For just the second time in his career, all-time bantamweight great Dominick “The Dominator” Cruz (22-2) is coming off a loss.
The last was in 2007. That time, Cruz waited 364 days before his return, a first-round knockout of Kenneth Aimes at Total Combat 27. This time, Cruz will walk into the cage exactly one year after his unanimous-decision championship loss to Cody Garbrandt (11-0).
As Garbrandt readies to defend the belt against the man from whom Cruz took it, T.J. Dillashaw (14-3), Cruz heads outside the 135-pound triumvirate to face Jimmie Rivera (21-1) at UFC 219 on Dec. 30 in Las Vegas.
“I just had to make sure I felt 100 percent,” Cruz said. “I used to be able to do three fights per year. I think now, at this point in my career, I’m going to have to stick to two fights per year.
“And I’m OK with that, because I’m doing this because I enjoy doing this.”
Cruz, to be fair, has a résumé that warrants title fights and eliminators exclusively. Before his loss to Garbrandt at UFC 207, Cruz went 13-0 over nine years, cleaning out the WEC and UFC bantamweight divisions in the process. Among the men hanging their heads as official decisions were read, all with a belt on the line: former champ Dillashaw, pound-for-pound king Demetrious Johnson (26-2-1) and UFC Hall of Fame inductee Urijah Faber (34-10) (twice).
Cruz doesn’t hide that becoming champion again is his explicit goal. He says the fight opposite Rivera, ranked the No. 3 bantamweight contender, is his means to that end.
“We don’t make near as much money — we don’t get paid near the same — unless we fight for the belt,” Cruz said. “It doesn’t matter, though. Jimmie Rivera, to me, is the title fight. This is how I’ve approached every fight until now: The person they put in front of me is the title. That’s it.”
Cruz will need to imagine a belt is on the line for only the second time in the last eight years. The other time, he dismantled Takeya Mizugaki (21-12-2) in 61 seconds at UFC 178. It was Cruz’s first appearance after a three-year hiatus following a litany of injuries and medical setbacks that forced him to vacate the belt.
This test seems more formidable. Rivera is 5-0 since joining the UFC in 2015, with four of the five wins going the full 15 minutes. The 28-year-old is unbeaten since his second career fight in 2008, a split-decision loss at 150 pounds.
The 32-year-old Cruz has a significant advantage in height, reach and experience. He says the recipe for a championship return is simple, albeit a bit ambiguous.
“I just have to be me, man,” Cruz said. “Me being me doesn’t lose to Jimmie Rivera. But more importantly, a healthy me doesn’t lose to anybody in the world.”