was announced, simply because of the idea that the UFC would headline a major pay-per-view event with 135-pounders.
UFC president Dana White compared the evening to when the company first headlined with 155-pounders a decade ago, which at the time had also never been done. Today it's a staple, and when B.J. Penn was lightweight champion, he was among the biggest draws in company history.
"That's what people felt about the 155-pound division once and it's one of the most exciting divisions," White said. "When we talk about the WEC, the lighter weights were there because we didn't have the room. Now, no matter how big the star power is on the card, these guys were fighting for the championship and are the main event."
"I saw this as opportunity," Cruz said. "I'm the opposite [of Faber]. I don't have the huge fan base. I'm trying to grow my fan base."
On a show with a strong undercard it was clear all week, especially once the fight started, that Faber and Cruz were not only positioned last, but were, to the audience, the real main event. Not only that, but for the duration of the fight, the crowd was transfixed on their action.
Much of that was due to Faber (25-5), who had the crowd of 12,947 fans dancing to his entrance music (Tupac Shakur's "California Love") and loudly chanting his name throughout the fight. Had Faber won the championship, he could successfully headline any event.
Even though this fight proved Cruz (18-1) to be the rightful champion, he will have a more difficult time being a successful draw at the top of a major show without Faber as his opponent. Cruz was booed heavily before the fight, and even though he earned the crowd's respect, he was booed again after getting the decision.
"I'm not trying to be a villain," Cruz said. "I'm trying to be me. I'm just scrapping. I can't control the crowd. I can't remember the last time I got cheered. I just go with it. Love me or hate me, if you want to cheer for me, sweet. If you want to boo me, I'm there to prove you wrong."
Coming off this fight, a rubber match with Faber would likely be as big or bigger than Saturday's card, and White talked about the possibility during a post-fight press conference. From a marketing standpoint, there is no other bantamweight match that would be close. The company would no doubt get at least some backlash to that idea, given that Faber has received three championship matches now since he dropped the featherweight title to Mike Brown in 2008 and came up short all three times.
Fighters such as Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson and former WEC champion Brian Bowles have been winning fights against other top contenders, but Cruz against either one would be a difficult sell as a headliner of a major pay-per-view show.
Faber said he really couldn't comment much on the fight and what he could have done differently until watching a tape.
"I've got to watch the fight," Faber said about an hour after the fight. "First off, you get really instinctual in there. Right after the fight, I said to the doctor, I feel great. Now I feel like [expletive]. There were things that worked for me. We're both reaction fighters. I was trying not to react to his movement.
"I know I landed some heavy shots. I rocked him a couple of times. Apparently it wasn't enough. He used the kicks quite a bit. But I was blocking a lot of them. He threw high kicks, but not one of those connected. The low kick, some of those connected. The punches I never felt hurt by. I'm not an easy guy to beat. Joseph Benavidez [Faber's teammate who Cruz has beaten twice via decision] is not an easy guy to beat. We've got a good champion."
"By the end of the fight, you really don't know what happened," Cruz said. "I really don't remember much of the fight. It's like a whirlwind. I feel like I was in a tornado and was running into the dressers. My shoulder hurts. My face hurts. I was going in for a scrap. If I got hit, I was going to keep punching. That's a fight. You either knock him out, put him to sleep, or keep going."
Neither man held back in the build-up to the fight. Cruz said the sport had passed Faber by and Faber said he just plain didn't like the champ. But mutual respect was the tune sung after the fight.
"I'm a trash talker in the first place," Cruz said. "I respect all the fighters. But even my best friends know I'm kind of a jerk. It's easy to talk trash on a guy like Urijah. It's business, but the guy has done so much for the lighter weight classes. I've wanted this fight for four years. I was hungry for this fight, sweating for this fight, bleeding for this fight."