2014 was a critical year for bantamweight UFC fighters T.J. Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz. Dillashaw had caught the biggest break in his career to date: winning the championship title in his weight class. Cruz, a former champ who was forced to give up his title because of repeated injuries, returned to the octagon with a certain ferocity after nearly three years off. Both are among the biggest names in the UFC, the largest promoter of mixed martial arts in the world. Broadcast on pay-per-view, Fox Sports and various networks across the globe, the sport has amassed millions of viewers and has an estimated value of $1.65 billion, according to Forbes. This was going to be the year that both MMA titans would finally square off, with Cruz looking to reclaim his throne and Dillashaw hoping to slay the recently stirred dragon. But another injury has put Cruz’s career on hold indefinitely, again. As the new year moves forward, so do the fighters—one into UFC stardom, the other into recovery.
T.J. Dillashaw Star on the Rise
T.J. Dillashaw’s life changed last May. A rising star in the UFC, the bantamweight (135 lbs. division) fighter was in way over his head when he challenged Renan Barão—who was on a 33-fight unbeaten streak (32 wins and 1 no contest)—for the title, critics said. Were they wrong. Dillashaw proved more than capable, dominating the former champ in what commentator Joe Rogan called “the greatest performance I’ve ever seen in my life.” Dillashaw snatched the title in a fifth-round TKO, instantly securing his spot in MMA history.
Dillashaw was now an undisputed star with a 10-2 record (he’d log another win by beating Joe Soto in August). While he was familiar with the spotlight—he starred in Season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter—the title elevated him to a new level of fame. He’s recognized more often, the number of promotional obligations has increased dramatically, and the pressure’s on to not just be a part of history but to create it.
“My story’s not over yet,” the 28-year-old says.
While Dillashaw’s future is an exciting unknown, his story up to this point could have been entirely different—and entirely dull. A lifelong wrestler growing up in Angels Camp, California (population: fewer than 3,800), Dillashaw admits that he didn’t have giant ambitions. “All my goals back then were just to win state in high school and become national champion in college,” Dillashaw says. “I didn’t think I’d ever be a fighter.”
Professional fighter Urijah Faber—who’d been eyeing Dillashaw since his high school wrestling days—was instrumental in setting Dillashaw on the MMA path. After graduating from college with a degree in clinical exercise, Dillashaw’s options were to take up Faber’s offer to join him at his gym in Sacramento or go to grad school. “I’m glad I didn’t end up doing that,” Dillashaw says with a laugh.
“I wanted that fight big time. …I just wanted to give [Cruz] a little payback.”—T.J. Dillashaw
Rather than spend the last four years dreading life, Dillashaw’s been rising up the UFC ranks, adding victory on top of victory to his budding career. He was hoping to add a win over Dominick Cruz later this year, but a torn ACL in December sidelined Cruz yet again.
“I wanted that fight big time,” Dillashaw says. “When I first got in the sport five years ago, Cruz was the champion in my weight class. The goal was to beat that guy. … He was the champion who went out due to injury [and] he’d beaten my teammates, Urijah [Faber] and Joseph [Benavidez]. I just wanted to give him a little payback.”
With a Dillashaw-Cruz fight out of the picture in 2015, Dillashaw now has his sights set even higher.
“If I keep fighting the way I’ve been fighting with the goals I’ve set for myself, I’m gonna hold down my belt and hopefully jump another weight class and be the first in UFC history to hold two belts.”
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Dominick Cruz Heart and Soul of a Champion
After two surgeries on his left knee and a groin injury kept him out of the Octagon for three years, Dominick “the Dominator” Cruz was determined to get back to the top last year. In his returning match in September, he annihilated Takeya Mizugaki one minute into the first round—a beautifully brutal display of strength and hunger that sent the audience into a frenzy. “Dominick Cruz is back!” the announcers shouted.
Unfortunately, not for long.
Cruz suffered another injury in late December, this time tearing the ACL in his right knee, curbing him yet again. The injury derailed his highly anticipated 2015 bout with Dillashaw. But he won’t let it stop him.
“The reason why I do this every day and the reason why I’m coming back from a third ACL problem is because I can,” the 29-year-old from Tucson, Arizona, says with conviction. “And because I have history to make still.”
Cruz speaks with stern confidence. Even when talking to him over the phone, you imagine he’s the kind of guy who walks with his head high and clears the room. When asked what keeps him motivated, he responds simply: “Me.”
“The reason why I’m coming back … is because I can, and because I have history to make still.”—Dominick Cruz
“I drive me. If I don’t drive myself through this, I’m not going to have the power to get through it. There’s nobody in the world, there’s no want or need from anybody else, that can get me through the things I’ve been through other than myself. I’m the only one who can get me through this,” he says.
Though he may not hold a title, Cruz continues to carry himself like a champion, and he understands his position as a UFC star.
“There comes a point in your career as a professional athlete when you say, ‘It’s official, I’m one of the best in the world. I am this good. I am a champion. I am an influence on others around me whether I want to be or not,’” he says. “You hear a lot of guys say, ‘There are a lot of improvements I have to make,’ or ‘I’m not one of the greatest yet.’ At what point do those fighters say, ‘I’m there’? I realized that when I won my first title. I am there. I need to accept it and embrace the role because you can’t move on and be great until you really believe it yourself.”
He’s not alone in this belief. During Cruz’s injury struggles, his hundreds of thousands of fans have showered him with support and praise, eagerly awaiting his return. And Cruz says when he does rise again, he’s gunning for Dillashaw.
“I never lost my title,” Cruz says. “I’m not saying that Dillashaw doesn’t deserve it. All I’m saying is that he didn’t fight the best in the world.”
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