Article by Loretta Hunt, SI.com
Of the seven UFC champions, bantamweight titleholder Dominick Cruz has the most to gain from his starring stint as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter 15 this March on FX.
It’s something not lost on the 26-year-old Cruz, who knows one of his Christmas presents came early this year when he got the call from UFC president Dana White just hours before the announcement in early December.
“Every call I get for each fight is the next big call of my life,” Cruz said. “I’m getting used to getting the biggest call of my life one after another. To fight in the UFC is once in a lifetime. To have the belt is once in a lifetime. To be on Fox’s FX
Cruz said that candidates for the coveted coaching positions on the hit reality TV show, which moves from Spike TV to the Fox-owned cable channel in the new year, are kept in the dark just as much as the fans for fear of the news leaking out before UFC parent company Zuffa wants it to. Prior to White’s call, Cruz said he was given one cryptic message by Zuffa brass a few weeks prior to “keep your head on a swivel because you have an opportunity that might arise.”
When White did call Cruz, he had only one question: Red or blue? Cruz chose red for his team color; rival coach Urijah Faber’s team will wear blue.
It’s very rare that a fighter turns down the opportunity to appear on the television vehicle that springboarded the UFC out of the red in 2005 and launched the sport into its most important growth phase to date. In Cruz’s case, the opportunity is especially golden because he doesn’t think his personal story has traveled outside the sport’s hardcore circles and past the fans that watched Zuffa’s now-defunct sister promotion, World Extreme Cagefighting, on the more obscure Versus channel between 2007 and ’10.
Cruz believes he has his archrival Faber to partially thank for that.
“I think a lot of people have misconceptions about me,” Cruz said. “People usually believe what Faber’s been saying about me, that I’m a d-bag and all these negative things. Of course, he’s going to say negative things about me. I’ve beaten him and some of his teammates. What nice stuff will he have to say about me?”
For a big piece of Cruz’s backstory, one need not look much further than the fighter’s main coach of five years, Eric Del Fierro.
Del Fierro, a promoter for San Diego’s regional show Total Combat in 2006, admits he booked Cruz as a two-week replacement against seasoned lightweight Dave Hisquierdo not expecting too much from him.
What Del Fierro got, he said, was “heart, determination, and a desire to win at all costs.”
Hisquierdo dropped Cruz many times, but he always got up. After 15 minutes, Del Fierro said Cruz had a broken nose, two black eyes, and would later be diagnosed with a concussion at the hospital.
“I didn’t expect him to win, but he pulled out a split decision,” Del Fierro said. “To this day, I think it was his hardest fight ever.”
Del Fierro offered Cruz a title shot in the promotion two months later. After Cruz won, he dropped 10 pounds and fought for Total Combat’s vacant featherweight title against Shad Smith and earned a painful unanimous decision.
“By the third round, Smith was hitting him with open hands because his own hands hurt too much for closed fists,” Del Fierro said.
Cruz, who now touted an attractive 9-0 record, was called up to the big leagues only four months later, when he fought WEC 145-pound champion Faber for the first time in March 2007. Cruz was grossly underprepared for Faber, who had twice as many fights as him against much tougher opponents. Faber submitted Cruz in a minute and 38 seconds, but the Tucson transplant’s first defeat was a motivating wake-up call.
“After I fought Faber it was like the sky’s the limit,” Cruz said. “Let’s get to training; let’s fix everything and go win a title. I threw everything in my car, drove to California, and lived on Eric’s floor for a couple of months.”
Del Fierro retired from promoting and became a coach at the Alliance MMA training center in Chula Vista, Calif., home to UFC light heavyweights Phil Davis, Brandon Vera, Alexander Gustaffson; TUF 9 winner Ross Pearson and other prominent players.
In the next three years, Del Fierro helped mold Cruz into championship material and the fighter validated his status when he took the WEC 135-pound crown from Brian Bowles with a second-round stoppage at WEC 47 in March 2010. Cruz has efficiently defended his title on four occasions, and got his revenge on the ultra-popular Faber with a five-round unanimous decision at UFC 132 last July, after Zuffa decided to merge the two promotions in late 2010.
Del Fierro believes viewers will be surprised by what they see from Cruz on the show when it starts airing weekly in March.
“His discipline and his work ethic is what sets him apart,” Del Fierro said. “You can’t see that until you train with a guy. He’s basically the team captain at Alliance and it wasn’t by his choice. I didn’t assign him. It’s just happened because he earns so much respect from his teammates.”
It’s obvious that Cruz’s drive to succeed comes from his simple beginnings in Tucson with his single mother, his brother and his father out of the picture, though he’s hesitant to dwell too much on what he considers common circumstances for many of his peers.
It’s also apparent that Cruz doesn’t like to complain. Case in point, it was the UFC president White who told the media that the fighter had broken his hand during his last title defense against Demetrius Johnson in October. Shortly afterward, Cruz underwent his second major hand surgery of 2011.
Cruz, who wrestled throughout high school and quit college to become a full-time fighter, said he’s prepared to share his story on the reality series if he’s asked to.
“This gives me an opportunity to come out and show the kind of person I am,” Cruz said. “Once you get to know me, I’m just like everybody else. I work a job and I strive to succeed and become a better person and help the people around me. I feel like that’s what life is about.”
Cruz said the coaching aspect of the show, which will use an experimental weekly shoot-edit-air schedule and end each episode with a live fight, is right up his alley. Cruz said he coached high school wrestling for four years and has taught MMA classes at various gyms since age 18 in exchange for membership.
“I’m asked constantly, ‘How do I come up with that style?’ or ‘How do I not get tired?’ Cruz said. “There’s really no secret to it. I’m a human being like everyone else; I just work really hard to make sure it works out for me. I want to share that with my team.”
So far, Cruz said his only instructions have been to report to the Ultimate Training Center in Las Vegas in early March with his coaching team. Since the series will shoot over 13 weeks, getting his supporting staff together has been a little trickier than the 30-day commitment participants have made for past seasons.
Del Fierro, who’s also full-time firefighter, is tentatively set to appear as head coach; Doug Balzarini will handle conditioning; and Penn State alum Davis will serve as wrestling coach barring any conflicting obligations from Zuffa following his bout against Rashad Evans on UFC on Fox 2 on Jan. 28 in Chicago.
Cruz and Del Fierro will also rotate in revolving coaches, like Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts Lloyd Irvin and Andre Galvao, Penn State wrestler Adam Lynch and wrestling coach Eric Uresk, as well as boxing instructor Adrian Melendrez in two-week allotments. UFC heavyweight Joey Beltran is also slated to appear as a cage-control expert.
Cruz said he hasn’t stopped thinking about the new weekly schedule since the announcement, how fast situations will move on the show and how everything he says, whether in haste or not, could be heard by millions of fans if it’s edited in during the quick turnaround. It’s a lot of pressure for a fighter who might introduce the UFC and the sport to the slew of new fans that Zuffa hopes the network move could bring.
“I feel like [Faber and me] both professionals,” Cruz said, who’s also had choice words for Faber in the past. “We’re not stupid and we know how to talk and conduct ourselves like professionals.”
Cruz and Faber, who re-energized his career with an impressive dismantling of former champion Bowles at UFC 139 in November, were also rumored for TUF 14 coaching duties last summer, but the promotion and network chose bickering middleweights Michael Bisping and Jason “Mayhem” Miller to oversee the pool of featherweight and bantamweight hopefuls instead.
This season’s class will feature lightweight and welterweight fighters, and Cruz said he has no problem sharing the platform with Faber, who will get his fifth shot at a Zuffa-promoted title in the pending rubber match that will follow the show’s airing.
“I think it’s about who can represent the sport in the best way,” said Cruz. “That’s part of it, but who am I to say who deserves a title fight and who doesn’t? Let’s keep it real. That’s not my job. I’ll fight him again, I’ll beat him again and I’ll prove why I’m the champion.”