While critics have spent the days leading up to Saturday's co-main event at UFC 249 debating whether Dominick Cruz is actually deserving of a title shot, the former two-time bantamweight champion has been more focused on what he can do with the opportunity.
Cruz (22-2) will snap a near four-year layoff when he challenges Henry Cejudo (15-2) for the 135-pound title inside an empty, as a key fight in the promotion's first card in nearly two months amid the coronavirus pandemic.
At 35 and fresh off defeat, Cruz was a last-minute replacement for Jose Aldo. The former featherweight king left critics equally buzzing about why, in such a loaded division where no less than three prime fighters are far more deserving, UFC is so brazenly dipping into its legendary past.
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Anyone with a business sense can understand it's more financial than anything. Cruz, like Aldo, is a bigger name than Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling and Corey Sandhagen, providing the rising star Cejudo with another big fish to add to a growing resume that includes recent wins over Demetrious Johnson, TJ Dillashaw and Marlon Moraes.
Cejudo, 33, also asked for both the Aldo and Cruz fights for similar reasons. In many ways, it's also great matchmaking.
Cruz is the. The fact he has fought just four times in the past nine years amid an almost tragic string of debilitating injuries only adds to the marketable storyline should he pull the upset.
But years of long rehab and heartbreaking luck have understandably given Cruz a great bit of wisdom as to what his role and purpose really is in the larger scheme. A brilliant UFC analyst when he's not fighting, Cruz's inspirational interviews have become nothing short of MMA's answer to a TED talk or Tony Robbins self-help conference.
Even though Cruz has proven in the past during fight promotions against Dillashaw and Urijah Faber to have a quick tongue when it comes to trash talking, he countered an interrupting Cejudo during Tuesday's UFC 249 teleconference to offer a much different retort.
"You can run off your credentials again but how does that make a difference to anyone else but yourself," Cruz said.
The line of questioning seemed to stop Cejudo in his tracks. The only comeback from the 2008 Olympic gold medalist and two-division UFC champion was to meekly taunt Cruz with sophomoric attempts at labeling him a "princess."
Cruz was then asked whether a win over Cejudo after this long of a hiatus would be any sweeter than the two previous comebacks he authored in the last decade: capping a three-year break to score a first-round knockout of Takeya Mizugaki in 2014 before more injuries led to another two-year gap when he edged Dillashaw by split decision to regain his title in 2016.
"It ranks up there as another history making fight for me, but I really look at this fight different than belts and all the things that we have," Cruz said. "It's more about how to make a difference in these times when you have a platform. What's the value of a championship belt or Olympic gold medal when there are 33 million Americans that just filed for unemployment benefits? They can't feed their families since mid-March, 2,417 Americans died, there is no vaccine for COVID-19 coming and probably no end in sight. I have been in the question of what's the value in belts unless you can use it to make a difference in the lives and the service of humanity."
Cruz's message was nothing if not deep, and the San Diego native credits his love for Muhammad Ali as giving him a proper leader to model himself after.
"[Ali] was willing to give up the belt so he could go to prison for five years to stand for what he felt is world peace," Cruz said. "So that put me in the question of what's my purpose in all of my accomplishments here? Realistically, it's to make a difference and stand for the everybody who thinks that they are not a champion and let them know that regardless of what everybody says and what their credentials are, none of that matters if you believe and you want it and you have a greatest purpose for yourself.
"If what you have is holding up this belt and saying I'm better than you because I have this thing, how about every single person out there gets to be that if they chose it whenever they want?"
Inspiration alone isn't enough to win fights and Cruz knows that. But although he said he respects Cejudo as a fighter, he openly mocked the idea of "The Messenger" being a legitimate bantamweight. Cejudo, who will give up four inches in height to Cruz, has fought just twice at 135 pounds in UFC -- his Octagon debut against Dustin Kimura in 2014 and his knockout of Moraes to claim the vacant bantamweight crown last June.
Cruz also claims his cardio will be the difference, even with such a dramatic layoff. In Cruz's defense, he has gone the five-round championship distance in seven of his last eight fights. He also helped teammate and hard-hitting featherweight Jeremy Stephens prepare through a six-week training camp for his fight against Calvin Kattar on Saturday's undercard.
Then there's that thing about ring rust. Remember that? Cruz is just as dismissive of the idea today as he was four years ago ahead of the Dillashaw fight.
"Once again, everybody says ring rust is this or that," Cruz said. "It actually doesn't. It's all in your head. It's about making sure that you prepare yourself the right way. I live this life to train. When this is all said and done, I'm going to be in this kind of shape still. I enjoy training, it's not a livelihood to me, it's just how I like to live my life -- in shape, feeling good and training hard.
"Transformation is a public event so I'm constantly trying to transform in my life and this is the place to do it on a stage in front of the first sports event to ever happen [in the U.S. during the pandemic]. This is the stage where transformation happens."
Cruz said he also believes the fact that Cejudo is coming off shoulder surgery, the same injury Cruz recently rehabbed, will level the playing field. Teetering between motivational and respectful for the majority of Tuesday's teleconference, there was a moment where the dog inside of Cruz finally came out and he bit back at Cejudo.
"I know you are short and are going to have a hard time finding me, little man," Cruz said. "When you are missing [punches], you are going to find out the difference. I've got hours in there over you, little man. I'm about to expose you real quick. I don't have anything to prove, I'm just going to beat it out of you. You're going to embarrass yourself trying to fight me. You're a 25er and I'm going to prove it.
"I've been here before, many times."
There's no question Cruz's mind and focus is sharp as ever. Come Saturday, he'll find out if his body is just as willing.