Give In to Win

3 ACL tears kept UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz out of the Octagon for all but 61 seconds over nearly 5 years. The key to his impossible, unprecedented comeback? He stopped caring.

By Frank Curreri

December 29, 2016

(Hans Gutknecht)

"Once they stripped me of the UFC title," Dominick Cruz says, "it made me realize, 'Dude, you're a f--king mess right now. You may never come back from this. This has never been done.'"

At his lowest point, "This has never been done" haunted the former WEC and UFC bantamweight champion. "This" was a comeback from a string of devastating injuries that kept him out of the Octagon for all but one minute from October 2011 to January 2016. He calls it "four years of Zen school."

He endured the darkest days agonizing alone on his couch in San Diego and making the 90-minute drive along I-805 to physical therapy in Irvine, often in silence. Fallen from the pinnacle. Fading into irrelevance.

"This" has been done now. Cruz beat T.J. Dillashaw by split decision in January to win back the UFC bantamweight belt he'd lost not in the arena, but because of inactivity. On Dec. 30 he'll make his second defense of the title, against undefeated Cory Garbrandt at UFC 207 in Las Vegas.

"Everybody is curious as to how," Cruz says. "But the thing is, when I try to explain it to people, they look at me like I'm crazy. That's why I try not to talk about it."

An axiom often recited by top UFC coaches and fighters has it that "Fighting is 90 percent mental." But nobody had ever actually tried to prove it.

Dom Cruz ended up on a collision course with the hypothesis. In May 2012 he shredded the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He re-tore it in December and then tore a groin muscle in January 2014. He finally fought again in September of that year, stopping Takeya Mizugaki on punches in the first round. Three months later, he tore the ACL in his right knee.

Over the span of nearly five years, he was sidelined for more than 1,300 days.

"The third ACL was a gift," Cruz says. This is the part where people look at him like he's crazy, but he says that last injury led him to the epiphany that if he wanted to get back to being a champion, he had to accept that he might not make it.

"The irony of that blows my mind," he says. "I had to not want it. I had to be happy without fighting. I had to not need it. I had to appreciate the gift that was but might never be again. Once I did that, I was free. I didn't need fighting for happiness or inner peace. I didn't need it to feel whole. Now I could be whole without fighting."

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Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber react as Cruz is declared the winner of their rematch in 2011. (Eric Jamison/Associated Press)

Dominick Cruz had been introduced to mind games at an early age. It is one of the chief memories of his youth, seeds planted years ago back at a trailer park in Tucson, Arizona, where his mother emphasized frugality and implored her two boys, "Speak it into existence."

The mind-over-matter mantra served as a staple inside the household long before "The Law of Attraction" became popular on Oprah, the internet and social media. Yet teenage Dominick found his mother's claim silly.

Mom, come on. Just because I say that I'm going to make a million dollars doesn't mean I'm going to get a million dollars.

He recalls his father as a "weekend dad" who played an on-again, off-again role in his life. Around for six months, gone for six months. He left the family home when Dom was very young. Cruz asked that their names not be used in this story.

"At five years old," he says, "I became the man of the house. When he left, my dad let me know that. It put a certain drive in me that I can't explain."

When available, Dad cooked chorizo and eggs and watched movies with his son at halfway houses for released inmates who were being transitioned back into society. Dom Cruz says he learned early on about his father's drug habit and that Dad's vanishing meant relapse or incarceration.

Mama exemplified hard work and taught her boys Christian values. Secular music and R-rated movies were strictly forbidden in her home, a rule so ingrained in Cruz that, even as an adult who makes a living in a sport where busted noses and bloody faces are common, he continues to steadfastly guard his eyes and ears. For much of his nearly 12-year career Cruz has avoided horror movies and seldom watches or reads the news.

"My mom," Cruz says, "was always very, very careful with my mind, what I saw and didn't see."

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Dominick Cruz talks to the media after beating Urijah Faber at UFC 199 in Inglewood, California, on June 4, 2016. (Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images)

Finding the answers through inactivity is an irony not lost on Cruz, who as a young man had found the answers he needed through fighting.

At 19 his mother kicked him out of the house after he threw a party. Within days he got a sprawling back tattoo. He also dropped out of community college.

Once begun, the rebellious phase lasted two years. Through it all, a love of sport and grueling physical work remained. Cruz, a good athlete who had begun wrestling in seventh grade, stayed close to the sport by teaching high schoolers. He envisioned becoming a firefighter someday and started boxing to stay in shape.

An opportunity to fight in a pro mixed martial arts show surfaced and the ultra-competitive Cruz jumped at the chance to test himself in a combat sport that went beyond grappling and featured the extra dangers of punches, kicks and chokes.

The more he fought inside the cage, the more he ran back to his upbringing: Unwavering structure, remarkable discipline. His firefighter plan faded and a new vision emerged.

"Once I dedicated my time to mixed martial arts," Cruz says, "I became careful about what I let into my mind. I made a goal of being the best on Earth in mixed martial arts and fighting. I wanted to build my mind into something good, not just of the world. I wanted to be different."

He made his pro debut on Jan. 29, 2005, early in that rebellious phase. In the first 18 months of his career, the speedy Cruz predominantly trained himself, studying Muhammad Ali videos and racing out to a 6-0 record, with four TKOs, against low-level pros. "That was the raw me," he says. "I couldn't afford a trainer."

He was so solitary, he was that rare fighter who had no seconds on fight night. It was literally Dom against the world.

"I made a goal of being the best on Earth in mixed martial arts and fighting. I wanted to build my mind into something good, not just of the world. I wanted to be different."

—Dominick Cruz

In the summer of 2006, an offer of $1,300—"the most money I'd ever made in prizefighting"—to fight on 72 hours' notice brought Cruz to Total Combat 15 in San Diego for a fight against heavy-handed local Dave Hisquierdo.

California rules prevented Cruz from bringing his solo act from Arizona, so he had a couple of hired strangers in his corner. Hisquierdo dropped him several times with punches, but Cruz came away with a split-decision victory.

"An extremely painful fight," Cruz says. "I busted up his ribs pretty good. He broke my nose. We had a war."

Fifteen minutes of who wants it more revealed abundant flaws in Cruz's game, but the promoter, a full-time firefighter named Eric Del Fierro, saw something in the 21-year-old that screamed "future champion."

Del Fierro emerged certain of one thing: "Nothing short of death is going to stop that kid from doing what he wants to do."

So impressed was the soft-spoken promoter that he threw in a $500 bonus. Four months later, he invited Cruz to move to San Diego.

"He moved here with absolutely nothing," Del Fierro says. "I mean the kid was literally sleeping on the floor or sleeping on my sofa. He had no money and was absolutely scrounging around, but he was eager to learn and implement."

For the first time Cruz had a mentor he trusted, a close friend who always had his back. Someone who believed in him. "I've only had myself and Eric Del Fierro since the beginning," he says.

Dominick Cruz lands a left hand against Urijah Faber in their bantamweight championship fight at UFC 199. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

Sometimes change is a slow-blowing breeze; other times it's a hurricane wind.

In May 2012 Dominick Cruz seemed unbreakable. His partnership with Del Fierro had allowed him to turn his athleticism and mental focus into championship performance. He lost his first title shot, a first-round submission to Urijah Faber for the World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight belt in 2007. Three years later he stopped Brian Bowles in the second round to win the bantamweight strap, and he became the inaugural UFC bantamweight champ when he beat Scott Jorgensen by unanimous decision in a joint WEC-UFC title fight after the merger announcement.

Then a wrestling scramble in practice abruptly ended with a violent twist of Cruz's left knee and a terrifyingly loud pop.

He spent the remainder of 2012 feverishly rehabbing the fully reconstructed ACL. A key decision proved haunting: Cruz opted to have a cadaver graft inserted into the repaired knee—a procedure that offers the promise of a quicker recovery than the alternative, a patellar tendon graft, but also carries a much higher risk of re-rupture in contact athletes.

"I was working hard but rushing things," he says, "and ended up tearing my same ACL again."

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(Courtesy Dominick Cruz)

Immediately following that second ACL snap in December, Del Fierro glimpsed the hellstorm and dejection in Cruz's eyes and thought, "OK, now he's done."

Desperate and devastated, Cruz enlisted a new doctor to perform the second ACL reconstruction, this time the patellar tendon graft. He chose the most trusted and precise hands he could find: Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the Los Angeles orthopedic surgeon who has repaired a who's who of A-list clients such as Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who once said to the Los Angeles Times of ElAttrache, "He can fix what others say is unfixable."

While complete tears of the anterior cruciate ligament no longer serve as a death sentence to a pro athlete's career, the growing number of success stories initially provided little comfort to Cruz, who regarded cagefighting as therapy.

"Fighting was my drug, my coping mechanism," he says. "I went crazy without it."

For the first half of 2013, Cruz made that hour-and-a-half drive to Sport Science Lab in Irvine, a state-of-the-art facility where thousands of athletes have flocked to enhance athletic performance and rehabilitate injuries. Over and over, he played "Rhino Skin" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: "You need rhino skin / if you're gonna pretend / you're not hurt by this world."

"He's top of the food chain, as highly motivated as any athlete I've worked with. He does everything with an incredible level of detail and intensity. That's what separates guys like him."

—Gavin MacMillan, owner, Sport Science Lab

He labored roughly three hours a day—"murdered the workout" is how he puts it—at the facility rebuilding his twice-repaired ACL.

"The thing that takes a beating is your mind, because you stop believing," he says. "The body will return and be strong again—the mind is the thing you have to trick."

Gavin MacMillan, founder of Sport Science Lab, admired Cruz's motor and psyche. Among thousands of athletes MacMillan has worked with over the past 20 years, he says, Cruz probably asked the most questions.

"He's top of the food chain," MacMillan says, "as highly motivated as any athlete I've worked with. He does everything with an incredible level of detail and intensity. That's what separates guys like him. There aren't physical differences between him and other athletes—they're all mental."

"Dom brings a whole 'nother level to tunnel vision," says former NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman, a friend of Cruz's. "Obsession is the right word. Nothing else matters or exists in the world other than his craft and what he's doing."

In the fall of 2013, after healing his second ACL tear, Cruz was eager to put 20 months of tears and fears behind him. Trainers MacMillan and Sazi Guthrie assured Cruz his left knee was now stronger than ever. No need to alter his whirling, Tasmanian Devil fighting style.

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Rivals Urijah Faber, left, and Dominick Cruz get along at a UFC pool party in Las Vegas in 2013. (Al Powers/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images)

The UFC announced that Cruz (19-1) would defend his title against Brazilian wunderkind Renan Barao. Oddsmakers installed Barao as a nearly 3-1 favorite to win, but you wouldn't have known it from Cruz's reaction to the fight's being booked: "OK, let's do this!"

You couldn't blame the doubters on this one, especially since there would be no warm-up fight for Cruz. He would simply be thrown into the Octagon after a lengthy layoff against a human tsunami with the longest known unbeaten streak (spanning 32 fights) in MMA history. Barao was the most intimidating wrecking ball the bantamweight division had ever seen, knocking out and submitting foes at triple the rate Cruz did.

About six weeks before the Barao fight, the man who'd always been known around MMA gyms for jumping rope after everyone else hit the showers was once again outworking and out-hustling everybody.

"I was throwing a million kicks," Cruz says, "and my quad tore because my body was not ready for the workload of a five-round title fight and the intense training I was doing."

Cruz is a fighter, not a doctor. It was his groin, not his quad, but either way, he limped through the pain for three weeks before conceding he was unfit to fight. He pulled out of the bout in January 2014. Cruz's four-year reign as the undisputed 135-pound world champion was officially over. The oft-injured champion was stripped of the UFC belt. Barao was immediately installed as the new champ.

A Christian who prayed often, Cruz cried out for answers.

I'm doing all the right things. Why is everything going so wrong for me?!

"I'm not always 'Dominick Cruz, Tough Guy,'" he says. "Depression runs in my bloodline. Once exercise got taken away from me, the depression skyrocketed. I didn't really like myself. How could I have zero self-worth after being champion?"

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(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

The doctor's advice for treating the groin injury: Rest. Zero rehab. No situps. No weightlifting. No pushups, no five-hour bike rides and calisthenics as Cruz had enjoyed during the ACL rehabs. Rather than be hard-headed, the workaholic Cruz followed the script, even though 90 days of athletic nothingness was the hardest pill to swallow.

"It would have been much easier for me to fill in that gap dating girls, partying," he says. "That was a big weakness of mine, so I had to learn to find happiness and wholeness in myself, without competition, without the belt, without a girlfriend, without anybody around. Just Dominick hanging around by himself. Can I be happy? That was a real challenge for me."

He plunged lower. Upset stomachs, unrelenting anxiety. His greatest strength—imposing his will to achieve amazing heights—had become a weakness and now threatened to destroy him.

At rock bottom, Cruz read a book about samurai training, where young prospects went away for four years of meditation and mindfulness as part of their journey. He gravitated toward a concept in Eastern medicine in which disease in the body usually begins as "dis-ease" in the brain. In Cruz's mind, the ACL tears were not just a matter of planting his foot the wrong way or twisting his knee.

"I was holding on to a lot of [emotional] pain before the ACL injuries; that's what caused the injuries, in my opinion," he says. "I was overtraining to overcompensate for something I lacked inside me. It just added up...and then it broke."

Always plotting three or four moves ahead, Cruz delved deeper into his psyche and faced his worst fear.

Let's say you're done fighting, Dom. You're done. Are you OK with that?

One day Dom Cruz decided to further shrink his ego. He decided to retire. And rest. And eat.

"I got up to 175 pounds (40 pounds over his weight class) because I was not doing anything," he says. "But when I decided to retire, man, my brain felt free. There was no UFC belt hanging over me anymore. No more thoughts or ideas of needing to come back for my title. I let go of it."

It wasn't just mentally relinquishing the belt. After all those years, a shift took place. Empathy replaced resentment.

"My dad leaving—a lot of things built up inside of me. Now I've forgiven, I've let go. I'm not upset with my dad anymore. He was on his own since he was 13 and used drugs because of all the stress. He didn't know what it was like to be raised by a family. He literally did what he knew how to do."

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(Courtesy Dominick Cruz)

Around mid-2014, his torn groin healed, Cruz started training again—with few expectations. He loves mixed martial arts, so he was going to train again regardless. If not for a paycheck and identity, then at least for exercise and enjoyment. But working out again taught him that his body still worked pretty darn well. He still felt world-class.

"Challenge yourself every day in practice, man, that's how you build confidence," he says. "I was scared to wrestle live in practice, because that's how I originally tore my knee, but I had to do it. Everything I was scared to do, I did."

Cruz is an emotional man. Several times he has publicly cried. He choked up in 2010 when thanking his mom after winning his first world title. He cried on television talking about the torn ACLs and being stripped of his UFC belt. And he cried again after a public workout in front of fans in late September 2014, days before his comeback fight against the fifth-ranked Mizugaki.

Then the former champ who had finished just one opponent in his past nine fights, the often-underestimated pillow-puncher who many considered sooo boring, unleashed a side of himself people hadn't seen in years; 26 Cruz punches left Mizugaki slumped against the cage as the referee jumped in to save him.

Sixty-one seconds of blitzkrieg. Dom Cruz's first win in three years.

In his only fight between November 2011 and January 2016, Dominick Cruz knocks out Takeya Mizugaki in 61 seconds at UFC 178 in Las Vegas. (Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images)

Inside the cage afterward, he smiled broader and glowed brighter than ever before. Of all the victories in his career, he says, this marked his proudest achievement.

The UFC belt was no longer his. The discussion of "who's best" didn't include him. Yet he was overwhelmed with gratitude.

"I went into that fight with Mizugaki thinking, 'I might go out there and be great, I might go out there and be horrible. I might never fight again,'" Cruz says. "But I was at peace because I didn't need any of it. It didn't matter if I won or lost. So I could just be there, challenge myself and enjoy the moment, enjoy the ride, enjoy the cameras in my face. That was heaven to me."

Thumping Mizugaki marked a mental milestone for Cruz and wowed a lot of people. It did not, however, curtail the growing chorus of fans and media who by fall 2014 viewed recently crowned UFC champion T.J. Dillashaw as a healthier, stronger and faster version of Cruz.

The explosive Californian annihilated and dethroned the mighty Barao. Cruz out-pointed opponents. Dillashaw knocked 'em out. During his injury-induced exile, Dom Cruz had become a poor man's T.J. Dillashaw.

The UFC booked a bout between the new and former champs. Speaking to reporters, Dillashaw poked fun at his injury-prone opponent, which amused people until it proved prophetic.

"It is with great sadness to report I have experienced another ACL injury. This time it's in the right knee,” Cruz posted on his Facebook page on Dec. 22, 2014. "I don't have a timetable for my return but trust and I know I will pour my heart and soul into returning to the Octagon."

"I felt really bad for Dominick Cruz. He had a string of really, really bad luck. Most athletes in that situation would have retired."

—Dana White

Three torn ACLs in the span of two-and-a-half years. A lot of religious athletes might have interpreted that as a sign from God to switch professions.

"I felt really bad for Dominick Cruz," UFC President Dana White said. "He had a string of really, really bad luck. Most athletes in that situation would have retired."

An estimated 250,000 or so Americans undergo ACL surgeries each year. Two of the only known professional athletes to surmount three ACL reconstructions are Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis and former Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton. Cruz was unaware of their amazing recoveries as he prepared for Groundhog Day all over again.

Dr. ElAttrache operated on Cruz's knee (another patellar tendon graft). Cruz devoted six hours or more each day to driving and rehabbing at Sport Science Lab. But this time, at every turn, he knew exactly what to expect. No more fear of the unknown. Years of prayer and conversations with mentors and a sports psychologist, combined with exhaustive self-analysis, had taught Cruz to tame expectations.

This time he framed the nine-month recovery as one grand experiment, an opportunity to see if he was on to something with the less-is-more Zen school remedy: If he wanted to be world champion again, he had to not want it.

That koan elevated Cruz's mental edge. He anchored his fortunes, his confidence and identity to a foundation that wouldn't vanish and abandon him with one violent twist of the knee.

Once again, the workaholic resisted the temptation to do any physical exercise other than rehab yet another reconstructed knee.

"All I did for nine months was relax and let my body heal," he says.

By 2015, Cruz had become more analyst than fighter to many. He studied a ton of fight videos and won Analyst of the Year at the 2016 World MMA Awards for his work with Fox Sports. As a fighter, however, he'd dropped off the radar.

"Nobody was talking about me in the media," he says. "Nobody gave me a shot to do anything relevant. Nobody wanted to interview me."

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Dominick Cruz on FS1 with Jay Glazer. The fighter was named Analyst of the Year at the 2016 World MMA Awards. (Courtesy Dominick Cruz)

At the nine-month mark of his rest and rehabilitation, the point when doctors typically clear athletes to compete, Cruz was relaxing on a lake with friends when he received a call from UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby.

"Want to fight T.J. Dillashaw for the belt?"

After three torn ACLs, a torn groin, one fight in four years and the last nine months spent sitting on the couch, Cruz told Shelby: "Screw it. Why not!"

Three months to train for a fight is ample time—assuming a fighter is already in decent shape. Yet Cruz's coaches and teammates had learned over time to never question his resilience or self-conviction.

"From nothing we had 12 weeks to get ready for a world-championship fight," Del Fierro says. "It was very complicated and it took a long time to get his timing right. Usually Dominick will beat most of the guys in sparring. He's usually pretty sharp in the training room. But during this training camp we did 80 rounds or so. He was winning 10 percent of those rounds."

"I was losing every day in practice because I wasn't ready, man," Cruz says. "I just had to bite down on my mouthpiece, suck it up and tough it out during my training camp. My body wasn't physically ready to come back and fight. But my mind was ready."

Two weeks before the title fight, key features of the old Dom, the throwback who outworks everyone and subscribes to the Mike Ditka bromide that champions motivate themselves, re-emerged.

"Ah," Del Fierro said as Cruz started winning every round in practice, "he's back."

Dillashaw promised a knockout; Cruz called the camera-shy champ "dummy" and sensed a massive ego he could exploit.

Never one to back down from a confrontation, as the fight drew closer, Cruz more fiercely guarded his thoughts. He flashed his fangs with reporters, sometimes even shutting down interviews, according to Del Fierro.

"Ring rust, ring rust, ring rust…You guys are making this up out of nowhere!" Cruz says he fired back at reporters. "There's no such thing as ring rust! It doesn't exist and I'm freakin' tired of hearing it!"

On Jan. 17, 2016, in Boston, Dom Cruz, who had spent most of the past 1,500 days either at a rehab facility, in the broadcast booth or on the couch, stepped into the cage as a solid underdog and colossal question mark.

A barnburner ensued.

Dominick Cruz and T.J. Dillashaw grapple during their title fight on Jan. 17, 2016, at TD Garden in Boston. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Cruz felt amazing. Healthy. Clear-headed.

"Nobody expected me to do anything," he says, "so I could just fight freely and enjoy the moment."

Fans marveled as Cruz often left the champ swinging at air. Dillashaw set a frantic pace—throwing more than 400 strikes—but missed on three out of four of his blows. Cruz's combinations caused swelling around Dillashaw's eyes. Dillashaw still connected on 109 of his punches and kicks, chopping Cruz's legs, bloodying the challenger's mouth and cracking him with a jarring head kick.

By the fifth and final round, Dillashaw's swollen right eye was closing; Cruz's face was also marked up, and he began to noticeably limp.

Back in San Diego, Merriman watched the fight, his stomach tied in knots.

"The whole time I kept cringing a little bit," he says. "When I saw him limping I kept thinking, 'Oh my God, oh my God, I hope he didn't hurt it again.'"

Another Cruz fight was left in the judges' hands. The Comeback King and Dillashaw stood in the center of the Octagon as Bruce Buffer announced the scores that sent shock waves across MMA social media:

“For the winner...and new UFC champion!"

Cruz in a cliff-hanger. Via split decision, the narrowest of margins.

As he exited the cage and walked past press row, Cruz couldn't resist telling reporters, "Told you guys."

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Dominick Cruz celebrates his split-decision victory over T.J. Dillashaw to win the UFC bantamweight championship on Jan. 17, 2016. (Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images)

Six months later, a much-improved Cruz fought Faber for a third time, twice knocking his archrival to the canvas en route to a one-sided decision victory—arguably the marquee performance of Cruz's 11-year career. Climbing back to the top rendered Cruz's resume beyond reproach: winner of 13 straight, still the best on two fully reconstructed ACLs, one of them twice.

For a long time, fans had been waiting for the Next Great Thing to come along at 135 pounds. Now they awakened to reality: The Next Great Thing was there all along, hiding in plain sight. Doubters became believers.

"There is something brilliant in Dom that hasn't been done yet," says renowned MMA trainer Neil Melanson, who worked with Cruz for two years as the fighter tried to overcome his injuries. "Years from now I think he'll be one of the most studied UFC fighters in history.”

That crazy mission Cruz took aim at years ago—to be the best mixed martial arts fighter in the world—inches closer to reality. He is ranked second in's pound-for-pound rankings and No. 3 by the UFC. And he regards the three torn knee ligaments as a mental advantage over opponents.

They've also been a way that Cruz, who admits he lacks the charisma of Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey, has connected, at long last, with fans.

"People relate to me more because of the three torn ACLs than they ever, ever did before," he says. "It's overwhelming to me when someone comes up to me close to tears to say how much I've inspired or motivated them. I've got people reaching out to me that have had their heads cracked open, they've had spinal-fusion surgery, hip surgeries—most of them reached out to me because I was injured and came back. I find that fascinating."

No fighter wants to be known for injuries, but Cruz is a graduate of Zen school.

"I thought I would be known for being a champion," he says. "I didn't expect God's path for me to be touching people by being the most injured champion in the history of sports. I didn't ask for that. But that was the only way I could have a different effect than everybody else."