'What a gift that was': How Dominick Cruz turned his parents' divorce into a championship career

·Combat columnist
·5-min read

Dominick Cruz was only 5 years old when his parents’ marriage dissolved. Divorce is almost always a painful and difficult time for all members of a family, but particularly for younger people who can’t comprehend the sudden changes they’re facing.

Before his father left the home, he had a talk with young Dominick. Dominick was the oldest son and much would be expected of him, despite his tender years.

Cruz is now 37 years old, one of the greatest mixed martial arts fighters who ever lived and in addition to remaining an active fighter, he’s become a popular broadcast analyst. He’s known for his insights and his ability to adapt.

At 5, though, he was about to have a weight thrust upon him that no young child should have to endure.

“My Dad took me into a room and said, ‘You are the man of the house now,’” Cruz told Yahoo Sports. “He said, ‘You need to take care of your Mom, take care of your brother, take care of the family. This [marriage] isn’t going to work. And I’m out.’ And that was it.”

Most 5-year-olds couldn’t comprehend what they’d just heard. Cruz, though, had a vastly different reaction.

“Right away, I took that role very seriously,” Cruz said. “Basically, that wired me to be a champion. I could have been a victim of life, but realistically, what a gift that was. I had the weight of the world put on me at a very young age and my ability to handle that and succeed helped make me the athlete and the person I am today.”

And so Cruz developed a knack for being able to adapt, to assess situations and find solutions. Those abilities have led him to unimaginable heights.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 11: Dominick Cruz prepares to face Pedro Munhoz of Brazil in their bantamweight
 fight during the UFC 269 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 11, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Two-time UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz headlines Saturday's UFC San Diego against No. 5-ranked Marlon Vera. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

On Saturday at the Pechanga Arena in San Diego, California, Cruz will face Marlon Vera in the five-round main event of UFC San Diego. It’s one of the rare times in his career that Cruz is the underdog, at least according to the oddsmakers. At BetMGM, Vera is -225 and Cruz is +185.

But outside of mixed martial arts, Cruz has been the underdog from the beginning. His family struggled financially and life was never simple or easy.

It hardened him, though, and taught him the value of hard work. It also taught him humility.

And that’s why he’s found himself in camp working with young sparring partners. He didn’t bring in established fighters who could emulate Vera. Rather, he found fighters in his own gym who are desperate to succeed themselves.

“I learn from them daily,” Cruz said. “They’re going to be the best of the new era. They’re 21, 22 years old and they’re just savages. They want to win more than life itself. I see that fire and it shows what you can be by being hungry and pushing and never being satisfied. I have that beginner’s mindset and I want to soak everything up and learn something every day and never leave unless I’m satisfied that I pushed myself to the limit.

“These young kids have kind of turned the tables. I’m the established guy and the one with the titles and the recognition, but they’re really the teachers. They’re teaching me again what is necessary to be the best you can be.”

Cruz is finally approaching the best he can be. He still dreams of regaining the bantamweight championship. Despite all of the accolades he’s received, he’s never really satisfied and every slight, real or imagined, pushes him to prove someone wrong.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 11: Dominick Cruz punches Pedro Munhoz of Brazil in their bantamweight bout during the UFC 269 on December 11, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Dominick Cruz, shown here during his unanimous decision win over Pedro Munhoz in December, is 2-2 in his last four fights. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

He fought twice in 2021, winning both bouts, the first time since 2016 that he fought more than once in a year. He’s back in a routine, back doing what he loves, pushing once again to shock the world, always the underdog.

“I feel confident because my body’s healthy and I’m not beaten up,” Cruz said. “I’m able to put the work in and push and I feel happy with how I’m showing up each day. There’s been less stagnation.”

Cruz respected Vera’s choice to call him out after Vera had beaten Rob Font. But he’s been puzzled by Vera’s subsequent reaction during the fight’s build-up. It’s been Vera’s choice of words in interviews that has annoyed Cruz, he said.

He said they worked together frequently and Vera never showed the side of himself to Cruz that he’s done since the fight was made.

“I don’t know where it comes from,” Cruz said. “But I don’t need to be that way. I can talk about Marlon and talk about how good he is and the progress he’s made and all of the good things about him because I’m confident in myself and what I’ve done. I don’t need all that.

“But if that’s what he needs to get himself up, great. Everything I’ve been through in this life brought me to where I am today and it’s made me who I am right now.”