Ex-UFC champ Cruz finally back after long injury layoff

Regardless of how much success Dominick Cruz experiences the rest of his career and what he has already accomplished as a UFC champion, the past three years always will be an empty hole on his career resume.

Even though he is well aware of that fact, Cruz says he doesn’t think about it.

He can’t.

“Of course that’s a thought,” he said Wednesday in his hotel room at The Signature at MGM Grand. “They were prime years that weren’t exploited for me. I didn’t get to use them. That’s something that every single human being on earth that was in my shoes, that would haunt them and take over their brain.

“You have to expel that thought. That’s the No. 1 thing you have to do is not allow that because it doesn’t serve you in a positive way. It’s living in the past.”

Cruz had defended the Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight title for the second time with a unanimous decision over Demetrious Johnson on Oct. 1, 2011, and was preparing for his next defense against rival Urijah Faber when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in May 2012.

Advances in sports medicine have made that surgery fairly routine in most cases, but Cruz’s body rejected the cadaver ligament, and he had to have the procedure redone in December 2012. He was just about ready to return against then-interim champ Renan Barao on the Super Bowl Weekend card in February 2014 when he suffered a torn groin and again found himself in recovery mode.

Cruz was officially stripped of the belt in January after not defending it for more than two years. His journey to get the title back officially begins Saturday when he fights Takeya Mizugaki on the UFC 178 card at the MGM Grand.

In preparing for the fight, Cruz, 29, is only worried about his opponent and not all he’s been through the past three years, including the missed opportunities.

“The only place where there’s peace is the present,” he said, “so I’ve had to really just put myself in the here and now and expel all the coulda, shoulda, wouldas. That stops the feeling sorry for yourself immediately in its tracks. That’s what it’s all about, just immediately expelling all the thoughts that don’t serve you in a good way. Don’t even give them any power, because the second you do, they eat you alive.”

What used to drive Cruz was to win a championship. At one point, he had an empty spot on a shelf in his gym outside San Diego reserved for the world title he was sure he would win. He eventually won the World Extreme Cagefighting belt and was named the inaugural UFC champion when the organizations merged in late 2010.

After two successful defenses of the UFC belt and a 19-1 record, Cruz was on the brink of superstardom when his career was derailed by the injuries.

The time away, which included being stripped of the title he once so desired, made him realize his early obsession with winning a belt might have been misguided.

“It’s so funny,” he said, “because I won it and defended it, and after you win them, you do so much work to win them that it’s almost like, ‘Man, this is all I get?’ I just went through hell and back, and I just get this piece of metal that nobody cares about really?”

During the three years he’s been out of competition, Cruz said nobody has asked to see his belt. That was an eye-opening experience.

“That belt’s only worth the power you give it,” he said. “To be perfectly honest, the competition and the trials and tribulations and challenges are what make the title worth anything. Getting back here and competing is the belt to me now, and that piece of metal is just a piece of metal. Nobody’s going to remember the metal, they’re going to remember what I did to get it, and that’s what I’m looking for.”

Cruz said that’s what makes Saturday’s comeback fight so special to him.

Not that Cruz isn’t focused on putting that piece of metal back around his waist. He still wants to win it, he just appreciates the journey more. Barao went from interim champion to undisputed champ when Cruz was officially stripped. T.J. Dillashaw then won the title with an upset over Barao.

An impressive win over Mizugaki could put Cruz in position to reclaim the title. To accomplish that, he will have to resemble the fighter who won 10 straight fights before the injuries. He relied a great deal on his athleticism and constant movement to achieve that success. There is some concern those abilities could be diminished by all the leg problems.

Cruz doesn’t think that’s the case, saying he feels very much in training like he did three years ago. He tries not to think about getting hurt again, either.

“What you resist, persists,” he said. “If I was walking around thinking I’m a piece of glass, I’m going to be a piece of glass. I don’t feel jinxed. It’s your decision if your circumstances are a curse or a blessing. To think of them as a jinx would be to look at it as a curse. I choose not to think that way and just make the most out of the cards I’ve been dealt. I’ve been dealt a lot of different hands the last few years.”

He will finally get to play three years worth of cards on Saturday.

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.

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