You can tell a lot about a person from the way they celebrate victory. You can tell even more from the way they take defeat.
At UFC 207, Dominick Cruz stepped up to defend his bantamweight crown against the tenacious Cody Garbrandt. This was a fight he was odds on to win. Cruz is, in the eyes of many, the best bantamweight to ever live. He is one of the greatest pound for pound fighters in any division. His mastery of unorthodox footwork is legendary. And here he was, yet again, against an opponent he would surely run circles around.
Yet, by the fourth round, Cruz must have known he was in deep water. Here was an elite athlete with a 22-1 record that had never lost a title fight, reduced to throwing and missing. Worse, he was being caught on the counter and it was dawning on the crowd, and the millions watching, that there was a very real possibility Cruz would be forced to relinquish his crown.
And so it proved. When the scorecards were announced after a bruising five-round encounter, Cruz duly learnt his fate: his reign as the best bantamweight in the world was over, bested by Garbrandt’s dominant display of precision power.
In the aftermath, Cruz could have been excused for being tetchy, remote and angry in defeat. This is, after all, not a fight that takes place around a boardroom where barbs are thrown, but an actual fistfight where the ego is truly bruised. Prior to the fight, Cruz and Garbrandt had exchanged heated words. Garbrandt, six years Cruz’s junior, was playing the role of maverick young gun ready to make Cruz feel his age. Defeat must have hurt, but as Cruz strode into the post-match press conference (an arena many bested champions avoid altogether), he took the setback in his stride.
“Loss is part of life. If you don’t have loss you don’t have grow.”
Was he upset at his gameplan? “I’m not disappointed in myself at all. All I can say is I lost and I’ll take my loss like a man.”
“I knew he was going to be good. He knew I was going to be good. Someone else has the target on their back now and that’s the way it goes. It’s okay. We’ve seen the best in the world lose it. And we’ve seen the best in the world gain it back.”
And when the door was opened for Cruz to make excuses, feign injury or complain about the decision, he swiftly shut that door.
“That was 100% me. I was healthy. I was everything I’ve always been in my eyes.”
He proceeded to effectively unpack his performance, analysing where he went wrong. He was too often the aggressor, too eager to take the fight to the younger man. But if he hadn’t, what sort of bore-fest would that have been, he asked.
Cruz is one of the best analysts on the UFC roster and yet here he was, applying the same midas touch to his own fight. The analyst’s mind won through. There were no ifs, buts or maybes – just an acknowledgement that he had been beaten by a better fighter on the day.
While the headlines have been dominated by Ronda Rousey’s behavior since her loss, it’s a shame not more attention is being focused on Cruz, who showed extraordinary grace in accepting defeat. Such humility is rarely spied in the high octane world of professional sport – much less fighting.
It deserves to be one of the dominant story-lines of 2016 and the prism through which we view MMA moving into 2017. While Meryl Streep has grabbed headlines for writing off MMA as a phony art, Cruz is the epitome of the sport at its best.
They say that MMA is an artform that helps you to become a better person, no matter what you do. Cruz epitomizes the virtues we should all aspire to. You lost? Fine. Get up, dust yourself down and get on with it.
The new champ won’t be easy to displace from his throne, but if any fighter deserves to the next shot at it, it’s Dominick Cruz.