Bantamweight is a division that never fails to be exciting. Between scrambly grapplers, fast paced volume strikers and power punchers, any possible matchup will likely result in a superb fight. Perhaps no two fighters in the division are more stylistically different, and thus compelling, than Dominick Cruz and Marlon 'Chito' Vera.
Dominick Cruz is a former 2 time UFC champion and WEC champion before that. His style relies most of all on his movement, dancing circles around his opponent whilst peppering them with noncommittal punches and kicks. Periodically Cruz will mix in his takedowns to score points and create yet another problem for his adversary. Cruz's lack of power often forces him to go the full distance, winning the vast majority of his fights on the scorecards.
Chito Vera, however, is the best he's ever been after a long time bouncing up and down the bantamweight rankings. Where Cruz relies on movement, Vera often appears more sluggish and plodding. Where Cruz punches with all the power of Play-Doh, Vera has the most finishes in Bantamweight history and clearly hits with bad intentions. Where Cruz is moving from the outset, Vera is a frustratingly slow starter and will often give away the opening round or rounds whilst he figures out his opponent.
The fight opened as expected. Cruz immediately came in running circles around Vera and landing at will. Particularly, Cruz would open an exchange by throwing a punch to the body or a kick to the head. This would move Vera's hands to defend at which point Cruz would blitz in with his loopy hooks and straights. Vera would shell up in response, running backwards to avoid the strikes. This pattern would repeat throughout the opening rounds, every blitz eliciting a crowd pop equivalent to a knockdown. To less experienced eyes, Vera's body language appears akin to that of a fighter in survival mode.
However, Vera did well to stigmatise the low kicks with counters of his own. Whenever Cruz found himself getting comfortable with the low kicks he found himself taking more damage than he'd put out, even being dropped as a result. This would continue throughout the fight with Cruz eating the counter whenever he lazily kicked within boxing range.
Whilst Chito Vera's front kicks failed to elicit another big knockout, they did succeed at dissuading Cruz's wrestling. By constantly showing that weapon, Vera made Cruz risk eating it on the level change. Not only this but the front kicks stifled Cruz's forward motion at times, who risked of blitzing in and comically taking the kick.
Cruz was no longer able to box his way off of the fence as a result, finding himself running straight into Vera rather than being able to dance his way into open space. He would find small success retaking the centre via his takedown attempts, but this method had less utility due to the output of energy and vast dangers of eating a front kick or knee if too predictable. Thus Vera was able to cut the cage on Cruz, backing him up and finding his finishing strike
Vera's jab-straight into same side head kick is a technique most notable for it's constant utilisation by Robert Whittaker. The basic theory behind it is that as the opponent dips to the outside of the straight, they move directly into the head kick on the same side. Vera attempted this tactic in the final seconds of Round 2, throwing the orthodox jab-straight into right head kick. Cruz saw the kick coming and was able to evade by pulling himself backwards out of range.
The 4th round knockout came to Vera via a multitude of adjustments made to that same technique. For one, he threw out of the Southpaw stance with a right jab, left straight into left head kick. Xtreme Couture head coach Eric Nicksick noted that Cruz's hands drop when dipping to his right, and thus the left kick was able to find its mark. This vulnerability to the head kick had also been noted by Vera's coach Jason Parillo prior to the fight and was clearly something they had strategised for.
Vera's success at cutting the cage paid dividends as Cruz found himself backed up against the fence when the combination was thrown. Once again he bit on the one-two before slipping this time to the right and, unable to pull back and avoid the kick, took the brunt of it. Vera's timing was also pivotal, committing less to the southpaw straight but showing enough to prompt Cruz into his right dip. With a less committal straight Vera was able to throw the kick sooner and land himself the finish
Both fighters now find themselves in tough spots. Dominick Cruz has been adamant that the prospect of another UFC belt is what keeps him fighting. With his streak now at an end, it remains to be seen whether or not we see him again in the Octagon or if he'll choose to reflect and hang up the gloves for good. For what it's worth, I don't think he's completely washed up. Whilst it's undeniable that Cruz has lost a step with age and injury he's also shown that he's got more to give if he so chooses. I'd love to see him fight Frankie Edgar for a double retirement fight. Alternatively if Jose Aldo is unsuccessful against Merab Dvalishvili at UFC 278, Aldo vs Cruz is a fight every single fan of the sport should be drawn to.
Chito Vera's predicament is much more favourable than Cruz's but still raises issues for him. Every other bantamweight worth him fighting is currently booked, the closest available matchup being Rob Font whom Vera has already bounced around the Octagon in May of this year. If he's willing to wait, I'd love to see Vera face the winner of Cory Sandhagen vs Song Yadong to cement their place in the upper echelons of the Bantamweight division.
Irregardless, Marlon Vera continues to overcome tougher and tougher opposition. Ahead of him now lies the path to his coveted title, paved with only tougher challenges. I look forward to seeing if Vera can continue to succeed despite his lack of urgency in the early rounds or if this will prove his undoing at the highest levels.