When Dominick Cruz returns to the octagon to face Henry Cejudo at UFC 249 it will mark 1,220 days since his last fight.
There is a cruel sense of Déjà vu surrounding the matchup, a feeling that has followed him throughout his professional career.
September 27th, 2014.
As the lights dim and the arena descends into darkness, Cruz prepares to walk to the octagon for the first time since 2011.
“I’m bigger and bolder and rougher and tougher. In other words, sucker, there is no other. I’m the one and only dominator.”
The song reverberates around the MGM Grand, starting fast but tame and begins to swell with the lyrics repeating, “I’m the one and only dominator,” before it breaks into a wave of pulsating sirens as the former bantamweight champion turns the corner and faces the ocean of hypnotic lights and fans.
The intensity of the music can only be matched by the stern look on Cruz’s face as he makes his way through an ocean of fans, sporting a plain black hoodie with a blank expression.
It has been just over three years since Cruz made that walk, fighting and beating the man who sits atop the card, the current pound for pound fighter in the world, Demetrious Johnson.
His opponent on the night is Takeya Mizugaki, a young Japanese fighter riding a five-fight win streak. After the first exchange, it is clear that the three years spent outside the octagon had not eroded the 34-year old’s abilities.
His fighting style is an assault on the mind, a collection of moves so rhythmic and calculated his opponent cannot help but turn to stone, frozen with anticipation. Cruz hypnotised the Japanese fighter like a charmer would a snake, his footwork the instrument.
No slight to his movement, no hesitation, he was as sharp as he has ever been, almost as if he never left. It was a first-round obliteration for ‘The Dominator’.
Cruz buried the scepticism surrounding his return but would have to face that same scepticism for the rest of his career. Injuries, come back, repeat. This was the start of a routine that would define his career when it would so often destroy another’s.
After undergoing two ACL surgeries in the lead up to the Mizugaki fight, Cruz would then tear it again, in his knee. An injury which would prevent him from fighting again for another two years.
In 2016, the Alliance MMA fighter made his return stringing together three consecutive fights in one year. A standard feat for most but a rare accomplishment for the American.
He would go on to reclaim his title in January, defend it in June and subsequently lose it in December. Cruz’s misfortune would not quell, a string of bad injuries including a broken arm would keep him out of the octagon.
Only having the chance to fight nine times in the past six years, it is not an over-exaggeration to label him as one of the unluckiest fighters in the organisation. But, now after all the bad luck that has followed him, Cruz has been dealt a good hand due to the misfortune of another.
Jose Aldo was set to face Cejudo at UFC 249 but due to an unfortunate injury has had to pull out, leaving Cruz to step in and take his place.
Nobody would have predicted that a fighter coming off a loss followed by a four-year stint away from the sport would find themselves in a position to challenge for a title, but here we stand.
With all the injuries, training camps and rehabilitation that have plagued the 34-year-old throughout the years, one phrase has attached itself to him more than most; “ring rust.”
It is a term coined to define the effect on a fighter that has been away from a sport for a long period. It can be categorised as missing a step, seeming offbeat and overall sluggish. It has divided opinion over the years in the combat sports world, it is not a physical defect as much as a mental barrier.
John Kavanagh identified it as playing a part in Conor McGregor’s loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov.
“So he didn’t have a lot of cage time. This one, as I said was almost two years out. I said that I didn’t think ring-rust would play a part, but, I have to be honest – when I look at it now, when I replay it in my head, I do feel that it played a little bit of a part.” Kavanagh told Ariel Helwani on ESPN.
It has seemingly plagued so many fighters over the years but has also been ineffective against others, Cruz being the prime example. If anything his entire career can be used as the best argument for why it is in fact, a myth.
This can be directly attributed to the mental fortitude displayed by the American, who believes that it is “brought up to give oddsmakers 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.” Cruz told AXS TV’s “Inside MMA”.
“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. Ring rust is a mental block or a lack of preparation.”
Tyson Fury had a similar hiatus away from the sport of boxing but had two warmup fights before going on to challenge for the title.
Cruz’s mental fortitude is a big factor in his ability to stay motivated and focused when outside the octagon. By reclaiming his title at 34, facing the toughest opponent of his career, coming off the back off his longest spell away from the sport, he can finally put to bed the myth of ring rust.