Summer is winding down, which means Season 3 of Dana White's Contender Series is winding down as well, and the eponymous UFC head has only a handful of contracts left to give out before the Brazil season begins. Aalon Cruz is one of the last lucky few that gets the chance to perform in front of the Ultimate Fighting Championship president this season, and he won’t be letting that opportunity go to waste.
“My agent hit me up and he just sent me a text with a picture of my opponent that said, July 30 Contender Series,” Cruz told Sherdog.com with a laugh. “I was so stoked. We had been trying to get on the Contender Series but it wasn’t solid until that point, so right when I saw the name and the date my stomach dropped. My girlfriend and family were super happy, so I can’t complain. It was pretty awesome.”
Cruz (7-2) will face the undefeated Steven Nguyen who has amassed a 6-0 record as a pro and 4-0 as an amateur. But the zero in Nguyen’s record doesn't faze Cruz, who is analyzing the fight, and opponent, just like any other.
“He’s 6-0 and 5-foot-11, so he’s tall for the [featherweight] division like me,” Cruz said. “He’s good all-around but I would categorize him as a striker with somewhat of a traditional karate background. I’ve seen his videos; obviously he’s tough and likes to push the pace. His gas tank isn’t too bad and his opponents tend to get tired and he looks mentally tough so it should be a good fight. I’m excited.”
Cruz does not boast the undefeated record of his opponent but he maintains that his losses have only made him stronger. Given that just about every fighter loses if he sticks around long enough, Cruz believes knowing how to deal with that adversity is one the most important things a young fighter can learn.
“The guys I lost to are both very good,” Cruz said. “My first loss, I took that fight for the Florida state championship as a pro at 3-0 and he was like 7-8 at the time but he had losses to veterans like Rafael Assuncao. He was a grizzled veteran and it was a pretty wild first round and I ended up getting caught. My second loss, or I should say learning experience, was to Da’mon Blackshear. He was 4-0, I was 4-1. We went four rounds and I ended up getting caught and lost, but I learned a lot from those losses.
“I learned what I need to do in my preparation and what I need to do to get my mind right for the fight. I used to never even warm up in the back. I would just sleep and relax until like five minutes before [my fight]. I wouldn’t even break a sweat! I remember getting into the cage that day of my first loss. There were no nerves and I wasn’t even warmed up and he was at like 90 percent while I’m at like 15 percent. Then my second loss I learned I needed to get myself hyped up. Sometimes I don’t get hyped up enough for a fight and it seems like I’m just on autopilot.”
Cruz believes those setbacks were learning opportunities that add to his overall edge in experience over his opponent on Tuesday.
“The losses are experiences and he hasn’t had to deal with that. I’ve had nine fights, three more than he’s had. He’s gone 12 rounds [and] I’ve gone 21, so almost double the rounds. That extra experience will definitely help me on fight night.”
The fear of losing can be crippling, but Cruz believes the overconfidence that can come with being undefeated is just as dangerous.
“You feel invincible when you're undefeated, you just think you’re on top of the world,” he said. “Even though I was still training hard and never took anybody lightly, once you lose for the first time you lose that feeling of invincibility and that’s when you start to grow as a fighter. When I lost the first time I cried so hard, harder than I ever have in my life. I remember thinking ‘that’s it, I lost, my career is over and I’m not going to make it to the UFC.’ Even though it was only one loss that’s what it feels like. So coming back from that was tough but I’m stronger from it. I’m mentally stronger, physically stronger and I always take those learning experiences in full stride. “
With the tragic deaths of boxers Maxim Dadashev and Hugo Santillan this past week, the debate about safety in combat sports is at an all-time high. MMA promotions and regulatory bodies have been moving in a safer direction for years, including steps such as the UFC’s work with the United States Anti-Doping Agency, innovative weight management policies embraced by One Championship and other organizations and fighters themselves taking better precautions. For the 29-year-old Cruz, learning how to intelligently spar in camp to save his chin and brain for fight night has been critical to his career and his health.
“As an amateur, it’s good to get those hard sparring sessions in just to know you can take a punch and build that mentality that you’re not scared,” he said. “But as a pro, it’s about working on your technique and reactions. In Thailand, they don’t spar hard but they spar every single day and its light. They just flow and that’s kind of how I spar. We play around and mess with things and aren’t killing our bodies or our brains.”
“If you’re sparring hard two or three times a week, that might as well be considered a fight,” Cruz said. “I just try and save my chin for the fight and I would rather drill extremely hard and hit the bag hard and get as close as I can to replicating what the fight might be like while saving my brain at the same time. You want longevity in the sport and you can’t be sparring like the old Chute Boxe days if you want longevity.”
White has made some controversial decisions in awarding contracts this season, must notably when he declined to sign Brendan Loughnane, specifically stating that he disliked Loughnane’s choice to go for a late takedown to seal the victory in a fight he had been winning. Cruz sees that as an advantage for him and the rest of the fighters, and claims he has adjusted his game plan accordingly.
“It was pretty eye-opening, to be honest, but it’s an advantage for the rest of the fighters going forward because we saw exactly what Dana wanted, he wants killers,” Cruz said. “Guys that are fighting from minute one to minute 15 trying to take the opponent out in devastating fashion.”
“I was talking to someone today and we were saying you can’t ‘Kamaru Usman’ someone,” Cruz said with a laugh. “I love Usman and what he did to Tyron was great. I enjoy watching that type of stuff because I’m more of a technical fighter myself but Usman with that performance wouldn’t have made it to the UFC on the Contender Series. So knowing that, you still can’t take uncalculated risks. You can’t go in there and throw with reckless abandon and risk getting knocked out. We know what Dana wants and we are adjusting to be more aggressive, but not putting myself in more danger.”
From his skills in the cage to his intelligent outlook on fighting and his detailed preparation before a fight, Cruz is primed for a UFC contract. The contracts are earned, not given, however and Cruz is confident he will be able to showcase his skills and give White no choice but to sign him.
“I just hope I shine as much as I have in my last three fights,” Cruz said. “I’m on a three-fight streak, first two were finishes and the last one was against the No. 1 ranked fighter in Georgia. It was a decision but it was a dominant decision. As long as I go out there and fight my fight it should go well for me. If I end up on top I have vicious ground-and-pound, and I’m always going for the knockout, but standup-wise I’m going to be smart -- try to be a little more aggressive but not make mistakes. As for my opponent I know he’s tough, I know he trains hard, but I think my experience will win the fight and I’m ready to show it.”