Injured Cruz keeping close eye on division

Tuesday morning was sparring time at Alliance MMA in Chula Vista, Calif., prompting Dominick Cruz to tweet that he felt ready.

"[Too] bad I can only watch," he lamented.

With the UFC bantamweight champion a couple weeks away from being cleared to jog, Cruz's recovery from a pair of ACL surgeries since May of last year is noticeably far from complete.

"I wanted to start sparring the day I got out of surgery,” he said. “It's just one of those things where you have to bide your time and be patient."

Cruz (19-1) last stepped into the cage on Oct. 1, 2011, when he bested Demetrious Johnson on points. Since then there's been a shuffle at the weight. Johnson and Joseph Benavidez dropped to 125. Older threats like Miguel Torres disappeared in place of new ones like Michael McDonald (15-1). And Renan Barao (29-1) stepped up after Cruz was injured, winning an interim title against Urijah Faber.

"Hopefully this summer the kid is back," UFC president Dana White said. "He's going to have to get back to training. If he gets hurt again like that I don't know what to do."

So far Cruz claims to be able to keep his mind sharp by wearing several hats -- learning what he could; improving where he could. His top priority, of course, remains fighting, and the 27-year-old bantamweight is "ready to have my life back. That's what I do. That's what I love. That's the life I chose."

Perhaps he's mentally ready, but we know for sure his body isn't. So McDonald and Barao will tangle Saturday in London at UFC on Fuel TV 7 with the Brazilian's interim belt up for grabs. White said it's his intention to put the winner in with Cruz if all goes well with his recovery. The Octagon has hosted some tremendous bantamweight bouts while Cruz was sidelined, and 135 is delivering quality contests outside the UFC as well, such as Thursday's Bellator MMA title fight between Eduardo Dantas and Marcos Galvao.

"I tip my hat to them," Cruz said of his fellow bantamweights. "Keep doing work, because everyone is trying to do the same thing, and that's be the best. Good luck to 35ers, but when I come back, I'm going to have to whoop you."

Cruz said while it feels like "I'm watching the division continue to go on" in my absence, he doesn't carry a sense of living in purgatory.

Lacking a timetable for his return (doctors "have no clue and neither do I," he said) the UFC champion has spent much of his time watching film, working as he will this Saturday as an analyst for Fuel TV, and serving as a coach and corner for teammates at Alliance MMA.

A "cornerman for everyone on my team," Cruz declared himself.

Based upon on a breakdown of Saturday’s main event from London, that could go for both bantamweights, too.

Cruz believes Barao will retain the interim belt because of experience, confidence and, most notably, his defense. If McDonald has a shot, said Cruz, it will come if he can force Barao to move backward, take away range-finding straight punches and mix in takedowns.

The shelved champion has thought a lot about the matchup, because the winner will likely be his next top challenger. That depends mostly on when he'll be able to return to the cage. Also, this type of in-depth analysis of fighters is something Cruz says he simply enjoys doing.

Cruz is a natural -- perfectly willing to drop a lengthy, insightful breakdown of a fight and its participants when asked. While some champions don't pay attention to kids coming up the ranks, or even emerging top contenders, Cruz said he's infatuated with knowing all he can about mixed martial artists moving up behind him.

"I'm curious about the division from the very beginning," Cruz said. "What's the main thing that's happening in the sport right now? I feel like it's evolving. What does the sport evolve from? The sport evolves from the guys that are new to the division, new to the UFC period. Those guys are the future of the sport.

"Why wouldn't you be watching those guys to see what new stuff is being brought to the cage? Experienced champion or not, you gotta be watching these new guys coming in because they're bringing new tools that people haven't seen. That's why they're in UFC. They're going to bring different dynamics to the sport. You have to keep an eye out for that stuff."

Joining Barao and McDonald at the top of the heap, Cruz tabbed Eddie Wineland as a serious threat at 135. Considering the champion's extended absence, chances are the gap between himself and men vying for the title will close enough so that ESPN.com's No. 5 ranked pound-for-pound fighter won't make it look so one-sided all the time.

Those two weeks until Cruz gets a chance to run again can't go by fast enough. Then it's on through the next barrier until finally he'll be healthy enough to fight again.

"When I come back, I'll be ready to jump right back into it," Cruz promised.

Until then, he'll keep his raptorlike vision smartly trained on the bantamweights. They've been worth watching.