Quick finishes and impressive knockouts speak volumes to those not yet listening, but tumult tells those with open ears much more. It tells us things we didn't know before, things we couldn't know before, and provides answers to questions with great import. First round knockouts are interesting, but it's the drawn-out and grueling fights that allow a prospect to become a solid challenger and a dominant champion to be solidified as a great one. Adversity both builds and reveals character. Dominick Cruz has long been criticized for his low-risk, high-reward style which has made him one of the least hit fighters in the world's premier fighting organization. Dominick Cruz has faced adversity in his personal life in the form of a series of injuries which derailed his career and had him stripped of his belt. Since returning, he has looked even more impressive because of his ability to deal with challenges. As mentioned in Part 1 of this UFC 207 preview analysis, Cruz was able to stop the sturdy contender Takeya Mizugaki before challenging to reclaim his belt almost a year ago. Garbrandt also looked impressive in his victory against Mizugaki – finishing him faster than the current champ – and earned a title match because of it.
Strangely enough, in his time away from fighting, Dominick Cruz has become a more offensively adept fighter. In the Mizugaki fight he showed why his opponents cannot afford to rush in and carelessly chase him, but in his subsequent bouts he has treated audiences to more typically fan-friendly affairs by putting more into his shots, throwing more combinations, and remaining just on the edge of striking range for longer periods of time. In his second fight since his extended hiatus from the sport, he faced T.J. Dillashaw – the man who beat the man. While Cruz was injured, Renan Barao became a dominant champion who seemed almost invincible because he finished or dominated all of his challengers. T.J. Dillashaw was a heavy underdog, but used angles, footwork, and slick counter striking which immediately drew comparisons to Dominick Cruz who was still sidelined during this time. T.J. easily out-struck Barao before finishing him in the 5th round. To show it was not a fluke, a rematch was declared and Dillashaw replicated these results with an equally awe-inspiring 4th round knockout. Dillashaw's use of footwork, positioning, and counters put him on par with Cruz, but Dillashaw's ability to produce knockouts put him a step above in the public eye. When Cruz returned, it was inevitable that these two Champions would meet because, finally, a fighter who may be able to keep up with Cruz's movement had appeared. The question coming into the fight was whether the defense of Cruz could match the offense of Dillashaw.
This was not an easy fight for either man but against the former champion, Dominick Cruz was able to maintain his impressive form throughout the bout. Dillashaw's high volume and high accuracy style failed to capture the judge's approval that night and Cruz was able to re-claim the championship in a split decision. Around the time that Cruz had taken back his title, Garbrandt was in the middle of taking years off the lives of his opponents in the UFC. Even the only fighter to have survived being knocked out by Cody was knocked down twice and would not have gone the distance had the bout been 25 minutes. Garbrandt's most notable knockouts came in his last two fights against Mizugaki and Tomas Almeida. The latter is another top young prospect who had never been defeated, also finished 20 of his 21 professional fights and had a 27-0 Muay Thai record. Almeida is a knockout artist on par with Garbrandt and it wasn't clear how the fight would unfold. Garbrandt's finish percentage is currently 90% while at the time Almeida's was 95%.
Garbrandt generally did a good job of setting up his right-hand shots. The young boxer was able to land the first major strike of the bout and nearly dropped Almeida who was forced to cover up and strike his way off the fence. Just a few moments, later, however, Cody was clipped with a hard counter right while coming in with two swinging punches – he took it like a champ. The end of the fight came within the first three minutes as Almeida and Garbrandt got into an exchange near the fence. Cody was able to land several strikes but Almeida stuck in there simultaneously. throwing a combination which was culminated with a kick. Almeida started to circle toward the center of the octagon, but Cody quickly stepped in and closed him off. He extends the left as he darts forward and fires the right straight and left hook immediately behind it. The right straight jacks Almeida's jaw and forces him to cover up as he backs up. Garbrandt uses good footwork to stay on his man and unloads another left hook on Almeida's guard, beautifully shifts off to his own left, in order to provide a clear path for it, then fires it down the middle as Almeida looks to counter punch. Almeida drops, and Garbrandt follows up with strikes until the bout is called to a conclusion. Garbrandt's better boxing – sharp footwork and cleaner punching – in this instance provided him with the victory. In the 1st panel, Cody is setting up the knockout by striking at Almeida's guard. This buys him time to get the shot that he really wants because any right hand shot in panel 1 in unavailable: the straight right will merely run into Almeida's shoulder and the right hook would fall short. In the 2nd panel, Cody has already shifted to his own left. This creates an opening for the straight right in the case that that Almeida's left-hand remains in position. However, Almeida's hand doesn't stay in position: Almeida drops it before throwing a counter left hook, and is decked and dropped by Cody's right hook.
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It is important to note that against Mizugaki, Almeida, and a number of other fighters, Cody Garbrandt has used his speed to leap in with the left and catch his opponents with a heavy right hand. If Garbrandt chooses to rush at the champion, then there are a number of options Cruz has at his disposal. There are tons of clips of Cruz simply avoiding his opponent's flurries and making them look silly. Cruz's defense allows him to both avoid damage and fire back potent strikes. Cruz's striking abilities often overshadow his deep wrestling skill set. But more importantly, his striking defense creates openings for him to use wrestling more effectively. Against Mizugaki, Faber, and Dillashaw, the inability to find the mark with their striking caused them to chase or lunge in with strikes which left their hips exposed. Mizugaki was finished soon after the fight went to the ground, but Faber and Dillashaw's wrestling backgrounds helped them to stay in the fight. After failing to land effectively for the first 2 rounds of the fight, Dillashaw came hard at Cruz hoping to land something meaningful by flurrying. It only served to provide Cruz a chance to take T.J.'s legs from under him twice in a small period of time.
The grappling exchange didn't lead to a finish, but can't be ignored. They force a fighter to expend energy in getting back to the feet, prevent the fighter from landing effective strikes, and force the fighter to start back from square one in terms of dealing damage on the feet. That is, the fighter who has been taken down must now repeat all of their hard work done to initially close the distance. If their plan was to beat their opponent up along the fence, they will have to struggle to get Cruz back there. T.J. attempts to jab Cruz after having been taken down, but Cruz takes this time to get under the punch and get T.J. down once again. If you keep an eye on the amount of space between Cruz and the perimeter of the octagon, you'll see that it has expanded from the point where he gets the first takedown in the 1st panel, the second takedown in the 2nd panel, and where his Dillashaw is finally able to regain his own footing in the 3rd panel below where Cruz lands a strike in addition to resetting the action in the center of the cage.
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This isn't to say that Garbrandt can't drop or even hit Cruz. Even Dominick Cruz gets hit – he just manages to reduce the damage from strikes that land on him and reduces the amount of strikes that meet their mark in the first place. If Garbrandt can keep his wits about him or at least stick to Dominick Cruz, then it increases the likelihood of something big being able to land. Chasing counter-intuitively reduces the amount of clean strikes a fighter can land because it takes away the ability to change direction and react. If Cody can manage to strike in volume and anticipate Cruz's defense, he can start to tilt the odds in his favor.
Dillashaw showed how important it is to stick to Cruz and remove space for him to work. In the 4th round of their fight, he managed to throw a series of feints and punches until Cruz is along the fence. He throws a right jab, and starts a right high kick which he abandons because Cruz has already started circling away from the kick. T.J. blocks the counters in order to remain in range. Dillashaw elects to punch to the body first because Cruz is so skillful at moving his head out of the way of incoming strikes. However skillful one's head movement is, it leaves the body stationary. Dillashaw eats a counter, but still has Cruz along the fence. T.J. Fires a left straight which he knows Cruz will evade. Dillashaw's punch was merely set up to force Cruz's head into the line of the kick from the same side. The skill employed in executing these reads and strikes is extraordinary, but Cruz's reactions are just as remarkable. Although he moves his head into the line of the kick, he manages to see the strike and get his hand up in time to block. He slips to his left and just barely evades Dillashaw's 1-2 in the 4th panel before zipping away from the left hook in the 5th panel. Cruz then gets his back off the fence and forces Dillashaw to start again at square one by getting himself to the center where he is free to move as he pleases.
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Despite Cruz's heavy emphasis on movement, it would be a grave mistake to consider Cruz a coward. In his most recent fight, Cruz reminded Garbrandt and the rest of the audience that he could crack by knocking down the durable Uriah Faber down twice. In a head to head interview he later reminded the young challenger that “these pillow hands put down your boy twice”. In addition to having more power than fans are used to thinking, the Champion is also very durable. Against Dillashaw, Cruz ate some massive shots in the final round. Dillashaw came in with a quick left straight which Cruz slipped and attempted to counter with his own. As Cruz attempted to follow it up with a right hook, he was rocked by Dillashaw's own and was left swinging at air.
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Cruz is hard to count out even when you do manage to land cleanly on him. He isn't a coward, contrary to what Garbrandt asserts, but a blood and guts fighter. After getting cracked with that hard right hand by Dillashaw, Cruz remains able to defend as if nothing had happened. Dillashaw then sets the trap again by getting Cruz to react to another left straight which forces Cruz's head into the line of another high kick. It's not clear whether he absorbed the kick to the head (because panel 3 suggest that his arm may have absorbed the strike), but he made it clear that landing hard strikes wouldn't shake him from his plan. In panels 3-6, Cruz can be shown to gain ground in order to mitigate the risk of getting caught on the fence as Almeida and Mizugaki had been against Garbrandt. Panels 4-6 also suggest that he hadn't absorbed the kick to the head because he is able to strike with Dillashaw and even evade the strike in the 5th panel.
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Outside of Almeida, Garbrandt has hardly been tested and his longest fight was 15 minutes against Henry Briones where he couldn't get the knockout. Cody may be a year removed from this 15-minute match but it offers plenty of insight into his makeup and useful prescriptions for his development. Henry Briones is a fairly skilled fighter who utilized good boxing technique to keep himself in the fight. By using good feints, good punch selection, very average head movement, and slightly above average movement Briones did what no other fighter has managed to do against Cody during his pro career – he survived. Briones, however, is a poor man's Dominick Cruz and so the sorts of attributes which enabled Briones to survive are likely to enable Cruz to control and dominate the fight. If Cody can manage to avoid the temptation to chase and throw single shots to the head, he may put himself in a position to repeatedly put hands on Cruz, but that's a big 'if'. If you were forced to put money on this fight, the obvious pick would be Dominick Cruz. The point of this article isn't to state the obvious but to provide extra insight into why the pick is obvious, how the fight might turn out, and provide tools for understanding other fights.