Throughout his storied UFC and WEC (RIP) career, fans, analysts, and Joe Rogan heaped on praise for the unique striking style of Dominick Cruz.
We owe a great deal to the focus on Dom’s fancy feet. Many aspects of boxing footwork and head movement have a greater emphasis in the MMA meta today because of him, especially at the lighter weight classes.
But the anchor of his game is folkstyle wrestling. In fact, as demonstrated in his loss to Cody Garbrandt, Dominick Cruz struggles on the feet if he can’t get his takedowns going.
Last week, we took a look at Dominick Cruz’s wrestling throughout his WEC career. Through the context of American folkstyle wrestling credentials, it became apparent that Dom has been tossing and controlling grapplers far above his pedigree.
This week, we’ll see how he continued to adapt his wrestling-centric tactics against increasingly stiff competition in the UFC.
Dominick Cruz MMA Wrestling (UFC)
-vs. Urijah Faber (2)-
For those who missed Faber’s wrestling credentials in Part 1, here’s a recap:
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.
If you want to hear more about “All-American” status in the USA, I do a good deal of ranting.
You may have picked this up from his commentary, but Dominick Cruz loves to use underhooks. But he’s not married to them. Check out this defense early on in the Faber rematch, Cruz leans on a strong whizzer to pull up Faber’s shot from his hips.
Cruz looks for a duck under on Faber’s entry, Faber circles out and chases the bodylock as Cruz attempts to disengage.
Folkstyle wrestling emphasizes control over everything, rewarding escapes from control with a point. You’re not going to see freestyle wrestlers fighting hands like that and prioritizing escape very often. If you’ve already got their back, they’re doing damage control or trying to stall out in the “quad pod”.
Against the cage, Dom frames with his forearm to crossface and create space. None of these concepts are unfamiliar to any decent high school wrestler in the US, which is exactly what Cruz was. The difference is that he is diligent in his defense, and in constant motion.
In their first meeting, Cruz put Faber on his back twice, slipping loaded punches to enter on an angle on short ducks. In other words, Dominick Cruz gave Faber his neck twice, and the result was unsurprising. In the rematch, Dom timed Faber’s strikes to hit lower shots, with less reaction time for guillotines, and knee taps where his neck is not in play.
But I’d like to talk about defense again, because Dominick Cruz hit a fat man roll on Division 1 standout Urijah Faber.
From what you’d call referee’s position, or turtle in grappling, Cruz reaches across his own body and controls the wrist, crawling forward slightly so Faber will move up to cover his right side. As Faber moves, Cruz rolls through over the trapped elbow, where Faber has no post, and ends up in side control. Funky.
The fat man roll is in a family of techniques some coaches would belittle as “junior high moves”. I would point out that Abdulrashid Sadulaev just pinned Kyle Snyder with what some might call a junior high move. For all those who say a move or type of move “doesn’t work at X level”, stuff it. It works if you work it.
Last time we discussed the knee tap, a takedown Cruz hits by running his feet and punching a right side underhook, while pulling hard on the far leg on the opposite side. All of this is done from a side-on angle, ideally.
Dom had some success knee tapping Faber, but Urijah utilized an interesting escape, one we saw from his teammate Joe Benavidez against Cruz as well.
You might call this an arm spin, and it’s an escape you can hit even underneath a head and arm grip in side control. From a static position, you would control the tricep of the far arm, and bridge to clear your near arm underneath your opponent’s body. That’s where Faber is starting most of these scrambles, he already has space for both arms to attack Dom’s underhooking side.
From there you’ll “reverse shrimp” to turtle, hitting the motion of an arm spin in wrestling (like ippon seoi nage), pulling the underhooking arm across. This was a great technique for Team Alpha Male to go to, as Cruz is an underhook junkie.
Dominick Cruz had great success getting Faber on his back and out of position, but holding him down proved more difficult.
-vs. Demetrious Johnson-
Yes, Demetrious Johnson was a flyweight the whole time and Cruz is bigger. DJ was not training full time yet. I hear you. There is still plenty of technique to admire. I should add that Mighty Mouse was the one to initiate wrestling exchanges the majority of the fight.
In terms of credentials, DJ placed at states twice in Washington. Where does Washington stack up in terms of power wrestling states? It doesn’t. And unlike Cruz’s home of Arizona, there are no Division 1 programs in the state to at least grow the sport. But high finishes (third and second) still put DJ above Cruz in terms of wrestling credentials.
As the shorter man pushing the grappling action, it was Johnson who started with underhooks.
Early on, and throughout the fight, we saw Cruz turn and attempt a whizzer hip toss with his back to the cage. His hips weren’t quite low enough to actually throw DJ, but it usually opened up new positions where Dom could scramble and use his length more effectively.
With DJ against the cage, Dom pushed with his right side underhook to reach for an ankle pick with his other hand, then hooked with his right leg, redirected and dropped the underhook to attack the legs. The wrestling of Dominick Cruz is just as, if not more calculated and nuanced than his striking. There are layers of setups and attacks from every position.
As nice as Dom is with a whizzer, we all know he prefers an underhook, he swims for it as soon as possible, even if his reactionary defense is to overhook.
Another neat move off the underhook was a little footsweep into what might have been an ankle pick entry. Dom used the motion to get DJ’s back to the cage, keeps the leg, then punches the over collar tie to hit it again. Chain wrestling, right?
A lot of people are here for the Mizugaki double. I get that. But I believe Dom’s most aesthetic takedowns took place in the DJ fight.
First, from double underhooks. Dom lifted to straighten DJ’s legs and shorten his stance, making it a shorter duck to shrug to the back clinch. He completed the transition by cutting into DJ’s left leg while circling him to the right, turning his back.
From there, Dom bent his legs to position his hips under DJ’s butt, arched his back, and suplexed Mighty Mouse from the body lock. Twice.
Sorry DJ, but it was awesome.
-vs. Takeya Mizugaki-
Then Dominick Cruz tore everything. First it was his ACL. Then while recovering from surgery, his body “rejected the cadaver tissue”, which means he got back into things too quickly and tore it again. Then he tore his groin.
Three years later, after being stripped of his title, Cruz returned against a scrappy veteran and consistent top 10 bantamweight, Takeya Mizugaki.
We all know what wrestling took place in this fight.
An offensive, boxing-centric fighter, Mizugaki was intent on stalking Cruz to land his trusty left hook. This made it possible for Cruz to lure Mizugaki into following him, and then abruptly change direction and spring back in for a right hand.
Already off guard, Mizugaki reacted and shelled up with a high guard, just for a second. By the time he realized he had been duped, Cruz had already changed levels. He entered to his left on the right hand, dropped to the double, and ran and cut to his right.
What a comeback! Then Cruz tore his other ACL.
-vs. TJ Dillashaw–
Wrestling in Northern California, Dillashaw placed fifth and second at the state championships. Here’s a reminder of how tough it is to win a state title in California:
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.
Dillashaw was recruited to wrestle for Cal State Fullerton’s D1 Program, RIP. Dillashaw’s career is a story of tremendous improvement, he went from having a losing record his freshman year to earning a consensus top 10 ranking at 133 pounds his senior year. TJ qualified for the national tournament three times, but was unable to break through and place to become an All-American. Given his rate of growth, it’s likely he was one year shy of getting to AA level.
An interesting wrinkle is that Dillashaw’s improvement came from cross-training in Greco Roman, a style which excludes leg attacks. He eventually placed at the University Championships ( a world championship, in a way) in Greco, making him an All-American in that sense. As a point of comparison, John Moraga is a freestyle All-American.
It’s a stretch, but Dom and TJ are kindred spirits in that they have far outperformed their wrestling careers. On one hand, TJ started wrestling in the third grade and was one of the best folkstyle wrestlers in the country by his senior year. Cruz got a late start in seventh grade, and was unable to gain the attention of college coaches, after an injury forced him out of competition. Sounds familiar.
Anyway, let’s talk about the fight.
In wrestling, it is much easier to shoot on someone who is coming after you, than someone who is retreating. Like many of his Team Alpha Male opponents, Dillashaw chose to lead and push the action against Cruz, a strategy ingrained in his soul.
But this time, TJ was not running straight in, out of stance. Instead, Dom found his entries by catching kicks, and turning TJ against his base leg, looking to sit him down with doubles.
As the fight wore on, TJ’s entries and kick setups became a little more telegraphed, and Cruz had much greater success in countering.
All of his finishes came by turning the corner and sitting TJ’s butt on the canvas after controlling both legs. Dom’s long arms and wrestling footwork made this possible.
Late in the fight, TJ found his leg kicks, and it seriously aggravated the plantar fasciitis that was plaguing Cruz. Wrestling became much more important, as Dom could still keep Dillashaw’s advances at bay with limited mobility.
-vs. Urijah Faber (3)-
Finally, more folkstyle talk.
Urijah Faber initiated the wrestling in the rubber match, locking his hands on a double leg against the cage. But when he looked to dump Cruz on his back, Dom stole my heart and hit a funk roll to scramble and end up on top.
The funk roll should be exclusively folkstyle, as rolling across your back is a great way to give up points in freestyle. Even so, a failed funk can put you in trouble, especially under the new NCAA rules.
Here to explain funk rolling (off a single leg) is PA legend (represent) Cary Kolat.
You can lose a few days of your life going through Kolat’s instructional videos, the fact that he’s putting everything out for free is a gift to the world.
But wait, there’s more! As Cruz attempted to run the pipe on a head outside single, Faber got into a bit of a funk situation himself, diving under to roll Dom through. Cruz posted and floated it on one hip, and ended up threatened with a nearside cradle, which is almost impossible to pull off on someone that lanky.
-vs. Cody Garbrandt-
If he stuck with it, Cody Garbrandt would have been a stud college wrestler. Without a doubt. The state of Ohio is one of the few that has an argument for being as tough as Pennsylvania and California. For example, the powerhouse prep program St. Edwards High School has produced an NCAA All-American for over thirty consecutive years.
If you look at a heat map of NCAA All-Americans, the rust belt dominates. From New Jersey across to Pittsburgh and Cleveland, American’s wrestling talent is relatively centralized. Compare that to Russia, where the bulk of their medalists and champions in freestyle are from the Caucasus region (MMA fans should be familiar).
That’s why when Cody Garbrandt won an Ohio state title as a freshman, the folkstyle wrestling world took notice. There’s a superstar in the making. He took second as a sophomore, losing a rematch of the last year’s finals. Then he dropped off the face of the earth. Garbrandt did not wrestle for a high school team for his last two years of high school.
Then, out of nowhere, Cody showed up at Senior Nationals, and placed fifth. In the country. Absolute freak. Of course, there was interest from Division 1 programs, but that was not the life he was meant for. Fighting was always the plan.
Aside from Chad Mendes and Lance Palmer, Garbrandt would have blown most of TAM’s wrestling credentials out of the water had he gone that route.
Obviously, I’m a big Dominick Cruz fan. This fight makes me sad.
After Cody walked down and starched most of his UFC opponents, it was understandable to believe he was going to lead and come to take off Cruz’s head. Maybe that’s why Dom was impatient, and consistently forced exchanges to get Cody to come after him.
No bite. What was familiar was that Cody was waiting on him, to counter as he stepped in. Benavidez had looked for a similar strategy in their meetings, and Faber at times stuck to that plan.
Dom had dealt with that before by feinting his entries, getting reads on when his opponent was looking to throw bombs so he could duck under.
It seemed like a good idea, Cruz got in on a beautiful double leg entry under Cody’s right hand. It’s hard to see, but I believe Cody hit an elevator, essentially like a butterfly sweep with a grip on the chin and an overhook to take away the post.
Cruz couldn’t move Garbrandt around with his feints, he couldn’t get him to chase, and exchanging was far too dangerous.
It was Dominick Cruz who ended up chasing Garbrandt, opening up a takedown entry of his own.
At the very least, Dom’s folkstyle scrambles were still in play. He first looked to hit a switch, reaching to sit out and grab a single leg. When Cody covered in referee’s position, Cruz hit a granby roll and got the space he needed to stand.
Another deep double entry by Cruz was stuffed with underhooks, and incredible balance from Cody Garbrandt.
If any of you maniacs read all this way, it’s much appreciated. As always, constructive feedback is encouraged, just be nice (looking at you, R/MMA).
To those saying “Cruz is shot”, or any version of that argument, I disagree. Garbrandt fought exactly how he needed to, and Cruz stubbornly pursued an ineffective gameplan. It was especially frustrating because he did have success countering Cody in the pocket, briefly. His exits weren’t there, you just can’t hang out in tight with someone who throws tighter and faster for that long.
Without the wrestling in play, maybe Dom felt pressure to push a high volume and earn his respect that way. I’m not sure what the plan was. But what I didn’t see, were any significant regressions in movement or physicality. He didn’t look any different than his past two fights.
If you want to argue Cruz has never been the same since the string of injuries, I can get on board with that. WEC Cruz was a different animal physically.
Let me know who else you’d like to see featured in this way! If you haven’t, catch up on Part 1, which focuses on Dom’s WEC career.
I also experimented with a similar feature on the takedowns of Hector Lombard.
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