As one of the rising stars of the bantamweight division, Casey Kenney knows that these days, every time the phone rings, he’s likely going to be offered a fight with a name he’s familiar with among his 135-pound peers.
He never expected Dominick Cruz.
“When Dominick Cruz' name came, I'm like, is this right? Is this the right text message?” laughed Kenney, describing the moment when he found out his next fight would be with the former bantamweight champion. “Did this offer get sent to the right guy? I'll take it for sure, a hundred percent, but are you sure you didn't mess up on this one?”
It was an understandable reaction. Sure, the 29-year-old earned his stripes in the Octagon, winning five of seven bouts since his debut in 2019. A three-fight winning streak didn’t hurt either, but Cruz is the UFC’s first bantamweight champion and a man many still consider to be the best ever to compete in the division. So when his name is attached to a bout, it’s usually with a title on the line.
But here we are, days away from the UFC 259 card featuring three title fights and one very interesting bantamweight bout between Cruz and Kenney. A non-title affair, Cruz’ first since he defeated Takeya Mizugaki in 61 seconds back in September 2014.
Kenney was there in Las Vegas that night, not to scout Cruz as a future opponent, but to watch his coach, Chris Cariaso, challenge Demetrious Johnson for the flyweight title in the UFC 178 main event.
“I was front row, and that night was wild,” Kenney recalls. “I sat next to Khabib (Nurmagomedov), Cruz fought that night, there was the Yoel Romero-Tim Kennedy fight, McGregor-Poirier I, Cerrone-Alvarez; that was an amazing card. And (Amanda) Nunes was on the prelims.”
And Kenney, who wouldn’t make his pro MMA debut for another two months, had no inkling that he may be fighting Cruz over six years later.
“Going back to that moment, I would have never in a million years thought I would be fighting Dominick Cruz,” he said. “I was kinda set on the flyweights, but I always respected the guy and checked him out.”
Kenney even recalls Cruz’ UFC debut, when he fought Urijah Faber at UFC 132 in July 2011. Fighting was just talk then.
“I was sitting there watching that fight with my friends back in Indiana, just talking about being a fighter and it was cool to watch,” he said. “On March 6th I get to find out whether I can hang with those guys or not.”
He’s already proved that he belongs at this level, but then again, Cruz is on a different level than most. At least he’s always been. But after a May 2020 loss to Henry Cejudo and a 10-month layoff, there are questions whether the 35-year-old is still the fighter he was in his prime. Kenney isn’t questioning Cruz, though; he’s expecting one of the all-time greats to be at his best.
“I definitely know it's his last handful of fights, but I never want to count a guy out,” he said. “Even if I went out there and knocked him out in the first five seconds, (Cory) Sandhagen-style, I wouldn't count out Dominick Cruz, just like I'm not counting out Frankie Edgar for his loss (to Sandhagen). It is a little bit weird to think that these guys are at the end of their careers now, but I'm never one to count anybody out.”
It’s a wise strategy, one that has gotten Kenney through his latest camp, which comes on the heels of an impressive Fight of the Night win over Nathaniel Wood in October.
“I approach every fight pretty similar, no matter who you are, and that's first and foremost,” he said. “I focus on myself and get what I have sharp and then second, focus on the opponent and what they're capable of and what their strengths are. So this has been a typical training camp for me, except I got a guy trying to move like Dominick a little bit. We can only get the best version of Dom that we can find; Dominick's got his own style, his own thing and it's hard to emulate Dominick Cruz exactly. That's why he is who he is. So I just focus on what I have sharp - my Fight IQ, my eyes are great and just let the fight come to me.”
That’s what you hope to hear from anyone entering the biggest fight of his life, but what happens when the Octagon door shuts and all of a sudden, you’re facing Dominick Cruz?
Kenney is ready for that too, just like you expect him to be.
“I always have those little moments, whether it's the Octagon door closing shut or hearing Bruce Buffer,” said Kenney. “We're in the UFC, and we're having those surreal moments where I gotta stay present and not focus off into some childhood fantasy land. But that's what I do. I've been competing a long time, I've grabbed a bunch of belts, I've grabbed a bunch of championships, I've lost, I've come back, I've been a competitor since as far back as I can remember - five, six years old - so all those things I've had to go through in my life, all those moments where I had to stay focused and capitalize on them, I don't see it being any different for Dominick Cruz. We're gonna get in there, I'm gonna come after him and try to take his head off, and it's gonna be exciting.”