I feel like I saw Urijah Faber go limp from a stiff Mike Brown shovel punch only three months ago. And yet, so much has changed in the nearly three year time period since Faber lost the featherweight title he had defended for so long. A domination of Jens Pulver, a rematch loss to Mike Brown, submission victory over Raphael Assuncao, and again a loss in the featherweight title fight against the reigning champion Jose Aldo Jr. had Faber in a bad position in the division in which he once saw six straight title fight victories. Faber decided it was time to make the drop to a more natural weight class, trimming off 10 extra pounds to make a run at the 135 pound title. Urijah is off to a 2-0 start in the division, and is now matched up in a title fight for the second time against Dominick Cruz- only this time the "California Kid" is the challenger.
Dominick "the Dominator" Cruz has certainly lived up to his namesake in his time at bantamweight, racking up seven straight in the division with three of the victories coming in title fights. A few months before his opponent on saturday lost his belt to Mike Brown, Dominick had picked up his first win at bantamweight to kick off his current streak that has him in serious discussion for a top pound-for-pound ranking. Cruz won the bantamweight championship first against Brian Bowles, who was himself coming off an underdog victory against the longtime bantamweight kingpin in Miguel Torres. Cruz went on to rematch Joseph Benavidez- who originally put his undefeated streak on the line against Cruz in a Fight of the Night loss that propelled Cruz to a title shot- in a shocking split decision win that saw Dominick gain timely takedowns and stifle much of Joseph's offense over the 5 rounds with superior speed, lengthier limbs, and strange-angled counterpunches. He most recently defeated Scott Jorgensen, an intimidating powerhouse who had gone on a four fight tear (including a brutal guillotine choke against Chad George) in the bantamweight division, in the same dominating and elusive manner that showcased his incredible weaving footwork and seemless combinations and takedowns.
I have two things that I think will play the biggest factors in this fight- Dominick's wrestling and Urijah's submissions. I think one of Cruz's biggest assets in his recent run has been how amazing his wrestling looks; it seems like he is able to shuck off his opponents or use his flashy footwork to keep himself from their range. It would be one situation if he weren't fighting elite wrestlers, but Dominick completed nullified Scott Jorgensen and Joseph Benavidez, respectively a 3-time Pac 10 champion and a New Mexico High School State Champion. Not only do both of these fighters have the pedigree, but they have adapted their background into a complete skillset that complements their striking- and Cruz was able to thoroughly dominate both in the wrestling department. The second biggest factor, Urijah's submissions, is something I feel that no one but Urijah himself elaborates on when complementing Faber's abilities. Over half of Urijah's wins have come via submission, including against a few of the best grapplers in the lighter weight classes in Jeff Curran, Raphael Assuncao, and Dominick Cruz. Faber snatched a tight guillotine when Dominick shot a double leg, rolled into mount with the guillotine still gripped, and forced the tapout. Faber's compact frame and thick arms make the guillotine his greatest submission asset, and he's claimed victory four times in the cage in this manner- against Pulver, Cruz, Curran, and WEC vet Charlie Valencia. Urijah's submission of Curran is impressive, but far moreso in my eyes was his rear naked choke victory over Raphael Assuncao, who possesses high level BJJ of his own right.
Cruz's wrestling and Faber's submissions may be the two biggest factors in the fight, but I believe this scrap will come down to how aggressive Faber is. I've said in the past that I think the times that Dominick is the most vulnerable in the cage is when he is backpedaling, because although he has elite speed and balance, the unorthodox footwork he utilizes and strange angles he takes quite often puts him horizontal against his opponent. This hasn't been a problem, as he was longer than both his challengers and much faster than Jorgensen. Against Faber though, he's in for a whole new beast. Faber can match his speed and footwork, and is also a student of the game- so in my mind, there's no doubt that he will have figured out a strategy to cut off the cage and corner Dominick. If this happens, I suspect that Cruz will look for a takedown, so don't be surprised if a similar ending to their first matchup befalls Cruz. That being said, this fight is INCREDIBLY hard to predict. Those that think they have the answer set in stone are most likely not objectively analyzing the fight, because both of these fighters are the best the bantamweight division has to offer, and would likely be ranked fighters in a weight class or two above. Cruz and Faber are truly fantastic mixed martial artists that possess great cardio, speed, reflexes, technique, striking, wrestling, jiu-jitsu- basically every skillset necessary to be a complete mixed martial artist.
Questions: Will Faber let his emotions get to his head in this fight and get too aggressive, leaving room for Cruz to capitalize? Against the best MMA wrestler he's faced, will Cruz still be able to gain takedowns and plant Faber on the mat? What strategy has Faber decided would be the best to neutralize Dominick's footwork and elusive style? Does Faber try to stand with Cruz, or does he first look to test Cruz's defensive wrestling- and if he's successful in taking the fight to the ground is he going to maintain position and win rounds or will he be aggressive and look to outgrapple Cruz?