Ariel Helwani on why Dominick Cruz shouldn't be overlooked vs. Henry Cejudo

Cruz reacts to Cejudo calling him out (1:20)

Dominick Cruz tells Ariel Helwani he doesn't know what Henry Cejudo is doing and that he would love to "tune him up" in a fight. (1:20)

I'll never forget Jan. 17, 2016.

Not so much because of the great TJ Dillashaw vs. Dominick Cruz UFC bantamweight title fight that happened that night in Boston (it was a really great fight and worth watching, if you've never seen it before), but because of what Cruz said to me afterward.

Before I share what that was, and why it's relevant as Cruz prepares to challenge bantamweight champ Henry Cejudo at UFC 249 on May 9, here's some context:

Cruz made his MMA debut in 2005 and started his career a perfect 9-0.

That's when he met future bitter rival Urijah Faber at WEC 26 in March 2007 for the World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight title.

Cruz didn't put up much of a fight that night. He lost in 1:38 via guillotine choke, and it was unclear if he would ever amount to much in MMA. Faber, the face of the WEC and one of the best lighter-weight fighters on the planet at the time, just seemed that much better.

But then Cruz dropped down to 135 and everything changed.

He proceeded to win his next six fights in a row en route to becoming the WEC bantamweight champion. He defended that belt four times, as the division was absorbed into the UFC, where Cruz was crowned the inaugural UFC bantamweight champion.

He was Mr. Reliable. The king of the bantamweights, getting better with each fight. He wore that belt proudly.

In his third title defense, on July 2, 2011, all was right in the world of Dominick Cruz. On that night, he headlined the UFC's annual July 4 weekend show -- which is always a big deal -- against the man who handed him the only loss of his career, Faber. This time it was Cruz defending his title and this time it was Cruz who had his hand raised at the end of the night, defeating Faber via unanimous decision.

And still.

He followed that up by serving Demetrious Johnson a butt-whupping in October 2011 that sent Johnson down to 125 for good (and we all know how that turned out).

Cruz was now an impressive 19-1, and still the champ.

I can't stress this enough: Cruz was one of the very best fighters on the planet at that point. He was moving and grooving out there unlike most fighters, and he had a level of supreme confidence that made people think that he could go down as one of the best to ever do it.

Life was good for Cruz. He was a champion, one of the faces of the sport and it looked like no one could touch him at 135.

He was selected to coach the 15th season of The Ultimate Fighter, opposite Faber, which was to culminate in their highly anticipated trilogy fight on July 7, 2012, at UFC 148. This was a great spot to be in.

And then everything changed.

On May 7, 2012, two months before that third Faber fight and while filming TUF, Cruz tore his left ACL. The trilogy would have to wait, but more importantly, life would never be the same again for Cruz.

I remember speaking to him two weeks after he suffered that injury in Las Vegas. He was tense, upset, short with his answers. He didn't want to talk to me that day, I could feel it. His career was now up in the air. It was uncomfortable. I felt bad for him.

In December 2012, Cruz underwent another ACL surgery because his body rejected the original cadaver tissue inserted by doctors over the summer.

In late December 2013, Cruz, who was now fully recovered from the multiple ACL surgeries, tore his groin and was forced to not only withdraw from his February 2014 title fight against Renan Barao, but also had to relinquish that title.


This sequence of events was one of the most depressing I've seen covering MMA.

Here's an athlete at the top of his sport, who continues to be sidelined by serious injuries. You couldn't help but feel horribly for Cruz.

I know having to give up that belt affected Cruz deeply. No champion wants to lose the title that way. But getting it back also fueled him.

In the end, it took Cruz three years to return to action. He was booked to fight top contender Takeya Mizugaki in September 2014 and it felt like the entire MMA world prayed Cruz would just make it to the fight. No one wanted to see him suffer another setback.

Cruz made it to the fight, and it only took 61 seconds for him to dispose of Mizugaki. What a moment that was. As emotional as I've seen in the UFC.

That win got Cruz another crack at the belt. All was about to be right again in the world of Dominick Cruz.

Three months later, he tore the ACL in his other knee, the right one. Seriously.

Another year out. More heartbreak.

At this point, I'd imagine most normal humans would have given up. They'd say, "Hey, it has been a nice run. I won the belt. I made some money. Let's just move on." I mean, who could endure so many setbacks? Clearly, Cruz's body was trying to tell him something.

Dominick Cruz isn't most normal humans.

You see, not only is Cruz a tremendous athlete, he's also a bit stubborn. He's argumentative. He likes a good debate and he likes to prove people wrong. Sometimes this can rub people the wrong way, because he gives off a "smartest man in the room" vibe, but I like it. That's what makes him unique.

So, he worked his way back. This was never a question in his mind. He heard about everyone writing him off, and he was going to prove us all wrong. It was amazing listening to him talk about another road to recovery. He never wavered. It was almost as if he was the only one on this planet who knew how this movie was going to end, and he couldn't wait for us to catch up to him.

On Jan. 17, 2016, he fought Dillashaw for the bantamweight title.

Dillashaw was rolling at this point, scoring two impressive wins over Barao the year before. To be honest, he looked like a new and improved version of Cruz.

The title fight was one for the highlight reel. So much fun to watch. In the end, Cruz won a close decision. He actually did it. He proved us all wrong. He was champion again. All was right in the world for Dominick Cruz. Again.

Do I remember all the highlights of that fight? No. It has been over four years, after all.

But I will never forget what Cruz said to me afterward.

After the postfight news conference, I asked him if this was the greatest moment of his life. I'd imagine it was, considering everything he had to endure to win the belt again.

"No," he said, not missing a beat.

"The greatest moment in my life was realizing I didn't need a belt to be happy."

I get chills just thinking of that answer. It's one of the most powerful things a fighter has ever said to me.

Here I was, thinking the belt was what fueled this latest comeback. I couldn't have been more wrong.

You have to understand, for all these men and women who dream of being UFC fighters, the belt is everything. It's the light at the end of the miserable tunnel. It's their golden ticket.

For some, the belt is a great motivator. But others will allow it to break them. The belt proves to be a source of way too much pressure, and they end up falling short of their dreams.

So, to hear Cruz, who had been through so much over the previous 4½ years, including getting stripped of the title, say that he didn't need the belt to be happy -- man, what a revelation.

I will love that quote forever because of the honesty attached to it but also because it represents why Cruz was so dangerous after that fight. He was happy and didn't have the pressure of the belt on his shoulders.

Cruz finally beat Faber a third time later in 2016, but fell to Cody Garbrandt at the end of the year. It was his first loss in nine years.

He hasn't fought since. Why? More injuries.

But now here he is, on the cusp of fighting for the belt again. In 2020. Eight years after he suffered that first devastating injury.

And make no mistake about it, he wants that belt. He'd love to be champion again. But the prospect of losing this title fight against Cejudo isn't terrifying to him. He doesn't need the belt to be happy. It doesn't define him, perhaps, like gold defines Cejudo.

So, while you're at home debating whether Dominick Cruz deserves to be fighting a champion who hasn't defended the 135-pound title once, remember the man who put this division on the map all those years ago. Remember the man who overcame injuries that would derail most mortals. Remember the man who laid the groundwork for fighters like Cejudo to make money as a bantamweight.

At the postfight news conference following the Garbrandt fight, Cruz stood up the entire time. I had never seen anyone do this before.

At the very end, I asked him why he didn't take a seat.

"Why would I sit down?" he said in his usual matter-of-fact tone. "I'm always on my feet."

Dominick Cruz has been knocked down plenty of times. More times than he cares to count at this point.

But he's still standing. He's still happy. And he's here to prove you all wrong. Again.