The 'Dummy' Becoming; Cruz vs Dillashaw

By Ryan Johann Perry

There is a Shakespearean chorus behind the accusations of 'imposter' heard throughout T.J. Dillashaw's reign as Bantamweight champion.  It is as though some fans with memory thought him to be beautified with another's feathers.  While the MMA media hailed his footwork as signifying some new evolution in movement, others saw grace notes when superimposed upon old footage of Dominick Cruz, for whom Dillashaw had become some quasi heir after Cruz was stripped of his title from years of injury and inactivity.  There must be something intimate in the mimicry, Dillashaw having sparred and prepared the fighters who made Cruz the champion he was, it may have been a preparation for Dillashaw's Becoming.

Dominick Cruz is quick to plant the seeds in Dillashaw's mind that he is merely a stand-in, an elevated punching dummy gifted a stilted opponent for his championship winning fight against Renan Barao.  Barao, Cruz says, was a punching dummy himself, frozen in an aged, flat-footed Brazilian style.  As a theoretical exercise, Cruz claims the crux of the matter is the viewing of each fighter’s opponents in their path to January 17th.  This is an a priori claim, one designed to throw shade at Dillashaw, to somehow make him question whether or not his champion status is another “Machida era” for fans or a Truman Show obliviousness on Dillashaw's part.

These are indeed possibilities; one cannot help but realize that many of the opponents Cruz has faced, Dillashaw has faced as well, albeit in the shadows, as a training partner, punching dummy in the gym, drilling wrestling, jiu-jitsu; side by side for two-a-days and strength and conditioning regiments. The fact is many of the scalps that define Cruz's legitimacy are Alpha Male fighters, whom Dillashaw not only sparred, but  like Cruz, defined his style.

Of all the types of fights, most fall into two categories: two alphas fighting for dominance or a fighter etching another name into his or her legacy.  Some fights, however, have a bit more to them than a clash of styles or egos, hype or general excitement. Cruz vs. Dillashaw falls into this 'other' category.

Heraclitus of Hephesus, a Greek philosopher, put forth the idea of 'Becoming', in which nothing remains constant, but is continually changing.  The idea of Cruz or Dillashaw being the true champion is a clever distraction.  There is no being, especially in combat sports.  Every fight is a Becoming, a Darwinian interpretation of the variables and strengths of two fighters.  Becoming also signifies an evolution, most noticeable in Dillashaw's progress through the ranks.  To be a champion is necessarily the act of becoming one through an opponent.  Cruz as an opponent represents something fascinating in regards to evolution and style.  At what point does a style unique to MMA become ready-made?

Although novel to MMA, Dominic Cruz's style was a Felix the Cat bag of tricks from other combat sports and presented a unique puzzle in the Bantamweight division.  Cruz represented both a wall and a rival to the whole weight class, and one team in particular; Team Alpha Male.  Outside of his lone loss to pack leader Urijah Faber, Cruz made his way through the team, of which Dillashaw was once a member, denying each TAM fighter a chance to be champion.  For years it seemed, so long as Cruz topped the rankings, Alpha Male fighters would be in limbo, awaiting another chance to meet their ceiling. 

Team Alpha Male went years without a head coach. Fighters trained each other in preparation for upcoming fights.  As Joseph Benavidez, Scott Jorgenson, Urijah Faber all prepared for Cruz, there was another constant, operating at a now ironic parallel, T.J. Dillashaw.  As Dillashaw sparred with his teammates during their preparations for Cruz, he learned subtleties of each fighter and of Cruz; subtleties that none of them could see, for had they an Alpha Male fighter would have defeated Cruz and become a champion.  Cruz successfully defended his WEC title against them all.

What eventually felled Dominick Cruz was physiology- torn ACL's, rejection of cadavers, groin tears.  The net effect was four years passing by in which Dominic Cruz could not fight.  The UFC stripped him of his title, created an interim title and let Alpha Male Urijah Faber fight Renan Barao for it. Barao won and took control of the vacuum created by Cruz' absence, defending the title three times, extending his dominance to an impressive thirty-two straight fights.

As Faber was depantsed yet again in his grooming to be champion, T.J. Dillashaw was showing something different, though familiar, in his fight against Mike Easton.  It was a style that distanced itself from the plodding, orthodox striking by Alpha Male members.  The footwork, stance switches and darting strikes were eerily reminiscent.  By the time Dillashaw had his next fight, against champion Renan Barao, the ghost of Dominick Cruz had come to full view.

It was in the strikes, shifts, feints - the low hands and perpetually moving feet.  It was there in spades as Dillashaw achieved what no other Alpha Male could, a UFC title.  The 'dummy' was becoming.  Dillashaw became the anti-Alpha Male, in tendencies, style and success.  Dillashaw understood that to be what no Alpha Male could be, he had to reject their narrative, their 'style.  He became 'Dominick Cruz'; and in MMA media's ever seeking quest for novelty, was granted the title in the hearts and minds of fans.

The ghost was there, however, and appeared like Christmas Past less than a month after Dillashaw defended his belt for the first time against Joe Soto.  In September 2014, amidst the praise and admiration for Dillashaw, as he was revered as the Prometheus of footwork in MMA, Dominick Cruz made his long awaited return against Takeya Mizugaki in what was one of his most decisive, violent finishes of his career. 

So here we are now.  One thing is for sure, there can be only one second coming.  Dillashaw vs Cruz represents an important argument as to why we watch sports.  Can Cruz defy 'no second acts in America' with a victory, or will his comeback merely be a slight return?  How will Dillashaw handle a fighter whose tape he has ingested so voluminously it manifested in his physicality?  The declaration of the “Machida-era” has become a reminder to fans of what is problematic in our fandom, and this fight has two champions defending their legacy from being placed in that same breath.

Mari GomezComment