TJ Dillashaw vs Dominick Cruz - Something has to give
Often times in the lead up to Superfights, fighter-fans and not just fight-fans in general, take their places opposite each other and wage a war on social media platforms well before the fighters actually get to scrap it out inside of the cage.
Ranging from astute technical insights to disparaging insults, the gamut of expression displayed by these die-hard marks in attempting to exactly spell out why their choice of fighter will eventually emerge victorious, can be as engaging as it is exasperating.
The build-up to TJ Dillashaw's Bantamweight title defence against Dominick Cruz set to headline UFC Fight Night Boston, has been no different.
The narrative for the fight itself couldn't have been written any better; a returning champion, eager to reclaim the throne that he was forced to vacate against the current champion who is desperately seeking the legitimacy that defeating the challenger – thereby relegating him to a footnote in history – would espouse.
While there is a general consensus in MMA circles that stylistic match-ups make fights, this is one encounter that spews more questions than answers when it comes to predicting the victor, or indeed, the purported manner of it.
All that is apparent in leading up to the fight is that something – be it an aspect of technicality or an edge in mental fortitude – one way or another, has to give.
The Footwork Conundrum
When Dominick Cruz was cleaning out the Bantamweight division in his heyday, his footwork was often considered unorthodox and quirky; a series of movements designed to throw off opponents and render their gameplans ineffectual, all the while engineering angles and openings for Cruz to pick them apart with.
It would certainly make for interesting study to observe if the three ACL tears that he has suffered in his knees since has affected the degree of movement incorporated into his fighting style, or how he may have adapted his approach to cope with the wear and tear.
It is also worth noting that Dominick Cruz's style was primarily based of an age-old ideology at the very bosom of martial arts – the concept of hitting without being hit. If his ability in not being hit has been compromised in some capacity, by virtue of lessening the intensity of his movement and footwork due to injury, it could then reflect adversely in his ability to establish offence as well.
Now considered a pioneer for the emphasis he placed on footwork in a day and age predominated by the prototypical wrestler who could box, it would be ironic to say the least if he could not replicate his patented style in its entirety, on the cusp of the 'movement' era in MMA today.
For whether Dominick Cruz turns up a pale shadow of his former self, or somehow an improved version contrary to all the abstractions of logic, it is undeniable that he faces an opponent that is at the frontier of the change that he laid the foundations for when he was Champion.
Points to Savour
In what was an otherwise consumate verbal beat-down of the Champion, it wasn't really a surprise that the one relevant accusation that TJ Dillashaw levied against Dominick Cruz during their Counterpunch segment was drowned out by the shower of mind-numbing arguments that went the other way.
However, in keeping with Dillashaw's premise, Dominick Cruz has essentially been a point fighter for the majority of his career, whose modus operandi – bewildering his opponents through his movement and opening them up to his strikes – hasn't exactly yielded multiple Knockout of the Night Bonuses either.
In the fight against Demetrious Johnson, who was lightning quick in closing distance and dialling up the volume of strikes against Cruz, the former Bantamweight Champion had to resort to his bread-and-butter skill of wrestling, to ultimately nullify his opponent's approach.
With Dillashaw also similar in the way he hounds his opponents down using stance changes and a barrage of creative striking, Cruz may need to bank upon his wrestling once again in order to disrupt the Champion's gameplan and manufacture some breathing space with which he could work.
Easier said than done, for TJ Dillashaw has never been taken down in the Octagon before, having originated from a notable wrestling background that was responsible for his initial inclusion in Team Alpha Male and subsequent foray into MMA in the first place.
Above Ground Zero
With both these fighters considered to be at the forefront of the evolution of technique in MMA, Cruz bearing the mantle of the pioneer and Dillashaw perhaps that of the innovator, claims that this fight could be richly draped with nuances and nitty-gritties to delight the hardcore fan wouldn't be amiss.
Although fans are likely to be suspect about Dominick Cruz's physical condition coming into this fight, and with good reason, he did look every bit the world beater that he once was when he made short work of Takeya Mizugaki when he returned in 2014.
TJ Dillashaw, on the other hand, can be considered well above reproach in that aspect, being the physical specimen that he is and bearing the seemingly bottomless gas tank that he does.
Training at Elevation Fight Team, so named for their high altitude training camp at Colorado, TJ Dillashaw undoubtedly possesses the cardiovascular ability to go full throttle even in the championship rounds.
The only question that needs answering, therefore, is how unfavourably an inordinately long injury lay-off may factor into Dominick Cruz's performance if and when the fight gets dragged into deep waters, and the man standing opposite him in the Octagon is still raring to go.
The Mental Edge
Although TJ Dillashaw dismantled Renan Barao twice with breathtaking ease coupled up with an equally impressive performance against Joe Soto, even his most ardent fan wouldn't dispute the fact that he perhaps lacks the same experience in dealing with pressure situations as Dominick Cruz.
Having defended his title against myriads of differing fighting styles, albeit perhaps tad unevolved versions as compared to the modern day variety, Dominick Cruz has been in situations where his adaptability and fight IQ have been severely tested; something TJ Dillashaw looks set to encounter his first taste of, come January the 17th.
If that in itself is a daunting prospect for a man hoping to cling on to his spot on the food chain, then the verbal volleys lashed out by Dominick Cruz in the build-up to the fight could well have further tuned up the pressure on TJ Dillashaw by a notch.
However, against a fighter whose approach and mentality were indeed pioneering a few years back, but are finding their manifestation much more commonplace in today's MMA landscape, the fight is still arguably TJ Dillashaw's to lose.
Having said that, with so many factors playing into how the fight may eventually pan out, the lines between generating an educated prediction and even a wild potshot in the dark may be thoroughly blurred; with the only thing we can really be sure of, when push comes to shove and the Octagon door is finally shut behind them, is that something has to give.