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Cruz and Benavidez Cross Paths Again

“Two of the main goals in my career are to win a title and avenge that loss, and I get to do them both in one same night,” Benavidez said.

Ill will can add spice to a fight, but for the most part, pleasantries have been exchanged leading up to tonight’s WEC bantamweight title bout between Dominick Cruz and Joseph Benavidez. Unlike his mentor Urijah Faber, No. 1 challenger Benavidez does not hold a grudge against the 135-pound kingpin (I’ll address the alleged roots of the Cruz-Faber tensions later in this story).

Rather than hurl insults at the intense champ, Benavidez kindly refers to him as “a jigsaw puzzle” and claims he failed to fully appreciate Cruz’s skills when they tussled a year ago in a non-title bout that Cruz won by unanimous decision.  

“He went for more takedowns than I expected and his wrestling was better than I expected,” Benavidez said. “I usually don’t care about giving up the takedown because I know I can get up, but those takedowns gave him points that helped him win the fight. So this time I can’t let him take me down.”

The native of Las Cruces, New Mexico intends to be better prepared this time around, not the same guy who was kept off-balance by Cruz’s crisp punching combinations and elusiveness.  

“I thought I could go in there and just react … and not really train for a specific person,” Benavidez said. “But when you go against a guy like Dominick – who is basically like a jigsaw puzzle and has a different style than any other fighter out there – you really need to study him and know his tendencies. So I’ve made a lot of changes physically and mentally since then. I have a ton of teammates that are mimicking Dominick’s moves and his style, watching videos on him and all that stuff.

“I’m also really excited to be in a five round fight for the first time ever. “I have great cardio and I can outwork anyone. He outpointed me for three rounds and he has that down to a science – moving around for 15 minutes and scoring points. But two more rounds and 10 minutes gives me more rounds to finish. So I think it will favor me.”

Generally regarded as an undersized bantamweight who could compete as a 125-pound flyweight down the road, the 5-feet-4-inch Benavidez has also bulked up for his first-ever title shot. Cruz, who claimed the WEC title in March with a one-sided battering of Brian Bowles, has also packed on muscle since their fast-paced three-rounder. The San Diego-based champ, a protégé of Lloyd Irvin and Brandon Vera, pronounced himself more motivated than ever and anticipates a tougher test in the rematch.

“I think last time he kind of underestimated a lot of things about me. That won’t happen this time around,” said Cruz, a 15-1 pro who hasn’t lost in three and ½ years. “I always train like I’m fighting Godzilla, no matter who I fight. It’s just another fight to me so I’m going to go out there and fight the best Joseph Benavidez there has ever been, and that’s what I’ll do.”

Like many people, Cruz was impressed with how Benavidez (12-1) ferociously rebounded from the only loss of his career with a first-round knockout of Rani Yahya and a second-round submission over former champ Miguel Torres. Yet, no matter how reinvigorated and resurgent Benavidez might be, Cruz believes his unique skill set, four-inch height advantage and reach advantage will always pose major challenges for Benavidez, no matter how hard the challenger trains or how much visualizing he does.

“Let’s keep it real: styles make fights and both of the last two guys he has fought stood right in front of him,” the 25-year-old Cruz said. “You can’t stand in front of him -- you have to use footwork and move. Joseph can’t match my footwork and I have a reach advantage on him. That doesn’t guarantee me the win but it allows me to dictate a lot of the fight. I fought him once and not a lot of his game has changed. He has definitely improved, as have I, every single day. But there are a lot of tricks up my sleeve that I will use against Joseph for this fight.

“Joseph has to adjust to my style more than I have to adjust to his, for the simple fact that I have such a big advantage on him. Other than that he is just as athletic and quick as I am and has all the potential in the world, but I’ll counter with every single ounce of my heart, which is a lot.”

One of the knocks on Cruz had been that he was a volume puncher, not a power puncher. This perception existed because Cruz went four consecutive bouts in the WEC without a finish, simply coasting unscathed to dominant decision victories. But Cruz dispelled that light-puncher myth during his fistic destruction of Bowles earlier this year. Now, leading up to his first title defense, the new champ is playing mind tricks – not on his opponent – but on himself.

“I’m going in with the mindset that I don’t even have the title, that I’m going out there and winning a new title,” Cruz said.

Often, when Cruz gets in front of reporters, he is asked about his ongoing tiff with former WEC featherweight champ Urijah Faber – who submitted Cruz three-and-a-half years ago. Cruz shed light on the tensions, which were allegedly sparked when both fighters signed posters for fans before their 2007 fight and Cruz made a habit of signing his autograph on Faber’s face.

“I don’t hate the guy,” Cruz said, referring to Faber, who recently announced he was dropping to the 135-pound weight class. “Hate is a strong word. The big thing that has never been mentioned about this whole thing is that I wasn’t even put on that (event) poster. I was fighting for a world title, my name was in the fine print at the bottom and I just felt disrespected. It had nothing to do with Urijah necessarily … but my way of being on the poster was to sign across the face. (So) … I got on that poster and everybody knew who I was after that - in a certain sense.

“You know, it’s just the fact that he (Urijah) calls me out all the time and says all this and that about me. That’s his prerogative. It’s not really what I’ve been doing but I really have no problem with fighting Urijah when the time comes. Right now 100% of my focus is on Joseph because he’s a tough opponent himself and to look past him would be pretty ignorant. So I really haven’t thought too much into the whole Urijah Faber incident, but maybe after this fight, and after a win, I can go ahead and look into it a little bit more.”

Benavidez also weighed in on the gripe.

“Urijah doesn’t like him for his own reasons but I don’t have anything against Dominick. We get along fine and I don’t mind having a conversation with him,” Benavidez said. “He’s a cool guy and we have a lot in common with our backgrounds. But I’m going to still get after him when we get out there.”

It will be a tall order. But for Benavidez, the potential payback is not personal. The challenger knows he must find a way to solve the puzzle because these kinds of opportunities don’t come around too often.

“Two of the main goals in my career are to win a title and avenge that loss, and I get to do them both in one same night,” Benavidez said. “I’m so thankful I got a second chance because you don’t get second chances all of the time. It’s so perfect and I feel like it’s fate. I’m a different fighter since I fought him last time. He had a great night and I had a bad night, and it was still really close, so if I fight like I’m capable of I have no doubt I will come out with the victory.”