Cruz, 30, has fought just once in four years due to multiple ACL tears and torn quadriceps. Before the layoffs, Cruz had recorded three UFC title defenses. In his absence, Dillashaw has emerged as the man to beat, racking up three wins in 2014, including a TKO victory over Renan Barao for the undisputed championship at UFC 173.
Here is MMA Live Extra analyst Brett Okamoto's breakdown of the main event, plus predictions for the main card. Don't agree? Let him know on Twitter: @bokamotoESPN.
TJ Dillashaw (12-2) vs. Dominick Cruz (20-1)
Odds: Dillashaw -145; Cruz +125
Is Dillashaw truly one of the best fighters in the world -- or is he just coming off one of the most lopsided stylistic matchups in UFC title fight history?
It's true, few have looked as impressive as Dillashaw over the past 24 months. But with that said, everyone would agree at this point that Barao, whom Dillashaw whupped twice in that span, simply had very little for him. Barao is still considered elite, no doubt, but his specific skill set was lost against the versatile, mobile offense Dillashaw brought to the table.
Will Dillashaw look as spectacular against a completely different kind of opponent? We'll find out Sunday, but the differences between Barao and Cruz are immense. Even on two surgically repaired ACLs, Cruz will be a shifting, morphing target whereas Barao was flat-footed. Cruz is less dangerous in terms of one strike, but more versatile. And he's probably a better wrestler.
Stylistically, this will be two fighter pilots buzzing around one another. These guys move -- although, they apply movement differently. Cruz is about deception, disguises, mind games -- knowing what you're going to do before you do it. Dillashaw, by contract is more direct, aggressive. He's fights smart, but his instinct is to bury people. That leads to more finishes but more danger as well.
In the past, Cruz has handled pressure very well. In addition to slick footwork, he's rangy for 135 pounds and chasing him can be exhausting. Dillashaw, however, is very good at throwing accurate, measured shots on the move. He is constantly changing his stance and carries power regardless of which one he's in. Cruz's feints and elusiveness can frustrate anybody, but Dillashaw is probably the most capable predator Cruz has ever shared the cage with.
As mentioned earlier though, Dillashaw's tendencies on offense can and do put him in harm's way. He doesn't necessarily lack discipline, but it does feel like Dillashaw is always one tick away from breaking off his leash and throwing caution to the wind. While Cruz isn't known for knockout counterpunches, he is known for identifying openings and taking every inch an opponent gives him. Dillashaw has a granite chin, but in a fight that figures to be close, any deviations from technique could be very costly on the scorecards or in the fighters' respective gas tanks.
If the fight goes late, I would expect it to favor Cruz -- but of course, that's difficult to say about someone who has just 61 seconds of cage time in the past four years. Cruz's style demands endurance, though, and I believe he'll have that on his side, even though Dillashaw trained exclusively at altitude in Colorado.
As much attention as his unorthodox striking receives, Cruz's wrestling has been the difference in his closest bouts -- including two narrow decision wins against UFC flyweight Joseph Benavidez, who actually helped Dillashaw prepare. If Dillashaw shows any fatigue or overextends in his pursuit, that Cruz double-leg takedown could be the talk of the fight afterwards.
PREDICTION: When healthy, he has been virtually impossible to beat. Cruz in a close, five-round decision.
Rest of the main card
Anthony Pettis (18-3) vs. Eddie Alvarez (26-4), lightweights
Expect Pettis to come back better from that five-round shelling against Rafael dos Anjos. Alvarez's hopes lie in wrestling. Don't think that gets it done.
PREDICTION: Pettis second-round TKO.
Ross Pearson (18-9) vs. Francisco Trinaldo (18-4), lightweights
Both are coming off big wins (Pearson over Paul Felder; Trinaldo over Chad Laprise). On paper, this is one of the most competitive fights on the card.
PREDICTION: Trinaldo by decision.