The UFC Bantamweight Championship is up for grabs for the third time since the promotion added the division to the roster late last year.
Dominick Cruz is the reigning champion. With wins over Urijah Faber, Brian Bowles, Joseph Benavidez and Scott Jorgensen, he is truly one of the elite fighters in the world, despite the fact that he is still a newcomer to UFC fans.
Demetrious Johnson is the challenger. Nonetheless, he is probably better known to UFC fans because he has already competed twice inside the Octagon, compared to just once for Cruz. In those two fights, Johnson toppled two of the division’s biggest names, Miguel Torres and Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto.
Whether or not fans recognize the names, this fight is must-see TV. Generally speaking, the bantamweights put on incredibly entertaining fights. It’s often like watching the Energizer Bunny fight his twin brother on fast forward. Cruz versus Johnson should be that plus a large dose of caffeine because these guys put the pedal to the metal once the action gets underway, and neither one stops until the bout has concluded, regardless of how long it lasts.
Cruz is a pretty straightforward fighter. He likes to mix wrestling and kickboxing, often equally willing to slug it out on the feet or take an opponent down and slug him on the ground. He isn’t really a submission guy. Just one of his 18 professional wins came by tap out. His blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu also isn’t going to scare anybody. That is about as novice as one would expect for a UFC champion.
Still, Cruz is far from a novice ground fighter. Sure, his lone career loss was by submission, but he was completely out on his feet, thanks to a perfectly executed knee strike, when he basically gave his neck to Faber, begging to be submitted. Other than that, Cruz hasn’t succumbed to any ground fighter’s attacks. So, one must assume that his submission defense is much better than that of a traditional blue belt. He might not surprise anyone with a flying armbar, but I am quite sure that he knows how to defend one.
On paper, Johnson should be Cruz’s kryptonite. He is a very good wrestler with solid submission skills that have seen him end five of his career victories by tap out. Yet, Faber also fit that description, and most probably believe that Faber is both a better wrestler and better ground fighter than Johnson. Yet, he could not pass the Cruz test back in July.
In other words, I’m not sure that Johnson has the BJJ chops to catch Cruz in something, unless he first lands a fight-altering strike to scramble the champion’s wits. Granted, that is based in large part on how Cruz looked in his recent fight against Faber. That might not be a fair assessment. It is what it is.
I think Cruz will come out looking to stick and move, just like he did against Faber. Johnson will look to strike just long enough to set up a takedown. He wants no part of a slugfest with Cruz. I’m not suggesting that Cruz is a standup crusher. He is not. Then again, very few guys south of 155 pounds possess legitimate one-strike knockout power.
Instead, Cruz is a very good, technical striker. He strikes with incredible speed and uses very good footwork and lateral movement to keep his opponent off balance. He also frustrates his foes with shots thrown from unconventional angles and his constant herky-jerky motion.
Johnson cannot match him on the feet, so he should not try. He needs to take the fight to the place where Cruz is the least comfortable—on his back.
Easier said than done.
Again, Faber is one of the best wrestlers in the bantamweight division. Yet, he could not turn things into a grappling match with the champion. That doesn’t leave me feeling good about Johnson’s chances at accomplishing that goal, but it certainly can be done.
Cruz’s awkward standup style is predicated on the fact that he is a come-forward fighter. If Johnson can get him to move backward by applying calculated pressure via a rapid, accurate jab, Cruz should start moving backward. Johnson can use that opportunity to change levels and shoot under his opponent’s counters or high guard. Cruz has a great sprawl, but nobody has a great sprawl when moving backward while trying to counter or cover up.
Once the fight hits the ground, Johnson should use punches and elbows to open the door for submissions. Cruz is very good at scrambling back to his feet, so working from a pure grappling perspective isn’t a great idea. Johnson needs to force the champion to defend strikes, which will preclude him from effectively scrambling. If Cruz spends three or four minutes of a round on his back, one must assume that the blue belt will make a mistake that Johnson can capitalize on.
Then again, maybe not. But who really cares? Any time Johnson spends in the top position is time spent winning the fight. Time spent on the feet likely means time spent losing the fight.
Like the co-featured bout between Pat Barry and Stefan Struve, this bout is all about where the fight unfolds. Cruz has the advantage on the feet. Johnson has the advantage on the ground. The man who dictates where the action unfolds more often than not will win the fight, absent someone capitalizing on a silly, fight-stopping mistake.
I will admit that I was not a Cruz believer heading in to his July bout with Faber. I’m a believer now, particularly after re-watching that fight a handful of times. Cruz is an amazingly effective fighter, one who should give Johnson loads of trouble.
• 26 years old
• 5’8, 135
• 68-inch reach
• 18-1 overall (8-1 UFC/WEC)
• 5-0 in last 5
• 9-1 in last 10
• Currently riding a 9-fight winning streak
• Lone professional loss by submission
• Fight of the Night twice
• Current layoff is 91 days
• Longest layoff of career is 364 days
• 25 years old
• 5’3, 135
• 66-inch reach
• 14-1 overall (4-1 UFC/WEC)
• 4-1 in last 5
• 9-1 in last 10
• Currently riding a 4-fight winning streak
• Lone professional loss by decision
• Current layoff is 126 days
• Longest layoff of career is 203 days
The Blueprint - Cruz vs. Johnson
By Michael DiSanto September 28, 2011