Motivated by Muhammad Ali, Dominick Cruz hopes to inspire those suffering amid pandemic

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

Dominick Cruz walked into the news conference at UFC 207 at T-Mobile Arena in 2016 following a stunningly one-sided loss to Cody Garbrandt wearing a suit, with sunglasses covering the bruises and swelling around his eyes.

He stood rigid and patiently answered every question following arguably the most significant defeat of his career. He made no excuses. He offered no complaints. It was a tour de force for how professional athletes in the modern age should handle themselves following a defeat.

When the first question opened by noting it was a tough night for him, Cruz immediately cut in.

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“What was tough about it?” he asked.

When the reporter mentioned the loss, Cruz shrugged.

“Losses are part of life,” he said. “If you don’t have losses, you don’t grow. This isn’t tough; this is life.”

He wouldn’t even accept when an excuse was offered to him. A reporter noted that fans were saying he wasn’t 100 percent physically.

“They’re wrong,” Cruz said, calmly. “I was there. That was 100 percent me. I was healthy and I was everything I’ve always been in my eyes. I got caught in a couple of transitions and that’s how it goes in this game.”

That was the last night that Cruz fought in the Octagon. In one of the most star-crossed careers of any combat sports fighter, he was injured yet again.

He’s coming off shoulder surgery and when he challenges bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo on Saturday at UFC 249, it will be his first fight in 1,227 days. 

It is the longest layoff of a career in which injuries have also left him sidelined for stints of 1,093 and 478 days. 

The fight comes amid a coronavirus pandemic and came on relatively short notice, when Jose Aldo was forced to withdraw from a bout with Cejudo. But rather than focus on the negative, Cruz sees it as an opportunity to do good.

The UFC will be the first sport to return to competition since the pandemic basically shut down the country. A huge pay-per-view audience is expected, and Cruz plans to take advantage.

“It ranks up there as another history-making fight for me, but I really look at this a lot differently than belts and all of the things we have,” Cruz said Tuesday on a conference call. “It’s more about how you can make a difference in these times when you have a platform. I look at this as a time where I can make a huge difference. Like, what’s the value of championship belts or Olympic gold medals when there’s 33 million Americans who just filed for unemployment benefits? They can’t see their families since mid-March. [More than 70,000] Americans have died in the United States. There’s no vaccine for COVID-19 coming and possibly no end in sight.

“That pops the question of what’s the value of belts or Olympic gold medals unless you can use them to make a difference in the lives and in the service of humanity? For me, the person who made the difference in this way was Muhammad Ali. He was willing to give up the belt and possibly go to prison for five years to stand for what he called world peace.”

Dominick Cruz (L) hasn't fought since losing the bantamweight title to Cody Garbrandt on Dec. 30, 2016, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Dominick Cruz (L) hasn't fought since losing the bantamweight title to Cody Garbrandt on Dec. 30, 2016, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Learning about what Ali, who was the undisputed boxing heavyweight champion in 1967, did when he refused induction into the military service on religious, moral and ethical grounds got Cruz to thinking.

Because he was a fighter like Ali, he realized he needed to stand for something as well. And during a time when people around the world are enduring tremendous suffering, hardship and loss, Cruz wants to use his fight and story as a way to inspire others.

“Realistically, [my purpose] is to stand for everybody who thinks they’re not a champion and to let them know that regardless of what everybody says, regardless of what anybody’s potentials are, none of that matters if you believe and if you want it and you have a bigger purpose than yourself,” he said.

It would have been easy to quit when Cruz got hurt again after the Garbrandt fight. He doesn’t need to fight. He’s one of the best commentators in the business and, at 35, could have many years sitting cageside calling fights.

He has one of the brightest minds for the game and could become an elite trainer, if he so chooses.

But he endured all the pain of rehabbing his body and dealt with the doubts that inevitably follow because he believed that by coming back and overcoming as much adversity as any UFC fighter has ever faced would maybe inspire someone who is suffering tough times.

His loss to Garbrandt was only the second of his career and ended a 13-fight winning streak that began in 2008. He talks about it because he knows it makes him relatable.

“Everyone in this life has lost something,” Cruz said. “As a fighter, as a champion who hadn’t lost for so long and then being in that vulnerable position to take full responsibility and think it’s bigger than me just making a bunch of excuses. It’s about coming up with something to give to the world and use the platform we have and to actually do something that matters rather than basically just vomiting on the mic.

“This is a platform we have here. People listen to us and a lot of people like to hear what we have to say, and it’s important to use the platform for a bigger purpose.”

As he spoke, it became apparent that win or lose on Saturday, Cruz is the definition of a champion. A champion isn’t just someone who wins all the time. It’s someone who is human with all of the frailties the rest of us possess but who is not willing to take no for an answer.

It’s a person who will sacrifice and endure tragedy but never lose sight of what’s important.

Dominick Cruz gets all of that. It’s why he’s a champion in every way.

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