Since his professional debut in 2005, Dominick Cruz has given us so many reasons to love him.
For years Dom had the fanciest feet in the game, effective head movement, and a style that completely befuddled the more basic wrestle-boxers of his day. Perhaps you appreciate Dominick Cruz the most for his verbal dismantling of Cody Garbrandt.
Time-stamped for your enjoyment.
What are you talking about?
…what are YOU talking about?
For all the praise Cruz has earned as possibly the greatest bantamweight of all time, one aspect of his game still flies under the radar.
Dominick Cruz is also one of the most prolific takedown artists in UFC\WEC history.
Due to the sheer amount of content he has given us, this feature will be broken into two parts, today is all about Dom’s WEC (RIP) career.
Dominick Cruz MMA Wrestling (WEC)
Cruz has often talked about his drive for greatness, how it was fueled by an unsuccessful high school wrestling career in Arizona. In a sport littered with credentialed folk and freestyle wrestlers, Cruz was well below average when it comes to the elite.
Why is it then, that he could take down Divison 1 standouts seemingly at will?
-vs. Urijah Faber (1)-
To start his professional MMA career, Dominick Cruz went 9-0 in less than two years. Billed as a boxer, Cruz was a complete unknown when he debuted in the WEC to challenge the golden boy, featherweight champion Urijah Faber.
Wrestling at the Division 1 level for UC Davis, Faber set a program record for total wins and came one match shy of earning All-American honors. For the uninformed, state and national championships only have the top eight wrestle in placement matches, and at the college level, those who place at nationals are considered All-Americans.
You can imagine the shock of Faber and his faithful WEC crowd when Cruz came out hot and put him on his butt, twice.
In the first instance, Faber came running in with strikes, as he is wont to do. To counter his aggression, Cruz hit a short duck under, using the angle to drop to a double. The most important thing is that Cruz never stopped running his feet while he dragged Faber’s hips to the mat.
The second takedown will become a Cruz staple, the knee tap. Working from a strong underhook (sound familiar, Cruz fans?), Dom is able to run Faber backward and use his long arms to pull behind the knee. Again, this works because of footwork.
That is generally the theme for takedowns when it comes to Dominick Cruz. Use your opponent’s motion, dig underhooks, run your feet.
-vs. Charlie Valencia–
Another pioneer of lighter weight MMA in the west, Charlie Valencia was also a stud wrestling to MMA crossover.
California is considered the second toughest state to wrestle in, behind Pennsylvania (represent). Many states have a multiple class system, meaning there might be several state tournaments divided by size of school or region. Highly populated California has one state tournament, making it exceedingly difficult to place, let alone win the whole thing.
Valencia placed a respectable sixth, and went on to have a standout career at the now-revived Fresno State Divison 1 program. Although he was known more as a brawler in MMA, Valencia showed flashes of his wrestling prowess, like when he launched fellow-wrestler Ian McCall with a suplex.
Cruz’s insistence of wrestling in his debut against Faber cost him, as his inexperience showed and he was caught in guillotines each time. Cruz was disciplined in refusing to shoot takedowns against Valencia, choosing instead to play matador.
There was one neat sequence that played out off Valencia’s shot entry.
Although Cruz is now known as Captain Underhook, he makes good use of the whizzer to lift the arms of his opponent on double leg attempts. After using an overhook in this fashion his left side, Cruz timed a knee and punched hard with his right underhook, looking for more of an intercepting knee tap.
Valencia’s whizzer kept him in place, but Cruz showed great mat awareness and kept his hips high, scrambled out and landed a knee. This is the first we saw of Dom’s defensive wrestling savvy and scrambling ability.
-vs. Ian McCall–
McCall’s wrestling credentials don’t quite rank with Faber or Valencia. A decent high school wrestler in California, McCall wrestled for a strong community college program in Cuesta College. Jake Shields is a Cuesta alum as well.
For context, California has a deep and competitive junior and community college wrestling scene. There is even a “state championship” at the college level for them. Countless MMA fighters have emerged from such programs, Tito Ortiz being one of the first. Be careful when you hear a commentator talk about college All-American honors, they hardly ever indicate what level the tournament took place. It could even mean a California community college “state championship”.
Rant over. Most of the wrestling in this bout was McCall shooting on Cruz, but Dom did have a deep entry worthy of note.
One of the biggest reasons why Dominick Cruz can enter so well on takedowns is because his movement disguises his intentions. Because he is constantly switching his stance, bouncing in and out, side to side, and all with his hands down, there’s no way to read a takedown until it’s happening.
On this shot, Cruz didn’t actually take a deep penetration step straight through, that would most likely result with a double against the cage. Many MMA fighters are limited to that approach. As you are taught in folkstyle wrestling, Dom immediately turned the corner. He had the option of running McCall backward at this point, with plenty of real estate.
Instead, he switched to a single leg and ran the pipe, turning his body and angling McCall’s hip to the mat via his leg. For reasons unknown, Cruz let go and chose to use his takedown as a setup for power punches against the cage. Neat.
-vs. Ivan Lopez–
I don’t know anything about Ivan Lopez. He came up on the Mexican regional scene, and was 7-0 with a win over future UFC fighter Alejandro Perez before he fought Cruz.
After seeing Dom’s success against lauded college competitors, it’s no surprise that he manhandled Lopez. It was doubles for days.
A lot of Dominick’s “advanced tactics” for finishing takedowns were not necessary against Lopez. Straight entries, sometimes with zero change in direction, were enough to blow Lopez over.
Of course, footwork was still a factor, but they were controlled, small steps.
-vs. Joseph Benavidez–
Joseph Benavidez is an interesting case. He didn’t begin wrestling until age 16, so he has no competitive credentials to speak of. One year into his professional career, he began training with Team Alpha Male and, like Cruz, became one of the more successful MMA wrestlers in UFC\WEC history.
The first meeting between Cruz and Benavidez took place two years into Joseph’s training at Alpha Male, the winner would fight for the title.
Against the shorter, technically inexperienced Benavidez, Cruz had a field day.
The knee tap was there whenever he wanted it. Benavidez’s reliance on winging overhands gave Cruz reliable entries for short ducks, where he could gain angles and underhooks for doubles or, you guessed it, more knee taps.
Joe B struggled from bottom, his small successes came scrambling out during the takedown sequence, once or twice.
This is why Dominick Cruz was such a force in the WEC. No one could figure out what he was doing on the feet, largely due to the shallow knowledge of boxing in our sport. One solution was to just rush him and hope for the best, which of course opened up Dom’s phenomenal wrestling game.
After defeating Benavidez, Cruz won the WEC championship. Joe improved leaps and bounds, defeating Rani Yahya followed by a bloody, shocking upset over WEC royalty in Miguel Torres.
Just over a year removed from their first fight, Cruz and Benavidez met again.
-vs. Joseph Benavidez (2)-
Team Alpha Male had already begun to develop the gameplan that would lead to victory over Cruz, over six years later.
When Dom is free to move around at will, choosing when to enter and when to exit without consequences, he will run away with a fight every time. To earn his respect you will need to counter entries, and punish his retreats. If you watch all of TAM’s encounters with Cruz from 2009-2016, they are looking to counter punch on his way in, and chase on his way out with flurries and takedowns.
There is merit to this strategy, but it didn’t make up for the technical gaps between Cruz and Benavidez. A deep single leg entry by Benavidez gave us a great folkstyle scramble situation late in the fight.
To counter the single, Cruz sits to the corner and locks through the crotch. You see this position all the time in folkstyle wrestling (American high school and college), but typically a wrestler can hold on and earn a stalemate, ending the sequence. For better or worse, there are infrequently stalemates called in MMA.
Cruz used the lock to continue to improve his angle, until he could hook his leg around Joe’s. From there Dom pushed off to scoot and create space, and Benavidez was forced to defend in the scramble instead of continuing to chase the takedown.
Otherwise, it was another offensive clinic from Cruz.
Because Joe was rushing in much less often, Dom feinted his way in to draw the counter. He had reliable entries on a reactive, swinging Benavidez. TAM made another keen observation to kick the legs of Dominick Cruz. However, Dom was also able to time naked kicks and shoot through with ease.
In similar fashion, Dominick Cruz slipped loaded punches from Benavidez to enter on his trusty knee tap. It’s worth noting that Dom does not exclusively hit the knee tap off his underhook. In this case, Dom brought Joe down from the collar tie, which was almost more of a clothesline with the forearm.
He also changed levels to finish, instead of running through as he usually does. This finish is a lot more like an ankle pick, but Dom is still finishing behind the knee so I’m calling it a knee tap, deal with it.
While Joseph Benavidez was never able to defeat Dominick Cruz, he did marry Megan Olivi. And isn’t that the greatest victory of all?
Wholesome family Christmas card from the Benalivi’s.
-vs. Scott Jorgensen–
Scott Jorgensen was hands down the best wrestler Dominick Cruz fought in the WEC.
Wrestling out of the recently terminated Boise State program (it’s messed up, look into it), Jorgensen won three conference championships.
At the national tournament, wrestlers who lose one match are able to wrestle back through a consolation bracket, where they can place as high as third. Every round, the field gets thinner, as wrestlers suffer their second losses and are sent packing.
The final consolation round that determines who will and will not become an All-American is technically called the “round of 12”, but everyone else knows it as the “Blood round”. It is the round where dreams are realized or smashed to bits. Wrestlers who have been training for this moment since they were five years old scrap with every ounce of their being to earn that “AA” distinction.
In his three years wrestling in the D1 national tournament, Scott Jorgensen lost in the blood round three times, making him one of the greatest wrestlers in NCAA history to never become an All-American.
“I was five total points away from being a three-time All-American,” Jorgensen told MMAjunkie.com.
Now, with all that being said, Dominick Cruz worked him.
After one round of standup domination in the typical Cruz fashion, the traps were set for Dom to mix in his wrestling.
Following the TAM mold, Jorgensen was relying on being able to plant his feet and blast Cruz on his way in. Thus, every time Cruz feinted an entry, Jorgensen’s stance was square and his hands were high.
Most interesting was how Cruz was consistently able to get to his knee tap against the experienced wrestler. He made running through into his underhook his first priority. It wasn’t until he had Jorgensen running backward that he committed to blocking the far leg and sent Scott tumbling.
To Be Continued
Next week we’ll go through the wrestling situations of Dominick’s UFC career, which are a bit more nuanced as the level of competition increased. Fear not, there are more knee taps.
So why was Dominick Cruz able to bully wrestlers who hold credentials leagues above his own?
The most literal reason is that tactically, his style of striking was perfectly complementary to his preferred takedown entries.
His length is also a factor, lanky wrestlers often have their own way of doing things, that can definitely throw a wrench into your natural reactions.
But I like to think about it the way that Dominick does. He was not a stud wrestler in high school, he didn’t have a college career. But he had a passion to improve, and he never stopped. He developed a game that was uniquely his own, and he trained with a chip on his shoulder.
We’ve seen so many incredibly accomplished competitors transition to MMA, how many of them perform the way their credentials indicate they should? How many still have the fire to improve and give their entire life to another sport, after a long career?
Not many. Dominick Cruz is who he is because he knew what he wanted to do and understood the effort necessary to get there, and he never stopped. We’ll get into how Cruz continues to evolve his game, next time.
While you wait, check out my last takedown-based article on Hector Lombard!
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