The fight announcement of Dominick Cruz vs. Jimmie Rivera for UFC 219 was a bit of a surprise, as it was long assumed that Cruz’s return to the Octagon would come in a championship rematch against the winner of Cody Garbrandt vs. T.J. Dillashaw.
That was always Cruz’s plan as well, dating all the way back to Cruz’s title loss to Garbrandt in Dec. 2016. But plans change often in the UFC, and Cruz explained the reality of his situation on Monday’s episode of The MMA Hour, revealing that Rivera was simply the best option presented to him by UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby.
“What it comes down to is, I’m not the king of the bantamweight division. Cody’s not the king of the bantamweight division either. Sean Shelby is, and he makes these decisions on who fights who,” Cruz said on The MMA Hour. “And he said, ‘If you don’t fight Jimmie Rivera, Jimmie Rivera and (Raphael) Assuncao will fight and they will get the title shot, not you.’ So he would’ve ended up giving me the loser of something, probably of Cody-TJ. So that being said, it’s just whatever it is.
“Sean Shelby makes the decisions of the matchmaking in this division, and so I listen. I’ve never picked a fight in my whole career. I’ve never said, ‘This isn’t right, this isn’t that.’ I’m not here to complain. I enjoy fighting. I want to fight. So that’s why I‘m doing it. When I started this thing, I was paying money to fight. I was paying $350 for medicals and then getting a $50 check written to me. So I just enjoy fighting, and this is the next matchup that creates a title shot for me.”
By the time UFC 219 rolls around in Las Vegas, Cruz will have been sidelined a full year since his five-round title loss to Garbrandt at UFC 207.
The long layoff was never part of Cruz’s plans, but those plans were forced to change this past spring after Garbrandt suffered a back injury and his title defense against Dillashaw was rescheduled from July 8 to Dec. 30. Once that happened, Cruz said Shelby made it abundantly clear that a title shot would no longer be on Cruz’s horizon if “The Dominator” choose to stay on the sidelines until the rescheduled bout.
“He didn’t put it in those exact words, but it’s the game, you know?” Cruz said. “He doesn’t really say it outright. He just goes, ‘Well, I can’t guarantee you’ll get the title shot if you wait, Dom, and this is the fight we want to offer you.’ And I said, ‘Well okay, then that’s the fight I’m getting.’ It was a clear-cut, like, ‘We don’t really want to give you the title shot right away if you’re going to wait for Cody and TJ to fight.’ And what am I supposed to say to that? Then, ‘Okay, you guys are the bosses. If you think that makes more sense for promotion’ — UFC is one of the best promotion industries in the world, am I wrong? So for whatever reason they probably think that makes more sense, then who am I to say that they’re wrong?”
Cruz, 32, is the easily most decorated bantamweight in UFC history. A former WEC titleholder and two-time UFC champion, Cruz was derailed by injuries for nearly five years before making his successful return to the sport with a championship win over Dillashaw in 2016, after which Cruz defended his belt with a dominating performance over Urijah Faber. Altogether, Cruz has lost only once inside the Octagon. He is also renown for being the last man to defeat current UFC flyweight champion and pound-for-pound king Demetrious Johnson.
Rivera, on the other hand, is somewhat of an unknown but fast-rising entity in the 135-pound division. A 28-year-old New Jersey native, Rivera has won 20 consecutive fights and propelled himself into UFC contendership with recent decision victories over Faber and Thomas Almeida. Still, Rivera admitted last week that he was “super shocked” Cruz accepted the fight considering his standing in the division.
While Cruz expressed disappointment about having to return against a lesser-known name like Rivera rather than Garbrandt or Dillashaw, he voiced plenty of respect for Rivera’s in-cage skills.
“The guy can fight. I’ve never said he couldn’t fight,” Cruz said. “It was never a question of that. It’s a question of, who knows Jimmie Rivera? And who knows me, and who knows Cody, and who knows TJ? I mean, I’ve put the work in building these fights with Cody and TJ to get people watching, and then nobody knows Jimmie Rivera. So that’s not me being mean. He’s had great fights, but that’s why everybody’s shocked. They figured I’d get one of the names that I’ve been promoted with as a rematch.
“He’s shocked I accepted the fight just because I should be getting a title shot next,” Cruz added. “I think that everybody in the world believes that. So the fact that Shelby [booked this fight instead], it is what it is. I don’t mind fighting Rivera, because like I said, he is good. He is a champion-level fighter. He’s a top-three in the division for a reason. You can go on to him versus Almeida and I was very square, very honest on what I thought of his performance, and I’ve read everything about his style, so there’s nothing I don’t know about the guy. I’m very well prepared for him. Come fight time, I’ve fought a ton of people of his stature with his similar style. This is a job that I enjoy doing. I’m here to fight. It’s not all about the money for this thing. It may not be the greatest business decision in the sense of Dominick Cruz, but it’s the best business decision in the sense of the UFC, and that’s what matters for them right now.”
Cruz said his fight purse took the biggest hit against Rivera, and not his desire to compete, as UFC fighters typically earn far more income in a title bout than a non-title bout. Still, with that diminished stage also comes a few factors that Cruz believes will benefit him, such as the fight being contested with three rounds rather than five.
Cruz’s last three-round fight ended in a memorable 61-second beatdown of Takeya Mizugaki in 2014. Now, after spending his entire 2017 campaign resting and healing the lingering plantar fascia tendinitis in his foot, Cruz said he feels “really healthy and really good” and is excited by the prospect of showing once again what he can do in a three-round fight.
“The last time I fought three rounds, I was one of the best performances I’ve ever had in my career,” Cruz said, “because when you take 10 minutes off of a fight, the work rate can change. And that’s what’s going to be exciting for me, is I don’t get a lot of three-round fights, and that’s literally like taking a 60-hour work week and dropping it down to a 40-hour work week and saying, ‘Alright, enjoy!’ And literally, it’s somewhat of a gift for a guy like me to have three rounds, because I’ve fought five rounds so long, the camps are so difficult, that that’s the hard part.
“It’s not the fight. It’s the work you put in to prepare for the five rounds of a title fight. This is three rounds, so my work rate is now going to shoot through the roof come that fight time. That’s like taking weights off of me and letting me run sprints after I’ve been running sprints with 30 pounds of extra weight on me. I’m just looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to the match-up. I’m looking forward to a three-round match-up. I’m looking forward to fighting Rivera, who’s hungry and ready to put on a show. I know he is, so it’s going to be good.”