One thousand, five hundred and sixty-nine days and three ACL surgeries after last having the gold around his waist, Dominick Cruz has his hands on the belt once again. He came back with a bang after winning an excruciatingly close split decision against TJ Dillashaw at UFC Fight Night 81 from TD Garden in Boston.
When Bruce Buffer was in the middle, before the bell had even rung, , Cruz was dancing around the octagon, exhibiting the immaculate footwork that fans have been deprived of for the best part of four years. It was this iconic footwork that saw him retain the belt he never truly lost.
From the off it was clear that Dillashaw was happy to sit in the pocket and go toe-to-toe with the challenger, but Cruz was unwilling to play that game. He spent the early rounds of the fight jutting from side to side, evading the swinging fists of the champion and slipping punch after punch. Dillashaw, who had never been taken down before, was hauled to the mat on a number of occasions – an aspect of the fight which undoubtedly scored vital points with the judges.
Dillashaw’s best way of finishing the fight looked to be with the head kick, which upon instruction from Duane Ludwig did land on a number of occasions. But never with enough force to really wobble Cruz, who at the same time was having success bounding in and landing a combination before retreating once more. By the third round Dillashaw was becoming more frenetic in his approach but despite his constant pressure he still could not land anything cleanly. In the later rounds it appeared as though the leg kicks were doing serious damage and limiting the movement of Cruz. This caused him to be drawn in to a few more frantic scuffles than he had previously which enabled Dillashaw to hand out some punishment.
Cruz was hobbling by the end but he miraculously managed to hang on to reclaim the bantamweight championship.
Supposedly Uriah Faber is next in line for a shot at the title, although due to their bad-blood that made a lot more sense in a scenario where Dillashaw was still the champion. However, the fact that Cruz and Faber currently have one win each against one another could mean that the UFC go ahead and complete the trilogy. As for Dillashaw, there is no doubt that he will be campaigning for an immediate rematch, but whether that makes sense to Dana White and co remains to be seen.
In the co-main event Eddie Alvarez edged a split decision victory against former champion, Anthony Pettis. Alvarez had clearly taken a note out of Rafael Dos Anjos’ playbook. He suffocated Pettis and nullified his dangerous striking game in the same way the Brazilian did back in March. It was perhaps a surprising tactic, especially from someone who is renowned for their standup skills, but ultimately it proved to be the winning formula. In the brief moments when ‘Showtime’ managed to separate himself from the clutches of Alvarez, the disparity in their striking was evident. He was able to land powerful body kicks that had Alvarez hurt at times but it was never long before Alvarez had his opponent pushed back against the fence. While fans were not treated to the spectacle they had hoped for, they could cannot argue with the result. Alvarez made the bold decision to abandon boxing and invest in wrestling, the risk paid off.
The Philadelphian preceded this win with one against Gilbert Melendez, an impressive record which has left him asking for a title shot. On the other hand Pettis has suffered back-to-back losses for the first time in his career. He has a lot to work on, especially considering the blueprint on how to beat him is out.
In the only heavyweight fight of the evening Travis Browne secured a late TKO victory over Matt Mitrione. Despite the outcome, the main talking point of the fight is that the fight was stopped in rounds one and two because of eye pokes from Browne. Mitrione recovered well from the first but after the second, a thumb, there was a lengthy stop and the former NFL defensive lineman seemed affected by it as the bout went on. The fight started slowly, with each man seeming acutely aware of the other’s knockout power. In the second round Browne begun to assert dominance, landing one body shot after another and often taking advantage of Mitrione’s predictable lunges forward. By midway through the final round Browne sewed the win up after slamming his opponent to the mat, gaining full mount and applying relentless ground and pound until the referee stepped in with under a minute to go.
We do not yet know how badly the eye poke affected Mitrione’s performance, by the end he did appear to have severe swelling over his right eye, however that could have been incurred from the ground and pound at the end. The 37-year-old has now suffered successive losses and his path from here is not clear. Meanwhile Browne vitally got back in the win column after his devastating loss to Andrei Arlovski. The victory will inevitably propel him back in to the conversation surrounding title contenders.
To kick off the main card Francisco Trinaldo outpointed England’s Ross Pearson to earn a unanimous decision victory. The 37-year-old used all his experience to avoid the constant pressure that Pearson is known for. Trinaldo’s smart movement and patience allowed him to keep his opponent at bay and in the moments when Pearson looked to connect it was invariably the Brazilian who inflicted more damage. By the final round Pearson was visibly frustrated with the conservative nature of his opponents game-plan but his urgency failed to pay off. Trinaldo is now riding a five fight winning streak while for Pearson it is three losses in five appearances.