The Slugger Chases A Ghost At UFC 207

The bout between UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz and contender Cody Garbrandt is already one for the history books, before the battle in the Octagon has even started. During the broadcast of the UFC on Fox event on Dec. 17, both were interviewed simultaneously. And while plenty of words were muted, it became clear that Cruz, who might be the best trash talker in the UFC, annihilated his opponent in that verbal exchange.

Cruz often uses a rhetorical trick by which he asks his opponents how they think they will beat him. After mumbling a few sentences and hiding behind platitudes, some of his opponents realize that they might not have a viable plan going in the bout against one of the most talented mixed martial artists today.

Garbrandt said the reason he thinks he will win the title at UFC 207 is “fate”. He either did not want to mention anything strategic related or he, in fact, does not have a strategy at all. In his first ten professional fights, he finished all but one opponent with punches, most of them in the first round. His highest profile win came against Thomas Almeida who had a record of 21-0 at the time and was considered a future champion. Garbrandt finished him within the opening three minutes.

As impressive as his résumé might look, it is very questionable whether the Team Alpha Male product is ready for a title shot. A former amateur boxer with a record of 32-1, Garbrandt heavily relies on his left hook, his right high kick and a few other striking variations. Even though his boxing has become crisper after debuting in the UFC, he still tends to close the distance with an open body, throwing wild swingers left and right. And when the 25-year-old has to leave the pocket he is sometimes incapable of controlling his upper body movement, thus presenting an open target for his opponents.

This kind of slugger-like style is exactly what does not work against Dominick Cruz’s system of evasive movement. The member of Alliance MMA is not someone who follows the common rules of kickboxing, which becomes apparent when he frequently switches stances and even abandons a stance at all close to his opponent. Moving in and out constantly, Cruz does not provide an easily hittable target. His body is rarely in one spot. His lead leg comes close to the opponent and is pulled back again within a blink.

While this busy, unorthodox fighting style in which he never establishes a static defensive base can make Cruz vulnerable in moments where he receives a hit while standing on only one leg, it normally enervates his opponents throughout the fight. “Making great fighters look average” is probably written on his business card.

TJ Dillashaw came the closest to defeating Cruz in a long time. He lost a split decision and therefore the bantamweight title to Cruz back in January. Dillashaw only landed 109 of his 408 significant strike attempts in that bout, per FightMetric. However, the Duane Ludwig-protégé at least managed to occasionally close the distance while hitting Cruz, although he abandoned his typical footwork after the first round.

Garbrandt’s game is by no means as polished as Dillashaw’s. He embodies Team Alpha Male’s well-known philosophy that has produced a fair number of elite mixed martial artists who usually rise through the ranks. “It’s like facing a bunch of clones when you face these guys,” Cruz said on the UFC 207 Countdown show. “They want everybody who is in their camp to look a certain way.”

Of course, Cruz exaggerates here, but he is not the only one who has acknowledged the similarities and common ceiling of Team Alpha Male fighters. Their wrestle-boxer style never seems to evolve and adjust to new trends in the sport. Good fundamentals and an athletic advantage can only bring fighters to a certain point before they are overwhelmed by technically superior competition.

What sets Garbrandt apart from the rest of the flock is his punching power. Despite being as evasive as almost no one else, Cruz can be hit and dropped, as can any fighter within the confines of the Octagon. The bantamweight champion himself usually outpoints his opponents without hurting them too much, which keeps them alive. Garbrandt could be chasing Cruz for 25 minutes hoping for one cracking combination to land, while eating counter shots over and over again. He takes the risk of being embarrassed—just like in their battle of words a few weeks ago.

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