As he was talking over a post Inside MMA dinner, the TV at the bar of the restaurant had on Game One of the playoffs between Los Angeles and St. Louis. It was the seventh inning and Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw, deservingly regarded as the best pitcher in baseball, was uncharacteristically yielding hit after hit to the Cardinals. A St. Louis rally leading to a come from behind victory against the man who had total control of situations similar in the regular season. But no matter how great he had been, it was his losing post season record that drew the scrutiny and the criticism, fair or not, from media and fans.
Cruz understands that is the criteria of sports. No matter how a player does in the season, how a fighter does against ranked competition on the way up, it comes down to being considered a great athlete by the scope of the big games, the big fights. Did they come through with a championship on the line?
“I want the belt back,” Cruz continued as another Cardinal drove in another run on the screen near us. “That’s why we fight. Every fighter I know wants a title, at least a shot at it. I have a small circle of friends and family. That’s who I had around me after the win. It was great to be back but there’s more ahead.”
That would appear to be current champ T.J. Dillashaw, and that’s exactly what Cruz had his sights on training for the Mizugaki fight. “I wanted to get right back at it, against a ranked opponent to move up again with a chance to get my belt back.”
The 29 year old has endured two surgeries on his ACL that kept him sidelined for over two years, and a torn groin that preempted a return earlier this year. Through all the disappointment there it was in his dreams, his visions as he strained and sweated through one grueling training session after another–the UFC belt. That’s it, doesn’t matter how many wins for him, it’s about the one thing all athletes are judged on when the talk turns to greatness. “Being a champion is a feeling like no other,” he remembers it vividly, burned into his memory and his heart.
He has added highly respect grappling coach Neil Malanson, who worked with legend Randy Couture among others, to his close knit group. “He has been a huge tool in this whole process, he’s helped change my game, my entire grappling. I’ve never worked so well with anyone.”
Kershaw inexplicably lost another seventh inning lead in St. Louis a week later as the Cardinals advanced into the league championship series with the San Francisco Giants. As spectacular as he has been in recent years, maybe the top pitcher of his generation, the title continues to be elusive, and that regretfully is what many will always point to until it changes.
Cruz will have his moment again, the shine of the belt reflecting in his eyes when he approaches the champ Dillashaw. It will be in his reach. For any athlete that is the moment of everything, the work, the hope, the hours and years. Then it will be up to them, heartbreak or hero, it is the measure of sports
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