The UFC bantamweight title is on the line Saturday night when Dominick Cruz defends his belt against Urijah Faber.
Urijah Faber is the most famous 135-pound mixed martial artist in America—period.
The man with the million-dollar smile and elite skills was the face of the WEC for the three years leading up to the decision by Zuffa to fold the fledgling promotion into the UFC. He has probably signed thousands of autographs during and after his record-setting reign as a WEC champ. Faber has used his star power to successfully market himself like no other bantamweight in domestic MMA history. The net result is a burgeoning business empire in his native Sacramento and, of course, regular headliner status on fight cards, which means big checks for strapping on the gloves and fighting.
Dominick Cruz doesn’t have any of that. He isn’t famous. Cruz hasn’t appeared in major market commercials, unlike Faber’s K-Swiss cameos.
But none of that matters because Cruz has one thing that Faber desperately wants: the UFC Bantamweight Championship.
Yes, that is right. Cruz is the reigning 135-pound champion, despite the fact that he will be making his UFC debut on Saturday night. The crown was won in his final WEC fight, and it was a well deserved honor. The little ball of fire is in the midst of a seven-fight winning streak, including three straight when WEC gold was at risk. He has been as dominant over the last three years as any WEC fighter not named Jose Aldo.
But here is the kicker. Faber already owns a win over Cruz. Yes, you read that correctly. The pair squared off in a March 2007 fight. Faber was the reigning 145-pound champion at the time. Cruz was making his WEC debut after a long, successful career in regional promotions.
Faber dispatched him in 98 seconds via guillotine choke. That loss remains the lone blemish on Cruz’s otherwise perfect professional record.
For those who haven’t seen the fight, I’ll lay out how it unfolded.
The pair came out circling for the first 30 seconds, throwing some crazy kicks and punches without landing anything of consequence. It was definitely a feeling out period. Cruz landed the first strike of consequence 45 seconds into the bout—a right uppercut on the button. Faber shook it off like raindrops falling on his shoulders.
Faber pressed the action with wild strikes. Cruz countered with a big takedown. Faber brilliantly transitioned it into a sprawling guillotine, using it to quickly work back to his feet, while controlling his foe.
Once back up, Faber landed a monstrous knee to the forehead. It snapped Cruz’s head back. The challenger instinctively took down his foe, though it was apparent (to me, at least) that he was still suffering from the knee because he literally did nothing with the takedown, other than lay in place.
Faber quickly moved for a guillotine while the fight was transitioning. Cruz initially was in a good position, with his arm inside the guillotine, preventing Faber from finishing the hold. Yet, Cruz did nothing else to improve his position or defend. After a few seconds, Faber adjusted his upper body and slipped his left arm under Cruz’s chin, rolled to mount and finished the hold.
Cruz is 8-0 since that fight. Faber is 7-3. Both have since dropped down to 135 pounds.
I think the drop in weight favors Faber much more than Cruz. The champion is at least two inches taller than Faber, which means he is extremely tall and presumably will face a significant strength disadvantage at 135 pounds. Both men are lightning fast. Both could be mistaken on any given day for the Energizer Bunny, but few men in the sport, across any division, possess a gas tank that rivals Faber’s. He is a conditioning machine, able to fight at a frenetic pace for five full rounds. That conditioning advantage should only get better for Faber, who has shed some unnecessary bulk.
Of course, Cruz is the champion. He has only tasted defeat once in his professional career. He is probably the more motivated of the two because of the way the first fight ended. I’d be shocked if Faber was taking the fight lightly because Cruz owns two wins over Faber’s teammate, Joseph Benavidez, as well as wins over tough competitors Brian Bowles and Scott Jorgensen. Cruz remains the only man to ever defeat Benavidez (he did it twice) and Bowles. Those are huge wins.
But again, the motivation advantage probably lies with Cruz. I imagine this guy living and breathing nothing but Faber on a daily basis. It has to burn white hot in his gut knowing that he is the champion, yet Faber is the one receiving all the pre-fight attention.
Cruz has been very vocal in his pre-fight interviews about his belief that he possesses the better standup skills. I’m not so sure about that. Cruz may have the more impressive 33 percent knockout ratio (six out of 18 total fights), compared to Faber’s 24 percent (seven out of 29 total fights). Nonetheless, Faber has definitely been in there with more of a murderer’s row of strikers during his career, typically doing just fine on the feet, if not getting the edge in the action.
I don’t think Cruz seeking to keep the fight on the feet is the answer. I instead think that his biggest key to victory is putting Faber on his back and keeping him there.
In the first fight, I was fairly shocked to witness Cruz score two quick, relatively easy takedowns. Of course, he did nothing with those two takedowns. But that is not the point. Faber is dangerous in every position, but his offensive guard is probably the one area of his game that lags a bit behind the others. Cruz should look to exploit that weakness with a series of takedowns followed by active, yet controlled, ground and pound.
Getting the former featherweight champ to the ground is often easier said than done. The key, as Cruz showed in the first fight, is to counter his punches with aggressive takedown attempts, rather than leading with them. Faber is too good of a wrestler to get taken down and controlled with lead double leg attempts. He is also excellent in the clinch, so I don’t see Cruz dragging him down. Changing levels in the face of a Faber lead right hand, by contrast, is just what the doctor ordered, if the champion wants to keep his 135-pound strap.
For his part, I think Faber also needs to put Cruz on his back. That is definitely his weakest offensive position. In 17 professional fights, Cruz has only a single submission win. Compare that to Faber’s 13. Plus, Faber already has a submission win over him, something that could wreak havoc on Cruz’s mind, if the “California Kid” locks in even a semi-tight submission at any point in the fight.
Faber can get the fight to the ground in a number of ways. Many people often forget that he holds the record for all-time wins in collegiate wrestling at the University of California, Davis. He is, by far, the better wrestler in this matchup. He can take down Cruz in a number of ways—shooting from the outside, dragging him down or throwing him from the clinch, executing a high crotch against the cage, or, best of all, using his striking to get Cruz’s weight back on his heels and then slamming him with a double leg.
Whatever the case, Cruz is in a world of trouble if he finds himself on the ground with Faber pounding away. He should do whatever it takes to stand up in that situation. Faber will likely be the crowd favorite on Saturday night, so time spent in the top position mixed with cheers from his fans every time he lands even grazing shots is a perfect recipe for a judges’ decision. Cruz needs to keep that in mind and stay off his back.
In my breakdown of Wanderlei Silva versus Chris Leben, I stated that there are two types of mixed martial arts fans. The gladiatorial type, who love drop-down, drag-out wars, and the cerebral type, who prefer combat chess matches. This fight definitely will appeal to the latter. Neither guy has show stopping power in their hands. Both are fairly elusive targets on the feet. Neither man is easy to take down or control on the ground. And both fight as much with their brain as their brawn.
With that said, this may also turn into a serious slugfest. That is the great thing about the little guys. The lack of jaw-dropping striking power is replaced with amazing speed, deep gas tanks and constant action.
To be honest, I like Faber to win in any scenario. His power and speed should carry the day in a slugfest, though anything can happen when two guys plant their feet and swing away. His speed and elusiveness should carry the day in a hunt-and-peck scenario. His wrestling should carry the day in determining where the fight unfolds. And, if he is unable to dictate the position of the fight, his submissions and ability to work back to his feet almost at will should decide the outcome.
Then again, Cruz is the champion for a reason. This guy is no joke. He often appears to face significant disadvantages on paper. Yet, he always finds a way to win. Always, except in his previous bout with Faber.
We will see what happens on Saturday night.
• 26 years old
• 5’8, 135
• 68-inch reach
• 17-1 overall (7-1 WEC)
• 5-0 in last 5
• 9-1 in last 10
• 59% of win by decision (10/17)
• 35% of wins by KO/TKO (6/17)
• 6% of wins by submission (1/17)
• Lone professional loss to Faber by submission
• Won Fight of the Night in WEC once
• Linear WEC Bantamweight Champion (2 successful defenses)
• Current layoff is 198 days
• Longest layoff of career is 364 days
• 32 years old
• 5’6, 135 pounds
• 69-inch reach
• 25-4 overall (10-3 WEC/UFC)
• 3-2 in last 5
• 7-3 in last 10
• 52% of wins by submission (13/25)
• 28% of wins by KO/TKO (7/25)
• 16% of wins by decision (4/25)
• 4% of wins by DQ (1/25)
• Former WEC Featherweight Champion (5 successful defenses)
• WEC Submission of the Night three times
• WEC Fight of the Night twice
• Current layoff is 105 days
• Longest layoff of career is 217 days