October 1, 2011. That's the last time UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz stepped into the Octagon to defend his title.
Cruz's time away from the Octagon has been necessitated by two knee surgeries. The initial surgery was required when Cruz blew out the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left leg during filming of The Ultimate Fighter: Live. The injury and subsequent surgery cost him a UFC title defense against Urijah Faber, who was coaching opposite Cruz on the UFC's reality show.
When Cruz's body rejected the cadaver ACL that was used in that July 2012 surgery, he went back under the knife for a second operation in December of that year.
Barring any unforeseen setbacks, Cruz will return to the Octagon on February 1, 2014 when he faces interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao in a title unification match. The fight will be the co-main event on the card, preceding the fight between featherweight champion Jose Aldo and Ricardo Lamas.
Extended time off from competition is a concern for any athlete. For those that participate in mixed martial arts, it seems like whenever a fighter goes a long time between fights they face questions about "cage rust."
UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre faced these questions when he went 19 months between fights after undergoing knee surgery himself. Current UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman faced the same inquiries when he went a year between fights following shoulder surgery.
Like Cruz, Weidman and St-Pierre ended their long breaks with title fights. St-Pierre and Weidman were both victorious in those bouts. St-Pierre retained his title by handing Carlos Condit a unanimous decision defeat. In his return fight, Weidman stopped Anderson Silva by second round knockout to become UFC middleweight champion.
When asked about his thoughts on cage rust, Cruz was dismissive of the idea, telling Inside MMA:
I feel that cage rust is something that's brought up to give odds makers something to bet on. I think you can work it completely out of your system as long as you're in training camp and training correctly. The biggest part about ring rust is the mental part. I think a lot of that comes from not being able to control your adrenaline, not being able to understand where you are at, not being able to relax at the right times in the fight when you need to, and you can figure all of that out, not only mentally by training your mind, but in camp you put yourself in those predicaments and rough situations. You fight out of them and that's how you prepare for ring rust. It won't be an issue and I will be ready on the night of the fight.
Beside cage rust, odds makers and fans will consider how the surgery and rehab will affect Cruz's fighting style. Cruz's footwork has often been lauded as one of the major contributors to his 19-1 record as a professional fighter.
Cruz feels his footwork will be just as good, if not better than when he last fought:
You know my footwork is as good as ever. The biggest thing is getting your timing back, getting your rhythm back... your reaction time without thinking. That's what takes time to get back and that's what the camp is going to be about. But as for footwork, it's all exactly where I left it and I've got some new tricks up my sleeve.
Jumping back into any job after an absence of more than two years has to be difficult. When that job is stepping inside a locked cage, and trying to separate another man from his senses while he has the same goal in mind, well, having a good first day back at the office is pretty important.
Cruz has little doubt that his first day back at the office will be a good one.
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