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UFC Boston Judo Chop - Dillashaw vs Cruz: Shapes of Combat (part 1 of 2)

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Bloody Elbow striking aficionado Connor Ruebusch breaks down the movement and tactics of Dominick Cruz and TJ Dillashaw ahead of their UFC title clash.

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

(Note: This is part one of a two-part article. Part two is here)

Of all the narratives surrounding the impending clash of UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw and former champion Dominick Cruz, the notion of a borrowed style interests me most. Throughout the last two months or so I've heard countless Dominick Cruz fans (and God knows where these people were when he still held the belt) asserting that the new champ is simply mimicking the moves that Cruz created. If we find Dillashaw's striking to be revolutionary, they insist, it is only because we have forgotten the mastery of its true creator.

Thing is, Dominick Cruz and TJ Dillashaw are nothing alike as fighters. Despite the origins of Dillashaw's idiosyncratic footwork--fans know well the story of how he stumbled upon his mannerisms after being asked to imitate Cruz for former teammate Urijah Faber--the current champ is an entirely different animal. Some of the movements may look famliliar, but the intent could not be more different. May as well accuse Picasso of imitating Michelangelo for using the same brush.

In this piece, we will be looking at the differences between these two great masters of martial arts, both superficially similar, and both utterly unique in the sport of MMA.

AIMS

Before we talk about techniques, we have to talk about aims. Say both Dillashaw and Cruz have a finite selection of goals available to them when the first bell sounds. If were to paint a fight with very broad strokes, those options might be: close the distance, create distance, connect cleanly, avoid being hit cleanly, score takedowns.

Now let's assume that our two fighters must arrange these goals in order of importance, emphasizing certain aspects of the standup game over others. Given the same exact options, their lists would look very different. Cruz's might look something like this:

1. Avoid being hit cleanly
2. Create distance
3. Score takedowns
4. Close the distance

5. Connect cleanly

While Dillashaw's would probably me more like this:

1. Connect cleanly
2. Close the distance
3. Avoid being hit cleanly
4. Create distance
5. Score takedowns

Laid out like this, you can see some significant differences between the approaches of these two fighters. Dillashaw is obviously an offensive dynamo. Since he began training under Duane Ludwig in 2012, Dillashaw has scored five knockouts in eight fights. All three of his title fights have ended in a finish. The man clearly likes to hit people, and he hurts them when he does it. Cruz's record tells a different story entirely. Since his WEC debut in 2008, Cruz has compiled ten wins, with only three finishes--and one of those was a doctor stoppage after Cruz's opponent broke his hand.

Some might argue that Dillashaw has a natural power advantage over Cruz, explaining his higher rate of knockouts, but I don't think so. There is something endemic to Cruz's fighting style that makes him less likely to finish than Dillashaw--and you don't have to take it from me. Let's look back at the "Technique Talk" Cruz did with Luke Thomas a little less than two years ago. In the Dominator's own words:

Something I hear more than anything is, 'Well, you're not knocking anybody out, Dominick, because you're not setting you [sic] feet'. Well, I'm also not getting hit at all. The whole point of winning a fight is to not get touched, not get hit and hit the other person. I'm hitting the other person twice as much as they're hitting me.

I might not have knocked a lot of people out, but I'm winning fights and not taking damage. In my book, that's what a fight is about . . . . I'm always moving my feet to punch you and not be there by the time you try to punch me back. That takes away a little bit of power. It's an art and it takes a gentle working into it to find the happy medium of power, footwork, movement and being stationary altogether.

There's a clear divide between the mindset that produced that statement, and the one that led TJ Dillashaw to savage Renan Barao back in July.

MEANS

So how is this represented in their actual fights? Let's take two examples, one from Cruz's 2011 win over Urijah Faber (over four years but only three fights in the past), and the other from Dillashaw's repeat victory over Renan Barao. Both rematches. In both cases, our example will be taken from the beginning of the second round, before the fatigue of the latter rounds has set in, but after Dillashaw and Cruz have had a chance to feel their opponents out and decide on some tactics. In both sequences, the fighters begin in very similar positions and attack on very similar angles. As best we can, we are about to see how these two fighters treat the same situation.

First, Dillashaw.

1. Leaning forward, Dillashaw presents a right hand.

2. And then steps in to throw it. Barao slips the punch . . .

3. . . . and Dillashaw pulls and pivots to evade his counter.

4. From this new angle, Dillashaw steps in with a jab . . .

5. . . . and sends a left cross into Barao's mug.

Right away we get a clear picture of Dillashaw's priorities and motives. He attacks, trying to be unpredictable and avoiding the counter of his opponent as he does so. He isn't content to defend, however. Once Barao has missed, Dillashaw is right back on him. In evading Barao's counter, Dillashaw shifts into southpaw and pivots to his left. This defensive footwork creates an offensive angle, and Dillashaw pounces on it the moment Barao's punch goes wide.

Now how about Cruz?

1. Cruz approaches Faber in an orthodox stance.

2. A quick feint with the left hand hides a quick adjustment of the feet . . .

3. . . . and Cruz dives in, slipping Faber's counter right hand as he does . . .

4. . . . and (kind of) landing a low kick.

5. Having reversed his stance, Cruz pulls out of range on a new angle.

Like Dillashaw, Cruz attacks from the orthodox stance, and falls into a southpaw stance as he defends a counter. The stance switch is accompanied by an angle change, and Cruz finds himself facing Faber, with a split second before Faber can adjust to face him. Instead of attacking, however, he steps back and resets.

Now there isn't one approach that works for all fighters. These examples aren't meant to illustrate that one style is objectively superior to the other. Were Cruz to attack off of his angles he would be hit much more frequently. His height is a weakness in the pocket, and he has a tendency to get caught on breaks as he pulls back with his head centered. The point is that Dillashaw and Cruz are two completely different fighters, with utterly unique approaches to their craft.

Come back tomorrow for part two, in which we will look at some of the more idiosyncratic shapes of combat at play in this matchup, and take a closer look at two of the most unique fighting styles in all of MMA.

For more on this fantastic matchup, check out the this week's episode of Heavy Hands, which also analyzes the fantastic co-main event battle between Anthony Pettis and Eddie Alvarez.