UFC champ Cruz controls what he can

Dave Meltzer

Dominick Cruz doesn’t particularly like Urijah Faber, isn’t preparing to fight Faber at the moment, and really doesn’t want to always be linked with Faber.

But with his fourth defense of his bantamweight championship coming up on Saturday night in Washington , D.C., at the Verizon Center, where he faces Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson (14-1), Cruz is seeing firsthand how both the promotion and the opponent matter. He’s also seeing why Faber, his chief rival, is so relevant to his career.

Cruz (18-1) saw interest in him take a giant step up for his July 2 fight, a pay-per-view main event where he won a decision over Faber in the first bantamweight title fight under the UFC banner (Cruz was WEC champ prior to the companies’ merger).

The San Diego resident noted that it was a night-and-day difference compared to the level of attention he’d received for his WEC title fights. He figured that was the difference in moving into the bigger UFC spotlight.

But without Faber on board – and with a scaled-down cable TV event as opposed to a full-blown PPV extravaganza – Cruz has noticed a big change with his title defense against Johnson looming.

"Yes, it definitely feels different, I mean the media has chopped probably in half, as have the responsibilities and stuff that you have to care of media-wise," Cruz said. "It feels like I’m back in the WEC again."

Cruz vs. Johnson, which airs live on Versus, certainly has more interest than a WEC main event. But there is a reason this is the first UFC championship match on free television in four years.

As talented as Cruz is inside the cage, both he and the bantamweight division as a whole still haven’t established themselves in the fans’ eyes as something that can consistently headline on pay-per-view. At least not without Faber, the most well-known smaller fighter in the business, being part of the package.

"I wouldn’t say it’s easier because all the work is the same; it’s just as hard work-wise when it comes to training," said Cruz. "But the amount, the level of media that you have to take care of and responsibilities in that aspect is definitely chopped in half."

At the time the Cruz vs. Johnson fight was announced, what looked to be the future of the UFC was entirely different. UFC was in negotiations for a new television deal, and the front runner was a package deal with NBC and its network of stations. Versus, which is being rebranded under the name NBC Sports Network at the start of 2012, was expected at the time to be the future cable home for the promotion. So putting this title match on Versus instead of Spike was, at least at the time, trying to help develop Versus as the new UFC destination.

But as it turned out, UFC closed the network deal with Fox instead of NBC, meaning Saturday’s show will mark the end the five-year run of Zuffa-branded mixed martial arts events on the network. The relationship was originally built on the backs of the WEC’s smaller weight divisions and heavy-action fights, so it’s fitting a match with two of the company’s fastest men will end the run.

Putting the fight on Versus comes at a cost of audience. While Spike is carried by virtually every cable and satellite system, Versus has closer to 75 percent penetration. In addition, there are significant ratings differences between the two stations. Recent UFC shows on Versus have done in the range of 750,000 viewers, while the last Spike live card two weeks ago did 1.8 million.

As for the fight itself, while both will likely weigh in the same, Cruz is expected to have a substantial size and reach edge, as well as an edge in the stand-up aspect of the game.

But Johnson, who is an undersized bantamweight considered best suited for a 125-pound flyweight division that the UFC does not yet recognize, is used to that. He gives up size and reach in every fight, yet only has one loss in his career.

Cruz goes through a meticulous and not very pleasant last few days of weight cutting to make 135 pounds – and figures to be closer to 155 once he gets into the cage. Johnson was around 139 ½ pounds several days ago and expects to go into the cage at about that weight. The weight difference is key because for Johnson to win, he will likely have to establish a wrestling game, something it’s hard to do being the physically smaller fighter.

Cruz, on the other hand, is at his best in shutting down other opponent’s wrestling games. Faber, Scott Jorgensen and Joseph Benavidez, his last three opponents, all had strong wrestling backgrounds. None were unable to get Cruz off of his feet in any kind of significant manner. The three fights went all five rounds with Cruz taking the decision by using his quickness and reach edge to land more standing.

"It’s always a test," said Cruz. "Benavidez was a test on speed. Faber was a test on speed. I mean, you can’t get a lot quicker than those guys. The difference is there are different types of speed. But range nullifies speed. As long as I keep the range where I want to keep it, and as long as I keep the fight where I want to keep it, I know I’m quick too, and fight differently than anybody else that he’s fought."

Cruz obviously wants to move in and out, landing punches, and then moving out of Johnson’s range. In addition, by keeping his distance, he’ll make Johnson shoot for takedowns from too far away. While Johnson has a quick and explosive straight-ahead shot, Cruz will try to stay at angles, and has excellent takedown defense. But Johnson is always giving up reach, so he’s used to it.

"I fought Miguel Torres, and he has the reach size of a heavyweight, but as long as I control that distance and the fight goes wherever I went it to, I make him come to me," Johnson said. "If you have good footwork, you can understand how to make your reach longer and how to let the taller fighters close the distance for you, so you don’t have to travel as far.

"And the only bad thing about when you have such a huge reach and height advantage is when you’ve got one guy who is the rabbit and one who is the wolf, who is going to chase the person," Johnson said about the potential of this fight. "It can make for a really boring fight or it can make for a really fantastic fight depending on how much the person wants to engage, or not engage. If the taller person’s always, I’m not saying running, but always trying to keep that distance and the person always is trying to get him, then it could be just a jab clinic. So it all depends."

"He’s got a big heart, he’s got great cardio, and he’s got a good speed and a good rhythm," Cruz said of his 5-foot-3 foe. "Something that he does differently, that a lot of guys in my division haven’t done so far, is he’s got a rhythm in his stand-up style. So he kind of moves in a certain way."

While still somewhat unheralded to the masses, Cruz can move into an elite historical category if he can defeat Johnson and defend his title for the fourth time. In Zuffa’s 18-year history, the only fighters who have defended their titles four times in a row are Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre, Matt Hughes, Frank Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Pat Miletich and Faber. Almost every name on that list would be considered an all-time great.

But Cruz isn’t thinking in those terms, and while he may have the record of a great champion, he isn’t willing to live like one.

"You’re always one fight away from being forgotten in my opinion," he said. "The only thing people remember is your last fight. So it’s very hard to go out there and just buy all kinds of stuff. You’re driving this awesome car, have all kinds of stuff going on, and have all kinds of bills. I’d rather just keep my life the way it is, live very cheap. That way, God forbid, I bust my eye socket and I can’t fight for a year, I don’t have a stack full of bills that I got to pay without income coming in. So I really haven’t changed my life that much. The only thing that’s changed is I get recognized a little bit more because I’m fighting on the biggest stage on the planet being in UFC."

But if that next win happens on Saturday, there is a solid shot that all roads lead right back to Faber, and the high volume of media attention and pay-per-view headliner status will return. The winner of this fight is expected to face the winner of a Nov. 19 fight between Faber and Brian Bowles in San Jose, Calif. Bowles is the fighter who Cruz stopped on March 6, 2010, to win the WEC belt.

After the completion of their July 2 bout – a fight of the year candidate – there was plenty of talk of a trilogy, since Faber beat Cruz in 2007 when Cruz challenged for the featherweight title. But instead of going right back to it, which would have been the biggest bantamweight fight in history, the company put both in a position where they would have to earn it, with step one coming this weekend.

"I mean my career is bigger than just beating Faber," said Cruz. "I have more goals that I have set past that. That was just something that is more like one of those things that I saw I needed to do for myself."