Michigan’s Daron Cruickshank (21-10 MMA, 4-2 RIZIN, 6-6 UFC) was described by his Ultimate Fighter coach Urijah Faber as “a cross between Chuck Norris and Dan Gable.” It doesn’t get much more ‘Merica than that.
Raised by taekwondo black belts, the former Division 3 wrestler loves his country, his mustache, shooting guns, and kicking people in the face.
After mixed results in the UFC, “Detroit Superstar” has found new life in Japan’s RIZIN FF. Fans of the promotion have grown to love his penchant for soccer kicks, and the fantastic butchering of his name. “DAROOONNN, CROOKUSHANKU!”
#TheTimeisNow to hop aboard the Cruickshank bandwagon before he meets Diego Brandao at RIZIN 13 this weekend.
If you like lead leg techniques, spinning s**t, and good old American wrasslin’, then Shankz is your boy.
This is Fighter of Interest, where underrated, under the radar, or underappreciated fighters from an upcoming event are brought to light. Enjoy the GIFs and brief analysis.
Fighter of Interest: Daron Cruickshank
Detroit Superstar is an offensive dynamo. As his taekwondo background suggests, Daron excels with round kicks with both legs, usually to the body and head. But if threatened or pressured excessively, he always has an explosive double leg and high-amplitude wrestling to fall back on.
While Daron Cruickshank truly is an impressive takedown artist, he makes his money with his flashy and dangerous kicking game.
He does an excellent job mixing up speeds, switching between flowing, seemingly endless chains of kicks to planting his opponent in place for one perfectly timed blast to the body.
Here you’ll see Daron spin through a leg kick to throw his opposite heel, only interrupted by the weak single of his opponent. Soon after, he used the clinch break to snap off a rear round kick to the body and explode his opponent’s organs.
After a 10-2 regional run against competition like Luis Palomino and future UFC fighters Bobby Green and Mike Ricci, Daron Cruickshank was brought on to compete on The Ultimate Fighter.
–vs. Drew Dober–
The Ultimate Fighter: Live was the first and only season of the polarizing reality show to air the fights as they happened. Typically the show airs after filming has concluded, and the fighters have a full training camp to prepare for the finale.
In hindsight, it was stacked (for TUF, at least).
Big shout out to the GOAT Cody Pfister.
Another new wrinkle on this season was that the elimination bouts were a single, five minute round. This allowed the fighters to go full blast to make an impression, or get one strong position and hold on tight.
Daron opted for the former against a young Drew Dober.
Starting with a vicious elbow off the clinch with his back to the cage, Cruickshank blitzed Dober with a series of straight punches, round kicks, one wheel kick, and a huge double to side control. That’s one way to make an impression.
But Dober is a tough piece of leather, and he survived the round despite being thoroughly dominated. Drew is currently on a great run in the UFC, winning five of his last six.
Maybe all fights should be five minutes, with strict stalling rules in the spirit of collegiate wrestling (copyright pending). Just a thought.
Daron’s ridiculous showing earned him the third overall pick on Team Faber. In his first matchup against James Vick, he picked the absolute worst time to shoot a double from the outside and was knocked out cold.
–vs. Chris Tickle–
What a name. Daron Cruickshank got fellow TUF: Live castmate Chris Tickle in his UFC debut. A decent enough striker, Tickle stuck with his coach Dominick Cruz for some time after the show.
With his job likely on the line, Cruickshank took a safer route and leaned on his wrestling. Tickle’s aggressive style lent itself to frequent clinch situations, and Daron capitalized.
With his back to the cage, with Tickle’s back to the cage, and in open space, Daron Cruickshank found the inside trip available all night. Hooking inside the leg, he used strong over-under positions to work Tickle over, sometimes switching to finish on the leg.
–vs. Henry Martinez–
Wanna see a dead body?
To this day, the Henry Martinez fight might be the greatest Daron Cruickshank showcase of all time. The typically iron-chinned, stocky brawler retired only months later.
Early on Cruickshank was troubled by the pressure of Martinez, unable to find the striking range he wanted. But he soon switched up his approach, intercepting Henry with a sharp boxing attack before unleashing his kicking game.
Things were already looking rough for Henry Martinez, and he became tentative, giving Cruickshank the space he needed. If you stand in front of Shankz and let him pick his shots, you’re asking for trouble.
A snapping kick to the body disrupted Henry’s bodily functions, and Daron absolutely went off on him. Later in the round, he uncorked a beautiful lead uppercut, rear straight to right head kick.
But that’s not the best part.
Programmed to fear the round kick to the body, Martinez was consistently reaching down to protect his organs from further damage.
You know what comes next.
It was disappointing to see such tepid performances from Cruickshank against Jon Makdessi and Yves Edwards after such an insane beatdown. He was reluctant to fully engage and lead the dance, perhaps due to a deep respect for the skill set of both men.
Daron’s troubles with pressure arose once again in his fight with Adriano Martins, who flustered Daron on the feet and exploited his submission defense for a win. Martins turned out to be pretty good.
–vs. Mike Rio–
Three bouts removed from the Martinez massacre, Daron Cruickshank was overdue for a highlight performance.
A TUF: Live compatriot, Rio had shown off solid wrestling and a competent ground game, to be generous.
With little to fear and his job potentially on the line, the Detroit Superstar showed up.
Late in the round, after picking Rio apart, Daron flowed beautifully from a rear superman punch to a left head kick while floating to the right. Rio took it on the face.
But when Cruickshank is on point, he spoils us. It got better.
With Rio seeming prepared to block literally nothing, Daron shot off a gorgeous wheel kick.
A stunned Rio was helpless against a lightning flurry of punches under and around his loose guard.
–vs. Erik Koch–
Koch has been notably hot and cold in the UFC. Once considered for a title shot against Jose Aldo, Koch found new life after moving up to lightweight, knocking out Rafaello Oliveira in the first round.
The Roufusport product was a sound striker with a formidable ground game, how would Daron Cruickshank hold up against what appeared to be his stylistic kryptonite?
Spectacularly. Daron was creative and loose with his offense, and advanced with his defense. Cruickshank’s boxing craft seemed to have improved, he was mixing up punches to the body, and he was able to slip and roll off Koch’s dangerous rear straight.
Reading the fake to the body, Koch responded well to block a head kick on his left side. Seeing Daron throw another straight with his head unprotected, Koch reasonably opened up for a strong counter.
Instead, he was surprised and stunned by another head kick sneaking up from the other side.
It was the biggest win of Daron’s career. It seemed momentum was finally on his side.
–vs. Jorge Masvidal–
Still young in his UFC run, former Strikeforce (RIP) title challenger Masvidal had already made an imprint on the division with wins over Michael Chiesa, Tim Means and Pat Healy.
Jorge Masvidal is as durable and well-rounded as they come. Known for his boxing, he’s proven he can hang with the elite at both lightweight and welterweight.
That’s why after cruising in the first round, Masvidal must have been shocked when an overhand from Cruickshank put him on his back.
Feeling himself, Cruickshank opened up with his wrestling and briefly secured position.
It wasn’t the best setup on his entry, but Masvidal was standing straight up and Daron is great at running his feet and finding an angle on his double leg.
The grappling of Jorge Masvidal made the difference in this fight. When they engaged positionally, “Gamebred’ was usually able to wind up on top and keep Daron on his back for long stretches.
–vs. Anthony Njokuani–
A strong enough striker who has now transitioned to Muay Thai, Anthony Njokuani did absolutely nothing for two rounds of this fight.
Daron, on the other hand, put on a wrestling clinic.
Against both singles and doubles, Njokuani’s takedown defense was predicated on maintaining his balance and fighting hands. His hips were too slow to react, and his feet were stationary. That’s why the constant motion of Cruickshank’s shots was consistently able to get him down.
It wasn’t always Daron blowing through on a straight shot, he consistently switched off to an angle to crack down for his finish.
In the second round, he dominated every aspect of the fight.
On the feet, he hit flying knees, countered beautifully in the pocket, and even lifted for a vintage Matt Hughes running double leg.
Sure, in the third round Daron’s activity slowed. But he still picked some nice spots with his hands, and controlled the final minute after dumping Njokuani with a slick single.
–vs. KJ Noons–
Then injustice struck.
Wily veteran boxing stylist KJ Noons had his hands full. He has never been particularly skilled at defending kicks, or takedowns.
Cruickshank lit him up on the feet, and took him down at will.
In response, KJ grabbed the cage repeatedly, outstretched his hands to keep Daron away, and inserted his fingers deep into Cruickshank’s eyeball at least twice, clearly.
Bleeding from his eye, Daron was unable to continue. After multiple, blatant fouls, the fight was declared a No Contest. It is this author’s unbiased opinion that Noons should have been disqualified.
–vs. Beneil Dariush–
This was clearly the toughest matchup of Daron’s career so far. Dariush’s accomplished grappling pedigree was complemented by Master Rafael Cordeiro‘s pressure Muay Thai tutelage. Dariush excelled for some time at enforcing a powerful striking assault on the feet, and outmaneuvering his opponents on the mat.
Daron has never been especially successful against effective pressure. He did good work defensively for some time, but his biggest mistake was panicking and forcing his own wrestling offense when Dariush came on strong.
Unfortunately, his next bout with James Krause ended in a similar fashion. After comfortably countering Krause’s kicking game, Cruickshank was caught off guard with a lovely foot sweep and gave up his back.
–vs. Paul Felder–
I love Paul Felder. He’s a Philly boy (go Birds), uses a great mixture of Muay Thai and taekwondo, and has been great as a UFC commentator thus far.
One of the better strikers at lightweight, Felder had only been outmaneuvered on the feet by the great Edson Barboza. But Daron Cruickshank gave him a run for his money.
Speed was a huge factor. Shankz was able to read and react to many of Felder’s attacks, and catch him unaware on quick entries for his combinations. He also hit a neat reversal/lateral drop off of Felder’s shot.
Then the Detroit Superstar arrived.
Cruickshank gained confidence from his ability to defend against and scramble with Felder. After success in the pocket, Shankz opened up with a stepping side kick to the face, followed by a beautiful flurry against the cage of punches and spinning s**t.
His reactions were on point, Daron was faking and feinting, fully capitalizing on his athletic advantages.
Where he continued to struggle was takedown defense, and in a third round scramble to get up, Felder quickly took his back and found a rear-naked choke. That was three in a row.
Daron was released from his contract, and signed with the world’s greatest fighting organization for their inaugural event.
It was a perfect fit. Their promotional angle? This dude is American AF. Check out his signature Hulk Hogan entrance.
The mustache graphic on the screen gets me every time.
–vs. Shinji Sasaki–
Sasaki is a veteran of the Asian MMA scene, but he stands out for his fantastic nickname “Torao Supernova”. I can’t tell you what that means, but it sounds great.
Sasaki was lost from the jump, Cruickshank styled all over him. New wrinkles were stepping off on the overhand to set up the side kick, Dutch-style low kicking, and using the front snap kick in combinations.
And of course, he could now knee and kick the head of a downed opponent.
After being hurt with an overhand, Sasaki lunged forward on a shot, falling face first in front of Cruickshank. “Please soccer kick me!” he pleaded.
Daron obliged, and the referee had seen enough.
–vs. Andy Souwer–
An absolute legend of shootboxing and K1-Max, Dutch striking mastermind Andy Souwer has been trying his hand at MMA, for reasons unbeknownst to me.
As fun as it would have been to see a stand-up bout play out, Cruickshank was wise to sit Souwer down early.
Predictably, he dominated Souwer on the ground. As you do when grappling white belts, Cruickshank threatened with armlocks to force the guard open to pass to side control, and subsequently mount.
As the Gracies predicted, Daron’s offense from mount caused Souwer to give up his back, and the choke was there.
–vs. Satoru Kitaoka–
You can read all about the quirkiness of Kitaoka in our previous feature of Yusuke Yachi.
In a nutshell:
Despite his oddball behaviors and complete lack of defensive striking, Satoru Kitaoka is a stout grappler, a powerful wrestler, and an established JMMA veteran.
As you would expect, Daron had his way with him, landing at will. He even dropped Kitaoka with a backhand, barely missing with a soccer kick to end things.
The downside of Japanese MMA is the use of the ring, and RIZIN is notorious for their completely slack ropes. If you drive someone back on a shot, you’re going to shoot them out of the ring.
So, naturally, you reset them in the position they were in beforehand. So Kitaoka gets his hands locked on a double leg as a starting position. Seems legit.
Cruickshank was suffering on the bottom position and was overeager to get to his feet. A very similar story to his last string of UFC losses.
–vs. Yusuke Yachi–
This one hurts.
If you must know, skip to the Cruickshank section.
On the bright side, Cruickshank’s one-off bout with KOP against Alexander Trevino was a banger.
After getting dropped with an overhand against this relative unknown, Daron uncorked a head kick and hammerfisted away for the stoppage.
–vs. Koshi Matsumoto–
A Shooto ace, Matsumoto had knocked off some of the brightest prospects in Japan before being signed to RIZIN.
Unwilling to engage, Matsumoto stayed safe for the majority of the opening round before Cruickshank turned up the heat.
Weaving off a right hand, Daron hit a slick shrug to the back and walked Matsumoto to the center of the ring off the clinch.
Off the clinch break, Detroit Superstar hit a rear knee to lead head kick that knocked Matsumoto into the dark lands.
We’re going to pretend Daron didn’t flip his unconscious opponent the bird, because all “Fighter of Interest” alum are perfect gentlemen.
LAST FIGHT: Def. Tom Santos via Submission (Strikes) at 4:13 of Round 3
Tom Santos had gained a reputation as a powerful, violent striker and a fighter to watch in RIZIN. Mike Skytte was certainly on board.
Analyzing the matchup, one could see Santos’ pressure boxing being an issue for Cruickshank.
But instead, we saw a shockingly tentative Santos picked apart and dominated.
Shankz was able to move forward unimpeded and unleash flowing combinations, clearly wobbling Santos.
Daron passing guard with two consecutive axe kicks was sweet.
Cruickshank continued to let loose in vintage form. There were wheel kicks in combination, running low kicks, spinning elbows, you name it.
A personal favorite was the ol’ Dan Henderson inside leg kick to overhand right, followed by a wheel kick.
Santos was lost, and Cruickshank knew the finish was near. He stutter-stepped and feinted, he threw hard combinations and body kicks. But what really did the trick was a fake ankle pick, Santos reacted poorly and flopped right to his back. You really have to wonder what was wrong with him.
Cruickshank earned our love all over again by passing guard with a somersaulting axe kick, and pounded on Santos from mount.
Santos tapped to strikes, which is the opposite of samurai spirit. Do you even RIZIN?
NEXT FIGHT: vs. Diego Brandao at RIZIN 13
RIZIN 13 is freaking incredible. Kyoji Horiguchi is fighting Tenshin Nasukawa, in kickboxing. They’ve got homegrown Japanese talent, they’ve got Cro Cop, they’ve got Bob Sapp for…nostalgic reasons?
In one of the most compelling matchups, Shankz will meet fellow UFC castaway Diego Brandao.
It’s an incredibly difficult matchup. When he’s on point, Brandao can engage in the classic Brazilian Muay Thai assault, but he’s even more dangerous on the ground. The explosive black belt hammer fisted Kitaoka to death while defending a leg lock in his last RIZIN bout.
Cruickshank is going to need to stay mobile, work the body, and take his time. The first round will be volatile.
You can watch Daron Cruickshank vs. Diego Brandao at RIZIN 13 this weekend on FITE TV. It’s cheap, you get to keep the replay forever, and it’s going to be a card of the year contender.