Before last night, Dominick Cruz, the UFC's one-time 135-lb. champion, hadn't fought in nearly three years due to an awful run of injuries. Then he turned up against Tayeka Mizugaki, the UFC's no. 5-ranked bantamweight, somehow looking at least as good as he ever has. Fighting is a strange sport.
Cruz was unique before he started getting hurt. A defensive stylist whose game was all about speed, angles, and evasiveness, he threw huge numbers of punches less to do damage than to control distance, steering opponents around and generally preventing them from doing anything. His admiration of Willie Pep, the midcentury featherweight who supposedly once won a round in which he didn't throw a punch, showed; Cruz's title bouts against terrific fighters like Demetrious Johnson and Urijah Faber were clinics in the use of negative space.
In May 2012, though, Cruz blew out his knee, and later that year, his body rejected a transplanted ligament. Earlier this year, ahead of a scheduled comeback fight, he tore his groin, leading the UFC to finally strip him of the bantamweight title. All of this would have been devastating for any fighter, let alone one so reliant on his footwork; somehow, though, Cruz came through it fine.
Going by last night, in fact, he looks, if anything, to have evolved. The one criticism of Cruz was always that he was too patient, drawing bouts out and setting traps rather than going for finishes. He didn't do any of that with Mizugaki; instead, he just took out three years' worth of frustration on him, knocking someone out for the first time in more than six years while getting so keyed up that he couldn't even remember what had happened immediately afterward. The whole thing took less than a minute.
This was maybe the best moment on a card that looked terrific in theory and turned out better in practice. Olympic silver medalist Yoel Romero, for instance, won after shenanigans involving him shaking off a near-finish by sitting on his stool 30 seconds longer than he should have been allowed to between rounds; this led to him showing off championship-grade body language in a backstage confrontation with opponent Tim Kennedy:
The whole thing was ridiculous, but it was also entertaining (something the UFC hasn't been very often this year). So was the rest of the card, probably because it was full of excellent athletes in meaningful fights.
Women's bantamweight contender Cat Zingano earned a title shot with a win in her first fight since her husband's death earlier this year; rising featherweight Conor McGregor won by first-round knockout while coming off as a real live ninja due to his silky movement and preposterous spinning kicks; violence enthusiast Donald Cerrone won his fourth fight this year, a good one against former Bellator champion Eddie Alvarez; and flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson dispatched an overmatched challenger in two rounds that showed the astonishing gap in skill between a world-class fighter and a pretty good one. This was all good sports. Afterward, it was announced that Dominick Cruz will get the next shot at bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, and for a moment fighting felt less like a strange sport and more like a straightforward one, where good things happen when they're allowed to.