UFC veteran Daron Cruickshank is still on a high following his thrilling stoppage victory over Shinji Sasaki at this month's Rizin FF 1 event in Nagoya, Japan.
"I really enjoyed the fight, because I showed up," Cruickshank told Bloody Elbow. "I was at my best, and that's what you saw."
Cruickshank hadn't fought outside the UFC since 2011 and had never competed in Asia prior to Rizin FF 1. Despite this, ‘The Detroit Superstar' claimed that the vast differences between the upstart Japanese promotion and the more familiar UFC weren't all that difficult to adjust to.
"The one ten-minute round was a little different, but I trained for it," conceded Cruickshank. "As far as the jet lag, I stayed up for basically over twenty-four hours, got my body adjusted, and was fine there."
When it came to the rules of combat inside the Rizin ring - which vary significantly from the UFC and other US-based promotions - Cruickshank's nostalgia was enough to override any unfamiliarity he may have felt.
"I always wanted to fight with that type of rule-set," said Cruickshank. "Being a fan when I was younger, watching Pride, watching Rampage Jackson, and all those old-timers go at it in that style, I always thought that [an organization with those rules] would be a good home for me."
The Rizin rule-set was instrumental in Cruickshank's win on April 17th, which came via soccer kick to the head of a downed Sasaki, a move outlawed in the UFC.
"Well, I was in a weird position to actually throw a kick, but I knew I didn't want to miss the opportunity, so I just threw it," said Cruickshank, who was more excited to throw soccer kicks than any other move allowed in Rizin.
Though his bout was ended after the soccer kick landed, Cruickshank cited a more mundane technique as what really spelled the end for his Japanese opponent.
"The right hand is what actually put him down," said Cruickshank. "I believe I knocked him out, when he hit the ground, his face hit the mat and he woke back up, and then that's when I kicked him in the face again. He fell over, he wasn't out cold, but I believe the ref knew that that was enough for him, and he didn't want to see him get hurt anymore."
When asked if he had drilled soccer kicks in the lead-up to the fight, Cruickshank joked, "Well yeah, I guess you could I say I play a lot of hacky-sack before practice."
"I do throw them in practice, when we're sparring and stuff," then admitted Cruickshank. "But it's not in a vicious way, it's very controlled, and if you know who I am - I'm pretty accurate and pretty controlled with my feet. So my training partners are okay with it, because I'm not cracking them with it, I'm just touching them."
Surprisingly, the biggest culture shock for Cruickshank actually occurred outside of the Rizin ring.
"The fans at the UFC shows are awesome fans, super vocal, loud, cheering and booing at the same time, which is nice," recalled Cruickshank. "And when I fought at Rizin, and I was not used to this and it was totally strange to me, nobody during the fight said a word. You could hear a pin drop in the crowd, anywhere. For me, it was almost nice to hear my corner-men, and not just some drunk guy in the third row screaming, ‘Kick his head off!' So it was a change, it took me a second to get used to it, but I like it."
Rather than feeling blue about no longer being able to compete in the world's premier MMA promotion, Criuckshank claimed he felt ‘refreshed' and ‘re-motivated' by the opportunity offered to him by Rizin, and other potential suitors.
Cruickshank is also thankful for a break in the monotony he was experiencing within the UFC as of late. The 17-8 lightweight claimed he was relieved to not have to do, "the same thing over and over and over again," and not have people telling him "what to do" or how to "carry" himself.
"It's nice to have no handcuffs locking you down and, you know, it's nice to be free," said Cruickshank.
Though Cruickshank is incredibly grateful for his UFC run, he views the next phase of his career as one in which he has more license to experiment, both with his fighting style and his in-ring persona.
"I had a great run in the UFC, 13 fights, I was on The Ultimate Fighter, I feel like I made a great fanbase there, but when I was moving to Rizin, I didn't want to bring the same exact Daron Cruickshank to Rizin, so I got to basically reinvent myself," revealed Cruickshank.
Cruickshank described his UFC persona as something close to happy-go-lucky, which is a far cry from the Rizin character he hopes to cultivate.
"This fight, I carried myself more in a, I wouldn't say mad, but a serious manner," said Cruickshank.
For the Sasaki fight, Cruickshank channeled many of the ‘gaijin' fighters he enjoyed watching in Pride. The biggest influence was perhaps Don Frye, who Cruickshank admits modelling his new moustache off of.
Cruickshank also relished the opportunity to play the role of ‘bad guy' in front of the Japanese faithful.
"Every fight you have a good guy and a bad guy, just like in professional wrestling," quipped Cruickshank. "[The fans] might wanna see you fight, but they might wanna see you lose, they might wanna see you win, you just gotta play the role."
Cruickshank, who stated that Rizin took "very good care" of him, signed a multi-fight deal with the promotion and he looks forward to competing in Japan again in the near future. Cruickshank's deal with Rizin prohibits him from fighting for any other Japanese based promotion, but it does allow him to fight for other US promotions.
Asked if Bellator was an attractive option, Cruickshank said, "It definitely could interest me. I'm gonna go where the money's at, and if they give me a nice chunk of change, I'll fight anybody,"
Cruickshank's departure from the UFC came after three straight losses, the most recent of which was to Paul Felder at UFC Fight Night 81 in January.
"As far as being let go, I knew it was coming," stated Cruickshank. Though, he claimed the decision was a lot more collaborative than one might expect.
"I actually talked with [the UFC], it was kind of an agreement together, because they said, ‘You know, Daron you're 0 and 3 for your last fight, we can't really use you, unless it's way down the road or it's a short-notice fight,' and I said, ‘Well I need to fight, I gotta make money,' and they were like, ‘Well we can cut you, you can go fight for other people, and maybe potentially you make your way back.' And I was like, ‘Well let's do that.' I mean, I gotta fight, I can't be put on the bench, I gotta stay active. It was kind of a mutual agreement."
"As far as me, I'm comfortable right now where I'm at. I'm having a blast with the Rizin Fighting Federation. As far as the future, we'll see, I might go back [to the UFC], I might stay in Japan. It all depends where the money's at, but right now I'm happy where I'm at, and I'm glad to explore new ventures."
For his immediate future, Cruickshank has his eyes set on the same man he called out immediately after his victory over Sasaki, current DREAM and ONE lightweight champion Shinya Aoki.
Aoki was ringside for Cruickshank's victory. The 46-6 submission ace hopped onto the ring apron after Cruickshank mentioned his name and shared his opinion on the Rizin event as well as a potential match-up with the American.
According to Cruickshank, Aoki mocked the Rizin show - calling it boring - and stated that he wanted two million dollars for a fight with the former UFC fighter.
"To me, that says he basically doesn't want to fight me," said Cruickshank who promised to "kick [Aoki's] head off into the third row", should the pair ever square off.
Though he's not seriously considering it, Cruickshank stated that "if the money's right" he could be tempted into a tag-team match, like what Wanderlei Silva and Kazushi Sakuraba engaged in at Rizin 1. When asked who his dream tag partner would be, Cruickshank answered instantly.
You can follow Daron Cruickshank on twitter @Cruickshank155