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Killing the King: TJ Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz

Dominick Cruz never lost his title, yet TJ Dillashaw now holds it. We take a look at the technical ins and outs of the biggest bantamweight fight in MMA history.
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

This weekend we will finally get the closure to the bantamweight saga that we have all desired for years. The man who followed Dominick Cruz to the top, Renan Barao was never able to fight him, but did an admirable job in seeing off a trilogy of challengers before falling to T.J. Dillashaw. But when Dillashaw came out of nowhere to ruin the Cruz—Barao title fight I had been holding out to see for years there wasn't an ounce of sadness in me. Everything that Dillashaw showed in the Barao bout led me to believe that Cruz versus Dillashaw would be one of the most skill rich match ups in mixed martial arts history.


The tendency has been to paint whichever of the two you like more as technically perfect, and the other one as either the outdated prototype or the second rate knock-off. Of course, neither is technically perfect—they both eat punches, they've both been knocked down as a result of their constant stance shifts, and they both have significant failures in ring awareness in many of their fights. But they are trying new things, they are innovating, and they are asking questions that the rest of their division struggle to answer. Those are the kind of fighters I love and I am unapologetically a mark for both fighters and for this fight.

The two are far from the same of course, and the idea that either is a lesser version of the other is moronic. But that is the movement doing what it was planned to. It is supposed to dull the opponent's senses, to make it hard to get a read on what is going to be thrown, and apparently it is working so well that fans cannot see the differences in Cruz and Dillashaw. The most obvious is that Cruz likes to strike past his opponents, the walking right hands, the darting rights—he comes in straight and dives past on the angle. Dillashaw likes to move to the angle, enter on it and hit from there.

I have spent two articles: one on the Art of Shifting, the other on The Existence of Neo-Footwork (the first and last time that I will use that buzz term in this article) waxing lyrical about both Cruz and Dillashaw. You know me, I adore anyone who is innovating and evolving. But I have only touched on the negatives in brief, stating that the rapid changing of stance often leaves a fighter off balance and using the examples of Demetrious Johnson, Dillashaw and Cruz being knocked over in these positions of unbalance. Today I am going to attempt a first, a two person Killing the King. Obviously, Dillashaw is the champion and Cruz is the challenger, but Cruz never actually lost his title and so the allure of that unbeaten champ is still there.


I am going to make the assumption that everyone here realizes that every fighter, even their favorite, has habits and that at the highest level habits are what are trained for, not magic gaping weaknesses that have just gone unchecked for years. You don't get to the top of the sport with big holes in your game. But when we're talking about the elite of the elite, a habit is as good as a mistake. With that understood, let's take a look at the habits and methods of T.J. Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz, and then we'll talk gameplans for their opponents.

T.J. Dillashaw

When T.J. Dillashaw took the title from Renan Barao, he looked like a new man. The switches and shifts were still there, but where they had been getting him into trouble before, he was now scoring repeatedly with them and landing hard kicks off of them. Up to that point Dillashaw had a ton of bricks piles up and nothing to join it all together. In learning the art of feinting and adding a moving base to his shifts and switches, Dillashaw suddenly became a far more effective fighter. Comparing his fight with Raphael Assuncao to his bout with Renan Barao, this new found understanding becomes incredibly obvious. Against Assuncao, Dillashaw parked himself on the end of the Brazilian's range, then tried to run in with blows. Often this resulted in eating a punch:

Against Barao, Dillashaw laid the groundwork. He didn't assume that shifting in each time would result in success. The feints came in dozens, and many of them were convincing. Barao, who fights on a hair trigger with his low kicks and counter punches, found himself missing repeatedly:


Dillashaw was able to draw the counters and step inside:

And as Barao's reactions dulled, he became a far less dangerous counter fighter. Dillashaw's shifts came into their own here, but more than that—he was always cognizant of the likelihood of a return, moving his head and staying 'alive' rather than moving through prepared combinations without thought for his opponent's actions:

When Barao wasn't forced into inactivity through feints and concern about counters, he would wade forwards for a period and eat Dillashaw's blows as the aggressor.

The problem is that the feinting and games necessary to deter an opponent from simply having their finger on the trigger of a counter punch at all times are matters of discipline. Dillashaw certainly has gotten too keen to engage on occasions and eschewed the feints and movement which serve to hide his advances. In the first round of the Barao rematch he began to simply trade with Barao and while he got the better of these exchanges, it took Dillashaw's corner telling him to knock it off to get Dillashaw back into the gameplan he had been training for weeks to employ.

When Dillashaw fought Soto it was—to both men's credit—at extremely short notice. But Soto had success by going into a defensive shell. Dillashaw obliged him by going on offence, and each time he jumped in with a fancy shift, it resulted in him eating a counter.

Feinting serves to make it difficult to distinguish between legitimate attacks and fake ones. The idea is to put the fear into the counter puncher of throwing himself out of position. And if he does not feel that fear, the goal is to tire him by having him swing at air until he's tired and clumsy enough that you can just step in on him without much worry of the counters.


The other dangers of committing the weight to driving straight in without first dulling the opponent's senses are of being side stepped, or of being jammed with a low line straight kick—both of which Assuncao did at points in his bout with Dillashaw.

What goes underrated in Dillashaw, amid the belief that he and Cruz are the same fighter, is that Dillashaw's game is considerably better at mid range. When both men are firing punches, Dillashaw gets hit, but he also does an excellent job of moving his head while he fires punches and it was in close range exchanges that he really put the finishing touches on Renan Barao. Not to mention that when his shifts were getting him clipped against Joe Soto, Dillashaw went to a more classical style of striking, throwing out dozens of back handed jabs and using volume to keep Soto down behind his guard rather than free to pick his shots as Dillashaw lunged in.

Another of Dillashaw's striking quirks is in that drop shift we discussed:

He will use this to hide his left kick, whether it is to the head or the body. Unfortunately, Dillashaw has a habit of getting his kicks caught. Assuncao achieved this a couple of times, and someone who was looking to catch kicks in a more classical Muay Thai manner (take on the near forearm, scoop under with the far forearm) could have a much higher rate of success:

While Dillashaw has fought off every takedown attempt off of his leg being caught, and in fact knocked Soto down while on one leg, this is not the sort of thing that you want to become habit against fighters against whom a single slip into bottom position could mean the loss of a round. Dillashaw's habit of falling over on missed kicks is also pretty concerning.


One of the nicer transitions between striking and grappling that Dillashaw uses is to step his right foot deep as he strikes and catch the opponent's left leg. This can be used in a low shot out in the open:

A shot into control over the hips along the fence:

Or in a Lyoto Machida wedge throw, simply driving the opponent over the leg from an upright stance.

Another interesting habit of Dillashaw's is his use of the crotch grab (or 'gooch handle') against a turtled opponent.

Wade Schalles, one of the truly great pinners in amateur wrestling history, was a major believer in this as a starting grip from referee's position because it eliminated so much of the bottom man's offence. Switches, granbys and arm rolls are much harder to achieve without the opponent's arm deep. Notice here that Urijah Faber's deep grip around Dominick Cruz's waist allows Cruz to arm roll and wind up on top. Who knows if this small habit will be a factor but against someone as good in scrambles as Cruz, it can't hurt.

Dominick Cruz

Dominick Cruz is all about that rocking back and forth in front of his man and then attacking while moving off on an angle. Darting blows. You will see this most frequently in his right hand and double rights. The guy just loves walking with his rights.

The left high kick is a staple Cruz attack which he'll throw and then retract to throw the right hand off of (again darting out to his left).


Another way in which Cruz throws his left high kick is the bump into a southpaw stance, getting into dominant southpaw position with his lead foot outside of his opponent's. He does the same to set up a darting left straight with an exit to his right side:

And this is one of the key differences in the methods of Cruz and Dillashaw. Dillashaw likes to skip to an angle and come in on a forty-five. Cruz likes to come in from the front and move out on the angle as he throws. Dillashaw's method is typically more aggressive, Cruz's allows him to score and escape unharmed the majority of the time.

The down side of this is that when Cruz throws the right hand he'll escape to his left, and when he throws his left hand, he'll escape to his right. He very rarely throws the right and weaves out to his right or the left and escapes to his left. This means that when you have someone like Demetrious Johnson who will give ground on the right hand, knowing that Cruz will always duck out the same way, it is possible to catch him with a right hook and a follow up:

One of Cruz's especially intriguing skills is his ability to retreat as rapidly as his opponents advance. They used to say of the great outfighter Gene Tunney that he taught himself to run as fast backwards as he could forwards and I'm reminded of that when I watch Cruz give ground. Part of it often comes out of that rocking back and forth to start—presenting a false distance as Roy Jones Jr. used to do by fighting extremely heavy over his lead leg.


Cruz moves far more actively in front of his opponents than Dillashaw, who will often fight out of stance for extended periods between going to the dancing. This means that Cruz's is extremely taxing on his cardio but also that his actual engagements are completely concealed within his perpetual motion. For instance, he loads up on his rear uppercuts, sending a telegram ahead of him to let the opponent know its coming, he'll show them it three or four times, and then they'll disregard it and step in anyway, while he's got it loaded and ready to throw. Urijah Faber fell for this with different strikes a good few times:

That is not to say that Cruz cannot fight out of a stance. In fact much of his best work against Faber came in the form of his jab. It went under appreciated because it was hidden between the fancy footwork and the darts, but it made a huge difference to the outcome of the bout.

One of Cruz's most readily exploitable habits is his often loose grasp over his ring position. In retreating so rapidly and so far when attacked Cruz runs himself onto the fence quite routinely. The best boxers learn to never take two steps backwards without breaking away and circling out—and you will see Holly Holm conform to this almost religiously. The less athletically gifted, less technically skilled fighter can very often take rounds from the world class talent through understanding of ring position or by laziness on the part of the better fighter. If you need an example of that watch the king of the grinders, Rick Story, get the better of Thiago Alves just by walking him towards the fence and taking advantage of his lack of retreat.


What's more, Cruz has even darted past his target and onto the fence:

Against the undersized and still only part time fighter, Demetrious Johnson, Cruz repeatedly retreated from the center of the cage onto the fence. But Johnson has never been a great fighter along the fence—as evidenced by his bout with Ali Bagautinov wherein Puncher King simply stood a foot from the fence the entire fight. Cruz was able to use his brilliant wrestling to ragdoll Johnson from even disadvantageous positions along the fence, particularly with his whizzer.

A final significant habit of Cruz's is to throw that uppercut. Cruz was influenced by Muhammad Ali and whether deliberately or by choice, Ali's style of uppercut has made its way into Cruz's arsenal. Ali's uppercut came in low, in fact he demonstrated it Sports Illustrated's 1969 cover story The Art of Ali, in outlining the benefits of punching from the hands low position. It was in Ali's 1971 match with Joe Frazier, his first professional loss, that this uppercut was exploited by Frazier and his trainer Eddie Futch.

The uppercut, even thrown by an excellent uppercutter, exposes the same side of the jawline for an extended time. The left hook in answer to the right uppercut is a classic knockout counter. Tommy Morrison's incredible counter of Donovan Ruddock is a picture perfect example.

Here's the same counter being demonstrated perfectly, oddly enough, on Dillashaw:


With Ali's uppercut—long and beginning at the waist—the window was substantially longer in which to score these counter left hooks. This was especially true if the distance could be closed, Ali threw long and short uppercuts the exact same way, but one he could get away with and the other would get him hammered with left hooks. Dominick Cruz's offensive choices make his long uppercuts effective, but also expose him in the same ways. Note his short range uppercuts against Faber allow Faber to turn his head right around with that left hook.

And a similar thing can be seen here as Cruz goes for his long uppercut with his back to the fence, one of two responses he typically has to men moving in on him along the fence, the other being to duck and look for underhooks.

Cruz's other great tendency is to march forwards when opponents retreat. He takes a great many steps to hide the step ups into high kicks, but it also means that if his opponent stops in their tracks Cruz can get caught with his feet parallel and in no position to slip or cover up.

Ideal Gameplans

The idea that either Cruz or Dillashaw is unbeatable is, of course, misguided. They both have exploitable habits and even points of weakness in their games, but they are also two of the best in the game at sticking to gameplans. For Cruz to take the title back, ultimately, I would like to see him exploit Dillashaw's temperament. Perhaps all the trash talk is to lay the groundwork for that, but Dillashaw can be pulled into forward moving, face out trades with a little nudging. Of course each time Dillashaw returns to his corner he is reminded by his coaches of the importance of staying disciplined and working behind the feints and combinations.


To draw Dillashaw out and crack him as he is over extending, or even to play catch and pitch—inviting his attacks against the guard and returning as he lunges in—has proven to work if he doesn't adhere to his set ups and science. And if Dillashaw begins stepping in with his straights and hooks rather than spamming out static with the jabs, feints and low kicks which threw off Joe Soto and Renan Barao, the openings which Cruz loves to exploit for takedown attempts will be apparent.

The dipping jab which Cruz utilized so well against Faber would also be a treat in this bout because it is the kind of counter which will work against swings and against scientific straight punching just the same, and which will take advantage of Cruz's height and reach advantages. Cruz probably wants to avoid being put to the fence, though he is apt to lean against it in fighting off takedowns. And one technique which is a relatively unsuccessful feature of Cruz's normally, serving as a deterrent, might take on new importance in this bout if Dillashaw plays the aggressor.

You will remember that it was these sort of wide, back stepping swings which John Dodson caught T.J. Dillashaw with in his only decisive UFC loss (not to mention that Dodson caught Demetrious Johnson with the exact same tactic on several occasions in their first bout as well). Against Dillashaw they will either serve to hurt him if he is over aggressive and off balance, or convince him to sit back a bit and allow Cruz to dance and dart around him more freely.


For Dillashaw, while Cruz has been caught coming forwards before, I think the best strategy would be to get on the offensive. The temptation will be to engage Dominick Cruz in the dance off, but Dillashaw has shown to have skills where Dominick Cruz was forced to go to his B-game against the undersized Demetrious Johnson. If Dillashaw can use measured aggression and Cruz's own tendency to retreat on the fence to get into position, he can begin the boxing / wrestling flurries which served him so well against Mike Easton. Often Killing the King is a case of taking away the champion's A-game and forcing him to fight a game he is not used to, Demetrious Johnson achieved this but still not able to best Cruz. Perhaps the larger, stronger Dillashaw who has yet to be taken down in the UFC will be able to have more success.

When Cruz gets along the fence, he does generally do a decent job of getting out but he tends to duck out almost every time. Dillashaw has always enjoyed attempting to time knees as opponents duck—having success against Easton and Soto with this strategy—and it would be good to see him use mid-level round kicks and knees to attempt to either catch Cruz or stand him up and limit his movement along the fence.

Once against the fence, Dillashaw can begin to do what Johnson did on several occasions, pull Cruz hips out and put him to his butt. Where Johnson struggled to hold Cruz down, what I enjoyed about Dillashaw's performance against Easton, and in his moments along the fence against Barao, was that he'd box his man up along the fence, shoot in on the hips when they swung back, drop them to their butt, and then box them up again as they fought up to their feet, only to begin the cycle again. Add to that Dillashaw's back taking ability, having gotten the back of Assuncao, Soto and Barao pretty much whenever it was shown, and you have to think that cage offence should be the order of the day for the better infighter and the guy who is giving up the reach to a dancing master.

Cruz has often been left breathing heavy by his and he truly leaves it all inside the cage, but what was more surprising was how much more tired and sluggish he looked in the late fight against Johnson when he had been doing less of his own game and fighting more on the defensive in the clinch.

With both men having a need to move their feet to keep up with the other or push the fight to the fence, low kicks will always be of tremendous importance, but equally both men are fairly good at keeping their feet out of the way. Not to mention that while we were all blown away with Cruz's quick work against Mizugaki, his own style has always taken it out of him as the rounds go on and we have no indication of how his troublesome knees would hold up after fifteen or twenty minutes, and especially after eating some kicks.

Of course, that's talking about habits and tactics in an ideal world. The training has already been done, the gameplans have been in place for weeks, we're just talking habits and building the fighters' portfolios for the future. The fight might go nothing like either of the gameplans we examined. Either man could well successfully employ the one we're asserting would be perfect for the other. The fight could be an ugly wrestling match, or a cautious twenty five minute point fight on the feet. One thing about switch hitters is that they love their advantage of having so many options and being so unusual. When two meet they often become extremely uncomfortable. For instance the usually fluid Max Holloway did nothing for the first two minutes of his bout with Jeremy Stephens as the two switched back and forth deciding which stance they wanted to meet in when looking at the other's.

What is for sure is that this match carries real weight. A win for either man will provide the biggest name on his record. Dillashaw has a lot to prove, we know he had Barao's number, but aside from Barao he hasn't really fought the top competition. Cruz meanwhile has been out of the game for so long that he has missed a heap of title challengers, been absent through the Barao era entirely, and his most meaningful opponents moved down to flyweight as soon as the option became available or are in the twilight years of their career or retired. If Dillashaw can beat the old master of the bantamweight division, we can marvel at his rounded game, admit he's the real deal, and call him the man to carry the torch forwards. If Cruz can beat the young gun, who is far more rounded than Cruz's previous challengers and when spare a minute of work against Mizugaki, Cruz has spent almost four years out of the cage, he will have pulled off one of the truly great comebacks in sports. Combat sports especially will rarely let a man age gracefully and almost never give us such an uplifting and inspirational tale.

Whether it is old school cool or the new hotness that comes out of this fight the victor, we will likely be left giddy for material to study and analyze. Head back here Monday and we'll talk about the fight that was and how it went down.