Dominick Cruz is the greatest bantamweight of all time. His rise and run as champion signified a change in MMA where fighters became martial artists. For nearly 10 years, Cruz defeated all before him. Even multiple ACL surgeries, resulting in a near 4 year absence from the sport, weren’t enough to beat Cruz. He returned and reclaimed his title once again.
Cody Garbrandt, in sharp contrast to Cruz, was a young, brash, hot headed fighter. Having blasted his way through the lower half of the bantamweight division, Garbrandt’s position as title challenger was based more on his team’s long standing rivalry with Cruz and his own personal tiff with the champion than his performances inside the octagon. In the lead up to their title fight, Cruz ran verbal rings around Garbrandt, getting a rise out of his young adversary on each occasion. Garbrandt seemed lost, too young for a rival so great on a stage so grand. It was no surprise then that going in to UFC 207, Garbrandt was a considerable underdog, facing a master craftsman. Yet in a coming-of-age performance, Garbrandt showed maturity beyond his years becoming only the second man to ever defeat Cruz and in the process, became the bantamweight king.
Cruz is at his best when he is staying at the end of his reach. This allows him to dictate the range of the fight. Historically, Cruz’s opponents have either sat back on him, waiting for Cruz come to them or they rushed him in an attempt to score a knock out. Garbrandt overcame Cruz by marrying the two tactics.
While Cruz has successfully overcome opponents who have sat back on him in the past by using his footwork to create angles, Garbrandt would pivot off his right foot taking the angle away. With his lead left firmly planted to the ground, he would rotate his right foot to ensure him and Cruz were always on the same line. This meant that every time Cruz tried to catch him by coming in at an angle, he couldn’t and would be left standing face to face with Garbrandt. Cruz ended up having to readjust, unable to find a path to strike from.
Garbrandt also did an excellent job of constantly backing up. This forced Cruz to take an extra step, opening him up for leg kicks. As the fight wore on, Cruz, anticipating Garbrandt stepping back, took the extra step. However, instead of retreating, Garbrandt caught him as he tried to enter. Garbrandt also did an excellent job of following up missed punches with leg kicks. As Cruz slips a punch, his head is off the centre line, leaving his legs planted to the ground. This leaves him open to the leg kick as he doesn’t have the time to adjust and check the kick. Garbrandt effectively used the opening to land leg kicks, slowing Cruz down in the process.
The safety lead (throwing jabs while circling), has been a trademark of the Cruz arsenal for a while. While it has worked well for Cruz in the past, Garbrandt, aware of Cruz’s tendency to throw the jab while circling, would constantly slip in anticipation of the jab every time Cruz circled. Whenever Cruz switched to southpaw in an attempt to enter from the weaker side, Garbrandt widened his stance, getting dominant foot position and controlling the exchange in the process. Open stance is when the two fighters are in opposite stances, one in southpaw and one in orthodox. Dominant foot position is established by the fighter who manages to get his lead leg outside his opponents. This gives the fighter a clear path to his opponent with his power hand and, by stepping beyond his opponents lead leg, protects him from his opponent’s power hand (the opponent’s body comes between his power hand and the target). Thus, by taking the dominant position on exchanges in open stance, Garbrandt prevented Cruz from switching stances on him, controlling the manner in which Cruz fought. Garbrandt even managed to knock Cruz down by using this technique during an open stance exchange.
In the past, Cruz has had success in catching his opponents with strikes via a dart. To execute a dart, Cruz would launch off his rear foot and strike (typically with an overhand). The dart is effective at catching an opponent off guard but it does leave the centre line exposed. Garbrandt would see the dart coming. He slipped the strikes and countered with a punch away from his body, taking away another of Cruz’s weapons away from him.
With his ability to close distance when Garbrandt was backing up limited by the leg kicks and pivots and his go to tools (the dart and safety lead) rendered ineffective, Cruz began coming in straight on Garbrandt. Even though Garbrandt had severely limited his offensive options, Cruz still had the reach advantage. There are two ways to mitigate the reach advantage; walk through your opponents reach with a high guard, move your head constantly and get under the reach, or have your opponent come to you and step in when they lead. Garbrandt did the latter masterfully as already discussed. However, when he was unable step back and Cruz was in range, he did an excellent job of bobbing and weaving to get below Cruz’s reach. This forced Cruz to strike with hooks which Garbrandt was able to avoid.
While Garbrandt did back up a lot over the course of the fight, he also rushed Cruz on occasion in an attempt to land strikes. An on rushing opponent is what Dominick Cruz feeds off. In the past, Cruz’s opponents have rushed in and stopped after the missed with a strike, giving Cruz time to pivot and counter. Garbrandt however, kept striking. He did not stop if he missed, smothering Cruz and leaving him with no opportunity to pivot. While this limited the power Garbrandt could put in to his strikes on account of not being able to plant his feet, he overloaded Cruz with strikes preventing him from setting in to his patterns.
Despite having been outclassed on the night by Garbrandt, there is something to be said for Cruz’s never say die attitude. A lesser man would have stayed down in his situation when he was dropped in the fourth. A lesser man wouldn’t have pressed the issue like he tried to in the fifth. A lesser man wouldn’t have taken his defeat in the manner Cruz did in the post-fight interview. In defeat, Cruz has never shined more brightly as a champion.
For Cody Garbrandt, this was a coming-of-age performance. The old avatar of the hot head who overwhelms opponents with power is gone. A cerebral, shrewd, cunning and exciting young champion born in his place.
While everyone seems to prefer heavier weight classes for the possibility of knockouts, the works of Dominick Cruz, TJ Dillashaw and now Cody Garbrandt make 135 arguably the most important division for martial artists to watch and study. The three of them are slowly reinventing the way we think about fighting and the way we fight ourselves and for this they deserve all the recognition they can get.