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Dominick Cruz driven to regain UFC title: 'I'm not here for anything else'

Fighting for family and legacy, Cruz seeks to continue his pursuit of a three-peat in Saturday's UFC on ESPN 41 headliner.

Dominick Cruz (24-3 MMA, 7-2 UFC) headlines UFC on ESPN 41 this Saturday, seeking to take the next step in his climb toward a third bantamweight title. The first-ever bantamweight in UFC history, Cruz should catapult into the top-five of the division with a win against Marlon "Chito" Vera (21-7-1 MMA, 13-6 UFC).

"I'm here to face the best and fight for the title," Cruz says. "I'm not here for anything else."

One of the most accomplished mixed martial artists in UFC history, Cruz has already cemented his legacy as one of the greatest to ever grace the cage. Yet, with more to prove, his pursuit toward immortality continues in unrelenting fashion. After overcoming three ACL injuries and a torn quad during the past decade, Cruz is still operating at an elite level at the age of 37.

A world-class technique has played an integral role in Cruz winning all but three of his pro fights, but it is his mental tenacity that has no rival. His ability to reframe a situation, focus, and succeed is unparalleled, representing a strength that was first formed during a seminal moment in his childhood.

"When I was 5 years old, my mom and my dad got into their last argument," Cruz says. "I remember hearing the argument, and I hated hearing it. My father got on his knees and told me, ‘Look son, you're going to be the man of the house. Take care of your mom and your brother.' I still remember puffing out my chest. Then he left."

Cruz bristles when receiving sympathy or pity for that moment. Instead, he credits that moment for wiring him in such a distinct manner.

"A lot of people might say, ‘Oh, that's so sad, no one should have to go through that,' but if you back thousands of years, all a lineage had sometimes was a son to carry on the name," Cruz says. "My dad gave me that. I took that very seriously – for my mom, my brother, my aunt, my cousin, my grandfather, my grandmother. They're all very strong and can take care of themselves, but the bigger I make my legacy, the more comfortably we can all live.

"I'm being the man that my father asked me to be. People ask why I'm still here, or they ask about my drive. Well, I've got some big shoes to fill."

Success is earned in mixed martial arts, and Cruz has a long, distinguished history of emerging despite suffering career-threatening setbacks. That was the case when he was a senior in high school, as an ankle injury prevented him from attaining a college wrestling scholarship.

"I still have bone spurs in that ankle," said Cruz. "It really set me back. I didn't do well at the state championships that year. I was ranked to get first or second. When I hurt my ankle, I barely got sixth place.

"That also had a lot to do with my mindset. I had a lot of maturing to do at that point. I didn't have a lot of belief or trust in myself. I didn't get the scholarship, I didn't do well on the ACTs, so I got a job and went to community college. I had to work to pay for my rent and my school, so I didn't get to wrestle, but I started coaching wrestling at a high school in Tucson, Arizona. That was part of my training for my fights on the weekends."

Thus began the legend of Dominick Cruz. He embarked on a career in MMA, winning 22 of his first 23 bouts. Yet it appeared time had finally caught up with Cruz, who lost the bantamweight title to Cody Garbrandt in 2016 – then suffered a second straight loss, for the first time ever, when he returned in 2020 to challenge Henry Cejudo for the title.

The loss to Cejudo was filled with controversy. The referee, Keith Peterson, ruled the fight a TKO with 2 seconds remaining in the second round, despite Cruz clearly in the process of getting back on his feet. A healthy chunk of Cruz's greatness is due to his cerebral nature, and he offered a detailed account of what happened that night in the octagon.

"If you watch any of Keith Peterson's fights, his style of referring has completely changed since that fight," Cruz says. "We learned together. He stopped the fight too early. I was doing everything I was supposed to do to keep the fight going, everything they tell you in the back – defend yourself at all times, work your way back up, and recreate the fight by defending yourself. He made a mistake, but you've got to give Henry credit.

"While he was fake punching me, not connecting the punches but hitting my arm while I was working my way up, Henry was asking the referee if he was going to let it go. He manipulated and took power over Keith Peterson, so you have to hand it to Henry on that one. If you watch basketball, the veterans can fake an injury so they can get their two free shots. That happens in this sport, too. That was smart on Henry. It was a mistake on Keith Peterson, and he's taken responsibility, and I've taken responsibility for putting myself in that position. Henry was the better man that night."

Following the defeat, Cruz recommitted himself to chasing the title. He defeated a tough opponent in southpaw Casey Kenney by split decision, then put forth a "Fight of the Night" performance last December in a unanimous decision victory against Pedro Munhoz. Holding back the curtain on the twilight of his career, Cruz is now only one victory away from reattaining his place in the top five.

"I feel very well prepared, my body is working for me, and I'm healthy," says Cruz, who had foot and shoulder injuries entering the Garbrandt fight and was coming off shoulder surgery before the Cejudo fight. "I'm facing a guy on a nasty roll in Vera. I'm excited and I am nervous for the fight."

Incredibly, Cruz still does not always receive the full credit he deserves for his place as one of the sport's greats. That will change if he fulfills his quest for a three-peat, which will gain considerable momentum if he defeats Vera.

"I'm asking to fight up against the best killers in my division," Cruz says. "This has grown into the most competitive division in the world. When it comes to full mixed martial arts skills, grappling, striking, all right limbs and using that art to finish somebody, my division is the most awesome to watch.

"Our weight class is amazing, and Vera is really good. Now I'm here to create a masterpiece on Saturday night."

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.