(Note: This is part two of a two-part article. You can find part one right here)
When TJ Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz meet in the cage in Boston, it won't be a battle of mirrors. As superficially similar as these two fighters may appear, there is a gulf between them. Dillashaw doesn't seem to understand why Cruz would apply his technical prowess the way he does, dancing around at long range and landing two or three punches per minute. Cruz can't fathom why Dillashaw would ever plant his feet and give his opponents an opening in exchange for an opening of his own.
Their fight will be a true clash of styles, and we are lucky enough to witness it.
In yesterday's part one we looked at the fundamental differences between Dillashaw, the champ, and Cruz, the former champ. We laid out their priorities, and concluded that each man's approach to martial arts is crucially distinct. Today we will look into the technical specifics, the idiosyncrasies that make these men who they are.
JABS, FEINTS, AND POT-SHOTS
Both Dillashaw and Cruz possess excellent jabs, but they use them in distinctly different ways. Dillashaw's jab is a constant presence. Often he makes it a real threat, stabbing it home with real force--particularly from southpaw, which puts his dominant hand forward. At other times he merely suggests it, flashing his hand before the opponent's eyes and taking it away to reveal himself in a new position, or following up with an attack. No matter what, Dillashaw's opponents must always contend with his jab, in one way or another. Even when the champion isn't charging forward, there is pressure on his foe.
1. Dillashaw stalks Renan Barao.
2. Circling to his left, Dillashaw flashes a quick southpaw jab.
3. Barao reacts, countering with a jab of his own, but Dillashaw simply steps back with his rear leg and pulls his head out of range.
4. Again, Dillashaw moves forward.
5. Stepping in with a quick level change . . .
6. . . . Dillashaw shoots his jab up through Barao's gloves, snapping his head back.
7. A second jab falls short, but keeps Barao from countering.
8. Dillashaw feints low again . . .
9. . . . and Barao feels compelled to reset, taking a step back.
10. Another feint. Dillashaw plants his foot toward Barao, with no reaction.
11. Barao tries to come forward himself, but Dillashaw slides back out of range.
12. Dillashaw takes the same forward step as before.
13. This time Barao counters the movement with an inside low kick.
14. All Dillashaw sees is a man stuck in place. He puts his jab in front of Barao's eyes . . .
15. . . . steps forward with a pivoted foot . . .
16. . . . and lays his shin across the back of Barao's skull.
Two more clean connections follow for Dillashaw, everything working off of that sneaky right jab. For TJ, the jab is a multi-purpose tool. It can make the opponent jumpy, or it can make him counter. It can make the opponent move, or it can allow Dillashaw to move without being seen. It answers, measures, and sets up punishing power shots. The most striking aspect of this sequence is how close Dillashaw stays to Barao. From the moment he engages in Frame 1, he is never more than a step away from connecting with Barao. As such, Barao is never more than a step away from making contact himself, but Dillashaw is confident in his ability to slide in and out of range. Barao's own attempt to create distance is less successful. When Barao finally commits to a kick, Dillashaw gets his attention with the jab and stays right on him, closing the distance before Barao can get a good look, and sneaking in the head kick while he struggles to adjust.
Once again, "pressure" is the key. Dillashaw is not a pressure fighter, per se, but he understands how to apply pressure to his opponents, both physically and mentally.
Cruz creates pressure of his own, but the means are very different. Instead of Dillashaw's constant pawing, Cruz prefers to use timing to lace in quick, sharp shots from range. Instead of hiding his movements behind a jab, Cruz lets his opponents see his every step, and counts on the cleverness of his style to obfuscate his intentions. Throwing about half the volume of Dillashaw, Cruz nonetheless finds ways to get his hands to his opponent's chin.
1. Cruz slides toward Urijah Faber.
2. Faber chooses to wait, so Cruz steps out of range.
3. And then back in.
4. This time Faber takes a tentative step forward, so Cruz pulls back once more.
5. Unsure of the distance now, Faber eyes Cruz as he sidles forward.
6. Angling off to his left, Cruz tries to line up a quick up-jab, which Faber blocks.
7. Faber follows Cruz's angle, loading up a left hook.
8. But Cruz rolls underneath it . . .
9. . . . popping up in southpaw with the open Octagon at his back.
10. Cruz dances away toward the center of the cage and Faber follows.
11. As Faber marches forward, Cruz bounds right back into the pocket, changing levels . . .
12. . . . and then spearing Faber with a lead right to the chin.
Where Dillashaw maintains range, Cruz flirts with it. He tries to draw Faber off balance by skipping in and out of fringe punching distance, pulling away each time Urijah plants his feet. After evading Faber's first counter, Cruz skips far out of range, and then pounces just as Faber finally commits to coming forward.
Where Dillashaw's approach is daunting, Cruz's is frustrating. Instead of using his jab to measure distance, Cruz uses footwork to disguise the distance itself. After a round or two with Cruz, most opponents lose their sense of range. They don't know when he's close enough to hit or be hit, and they don't know when he's too far away to be a threat. In the sequence above, Cruz evades a punch when he is certainly in range to be hit, and then lands a punch when he appears to be entirely to far away to worry about. All of this is predicated on his awkward, shuffling footwork, strange rhythm, and quick, straight punches.
FOOTWORK AND HEAD MOVEMENT
Footwork is, of course, the defining feature of this matchup. Cruz was once the only man who moved the way he does. In some ways he still is, but the upper echelons of the sport are now chock full of fighters switching stance, taking angles, and playing with rhythm. Now Cruz faces the only fighter in bantamweight history with footwork to rival his own. The idiosyncrasies of his movement will be more important than ever before.
1. Cruz angles to his left, feet square.
2. Bringing his right foot forward, he prepares to spring.
3. Lunging into a long orthodox stance, Cruz feints a right hand . . .
4. . . . and then attacks with a hook as he shifts into southpaw.
5. This shift becomes a penetration step, bringing his right foot under Joseph Benavidez's hips . . .
6. . . . and setting him up for a deep takedown entry.
7. A quick angle change . . .
8. . . . and Benavidez is down.
Cruz shuffles his feet constantly. Not all of his steps are proper shifts, wherein the stance changes from orthodox to southpaw or vice versa. Instead, Cruz is constantly opening and closing his stance, bring his back foot right up to the heel of his front foot, and then launching himself forward off of it. Then Cruz blends in the full shifts, adding angular steps to his explosive forward movement.
All of these movements are calculated. The reason Cruz operates from such a long distance compared to Dillashaw is that he likes having room to think. With space between himself and his opponent, Cruz can plan his next entry, and see all threats coming. And because very few fighters can cover distance as quickly or as unpredictably as he does, he is rarely taken by surprise.
Dillashaw's stance switches are more defined, but less calculated. When TJ changes from southpaw to orthodox, or from orthodox to southpaw, it is a reaction to the target in front of him. If he wants to attack from the right, he will step forward into southpaw and hammer away with right hooks. If he needs to create distance, the right foot will slide back and the left come forward to take its place. Dillashaw uses his stance switches to keep himself in striking range without ever being tied to a single position.
1. Creeping to his right, Dillashaw comes forward . . .
2. . . . and kicks the leg of Renan Barao.
3. Barao tries his usual counter left, which Dillashaw parries.
4. Immediately Dillashaw looks to answer, connecting with a jab . . .
5. . . . and narrowly missing a straight right.
6. Rolling to evade a potential counter from Barao, Dillashaw shifts, bringing his right foot forward.
7. Throwing his weight onto that right foot, he connects with a left hook . . .
8. . . . which sends Barao staggering back into the fence.
9. Back in orthodox, Dillashaw closes again, feinting low . . .
10. . . . and then missing with an uppercut upstairs.
11. Unperturbed, he follows up with a left hook to the jaw.
12. Barao pulls back to his left, rolling with Dillashaw's next shot and creating some space.
13. But Dillashaw eats that distance up right away, shifting once again into a southpaw stance.
14. Using his closest available weapon, Dillashaw lands a short right hook.
15. Barao clips him with a counter as he tries for a follow-up . . .
16. . . . but Dillashaw answers with another hook, dropping his weight to his left and moving away from Barao's dangerous left hand.
You can see how much more organic Dillashaw's stance switches are than Cruz's. Instead of sliding in and out of stance to confuse Barao, Dillashaw changes stance only when he sees a new opening to attack, adjusting his feet for changes in distance and angle.
Both Dillashaw and Cruz put themselves at risk by changing stance so frequently. This is a little discussed fault of shifting footwork, which has become incredibly popular in MMA and boxing both. There is no way to go from southpaw to orthodox without squaring your feet, which compromises balance. In many ways, balance is chin. Poor balance means a reduced ability to absorb impact. In his fight with Urijah Faber, Cruz was twice knocked down while shifting or moving in a square stance. In the sequence above, you can see Dillashaw absorbing a hard shot while mostly square, fighting out of a very loose southpaw stance. The freedom to choose a stance on the fly has its advantages, but there are risks as well.
The question is, who will be able to capitalize on those flaws this Sunday? TJ Dillashaw has never faced an opponent as mobile as Cruz. Not even close; since his renaissance he has feasted on relatively slow, stationary fighters. Cruz, on the other hand, has never dealt with an opponent as offensively potent as Dillashaw; he is still used to a generation of fighters that would stand at range and try to counter him, which Dillashaw almost certainly won't. It's a perplexing matchup, and that's what makes it so great. Though I favor Dillashaw to win, I really don't know how this one will play out. All I know is, TJ Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz are unique. They are fighters without equal.
For more on Dillashaw vs Cruz, as well as the co-main event matchup between Anthony Pettis and Eddie Alvarez, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.