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Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
The way UFC 249 has come together amid delays and the global pandemic has meant there hasn’t been the usual level of hype and build for many of the card’s fights. That’s starting to change. Now that we are less than two weeks away from the presumptive return of MMA, attention is turning to the rapidly approaching bouts. There is a public hunger for sports, as the massive ratings for the NFL draft can attest, and UFC 249 on May 9 has plenty into which fans can sink their teeth.
Vicente Luque and Niko Price will rematch in a showdown of two highly entertaining fighters who have gone 9-3 with eight finishes since their first encounter; “Thug Nasty” Bryce Mitchell will return after pulling off the rare twister; Alexey Oleynik and Fabricio Werdum will meet in a unique clash of submission styles; and after a couple of postponements, Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik will finally have the chance to knock out each other. However, the fight that has snuck in under the radar the most is likely the bantamweight title fight between Henry Cejudo and Dominick Cruz.
Cejudo-Cruz was not the original plan, as the Ultimate Fighting Championship had originally targeted Jose Aldo for the title shot in a heavily criticized choice. Cruz occupies a similar role to Aldo, a hall of fame-level former titleholder who hasn’t done much in recent years to merit a championship bout. It’s hard to justify in either case given that bantamweight has a host of worthy challengers—Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling and Cory Sandhagen for starters—but at least Cruz doesn’t have a series of decisive losses. He is 3-1 since injuries derailed his career in 2011 and has generally looked quite good when healthy enough to compete.
In another way, Cruz fighting for the title feels fitting. That’s because Cruz, a fighter whose career perhaps more than any other has been defined by bad luck, is finally getting a good break. Cruz looked like he was building an all-time-great resume when, at age 26, injuries limited him to four more fights until he turned 35. It wasn’t just that he had built a glowing record by beating great fighters like Demetrious Johnson, Joseph Benavidez and Urijah Faber; it was the way he was winning.
The fight-to-fight improvements Cruz was making were obvious, and his movement-oriented style was being emulated by others. There was every reason to believe the best was ahead for Cruz. The fact that he was still able to compete at an elite level in the sporadic moments he managed to fight over the next decade makes it sad to contemplate just how good he could have been with years of regular training and competition rather than rehabilitation and commentary. Sadly, he was robbed of that opportunity, and we were robbed of the opportunity to witness it.
Before his name started popping up recently in the context of a potential return, many fans likely assumed that Cruz’s career was over. The last time he fought was the same time Ronda Rousey last fought, and Rousey’s career feels like a distant memory at this point. However, he managed to get back into condition to compete, and the opportunity for a championship fight opened up with the world facing a historic crisis. Now he gets Cejudo on short notice. Cejudo has likely contemplated fighting Cruz before, but he hasn’t had time to fully focus on Cruz’s style.
Making matters better for Cruz is the way a win or loss is likely to be perceived. With a win, he will have stopped the momentum of an impressive champion who looks to be peaking as a fighter, all while completing a second improbable championship comeback. It would further underscore the notion that Cruz’s career setbacks have been principally about his own body stopping him rather than any opponent. If, on the other, hand Cruz loses, it’s unlikely to shape perceptions of him much for the negative. He’s at an age where lighter-weight fighters aren’t expected to thrive, particularly ones who rely on speed and reflexes like Cruz. It’s also much less newsworthy if he loses than if he wins. It’s a potential historic comeback for Cruz and another potential win on the resume for Cejudo. That’s a really good position for the challenger to be in.
Of course, it isn’t all rainbows and butterflies for the former UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting champ. He has to step into the cage for the first time in over three years against an Olympic gold medalist with knockout power who’s 5-0 since he last fought. It’s not going to be easy, but the rewards are sky high and the risks beyond taking a butt kicking relatively low. For a fighter who has had a lot of bad luck in the last decade, it’s a good time to be “The Dominator.”
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.
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