Every sport must, repeat, must have superstars. The more the merrier for sponsors, network ratings, and ticket buyers. Without stars to cheer for or against, there would have never been this insatiable appetite for sports as we know it. From Babe Ruth to Jim Brown to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, there are links to every key figure and the impact of popularity of the sport at that time.
The UFC from the get-go, once Zuffa took over, wrapped themselves around the importance of their fighters becoming known to the public and therefore, they had to be accessible to those limited fans at the time to grow to the power they are now.
At the time of this writing, the former face of women’s MMA, Gina Carano, hasn’t signed an agreement to make her UFC debut for the title against Ronda Rousey. UFC President Dana White said last week in Ireland that was going to be a priority. Though she hasn’t fought since 2009, Carano’s name still stirs interest, star wattage.
That makes the return to action of former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz even more of a focal point for the fighter, the organization and the fans. He was a popular champion with peerless footwork who transitioned from a WEC title to UFC champ seamlessly defeating Urijah Faber for the inaugural crown at UFC 132. He defended successfully against Demetrious Johnson October 1, 2011. An important date because it was the last time he has fought after two ACL surgeries and a torn quadricep muscle that has kept him sidelined and put his career in limbo.
With only a handful of major draws for the mind boggling number of events they put on annually, the UFC can’t afford a drop off in pay-per-view pulls. The top watched Rousey can’t fight ten times a year. Chris Weidman has a still developing fan following. Jon Jones has dominated his division, but the rematch with Alexander Gustafsson intrigues. Cain Velasquez has been on the shelf with an injury but is coming back soon. Then there’s Anthony Pettis who has battled injuries as much as opponents and Johny Hendricks who is healing up as well. These are the drawing cards, the PPV aces. With Georges St. Pierre maybe or maybe not coming back, and Anderson Silva working to come back, the options for the must-see match ups have gotten smaller.
Cruz perhaps more than anyone in the lighter weight classes provides that spark to fire up fans again. In addition to talent, he also brings a dazzling smile, intelligence to the microphone, and an overall appeal among a wide range of demographics. So, when he steps into the octagon close to three years after leaving it, to take on 6th ranked Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 178 September 27, Cruz will be back at the place he is most comfortable with, facing a foe who, with a win, can put him back where he belongs–in the mix for the title he had to relinquish because of the litany of injuries. After T.J. Dillashaw stunned Renan Barao, who was to fight Cruz before his latest injury this year, to take the title, the bantamweight rankings are ripe for leap-frogging. Cruz is currently 12th but can easily zoom past others. Being on the Jones-Gustaffson card should bring the highest viewing audience since the July 4th weekend blockbuster.
“I had to fight a highly regarded contender, that’s the only way to come back,” he told us before taping an “Inside MMA” interview. Cruz also added it has been a period of re-acclimation that went beyond basic training. “I wasn’t worried about getting my speed back, it’s there. The footwork feels as good as ever. But I was worried about my body overall getting the muscles to be used to doing what they once did. Things have been great I feel alive again.”
So too the UFC and his fans.
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