When I first saw Dominick Cruz compete in the UFC his style and approach to both attack and defense it immediately brought a smile to my face.
Watching him ricochet in and out of range whilst his opponent swung at nothing was like watching someone trying to box a wasp, underlining the old adage that you ‘can’t hit what isn’t there’ and bringing to mind some of boxers I’d followed in my youth.
For me Cruz’s style was reminiscent of Prince Naseem Hamed, the cocky pugilist who dominated featherweight division in the 90s and who would dance around his opponents, hands down, shoulder rolled forward and then seemingly limbo dance just out of range of the coming onslaught.
Prince Naseem Hamed
Whilst Cruz never displayed the Prince’s arrogance, it was clear from the start that the two combatants had something in common, there was a clear stylistic link.
I wasn’t alone in drawing these comparisons and it became commonplace to discuss Cruz’s style with references to famous boxers like Ali and Roy Jones Jr (whilst more recently, the man himself acknowledged a debt to the arguably less well known Willie Pep).
The question that instantly presents itself then, is why when watching a man who was clearly a gifted mixed martial artist, people’s minds immediately turn to pro boxers for comparison and more to the point, why these boxers in particular?
The answer can be summed up in one word –footwork.
Cruz’s impeccable footwork stands out even at the highest level of MMA competition because it is so unorthodox by comparison to the norm in the octagon, a characteristic he shares, along with a number of other tactics, with the boxers named above, all of whom were considered to have an eccentric or even reckless approaches in their day.
In contrast to many fighters who tend to plant and swing with an emphasis on delivering maximum power in their strikes, or those who are willing punch through exchanges in order to gain an advantageous position for grappling or range, Cruz’s balletic maneuvering, fluidly transitioning from orthodox to southpaw and showing little regard for traditional notions of how to approach centreline or the pocket seemed dazzlingly fresh.
But what are the specifics? What techniques and tactics make Dominick Cruz’s footwork so admired within the sport, how does his footwork allow him to find answers to the questions set by his opponents and what are the approaches he shares with these boxing luminaries? Time, I think, for a closer look at his feet.
1. Overarching Strategy
In terms of his footwork, Dominick Cruz approaches MMA more like a matador, than a bull. He employs hit and run tactics to wound, but not be wounded, cleverly dancing into and out of range and opening angles to attack whilst remaining just out of reach. He has acknowledged in interviews his willingness to compromise some of the power that comes from planting the feet to trade in order to maximise on the agility and quickness that allows him to evade being hit All of which starts with where he chooses to put his feet.
As he himself puts it
“I’m always moving my feet to punch you and not be there by the time you try to punch me back.”
To explore all of Dancing Dom’s patterns would turn this article into a virtual mathematics thesis, so instead let’s look in detail at some of his most common and effective approaches that you can incorporate into your game.
2. The ‘Dominick’ Dart
Probably the best known of Cruz’s ‘strike and not be struck’ tactics this approach has even begun to have his name attached to it. Despite the fact that it is of course much older,, famously used by Mr ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ himself ,Muhamed Ali.
When slowed down and broken into steps this approach almost looks like it has its origins in the playground. The process literally being the same as a schoolboy might use during a game of tag to catch someone but be out of range to be tagged back. Though of course with a talented Mma fighter ‘tagging’ you in the face it is somewhat less fun.
In the dart Dominick will use the lead right instead of the jab to strike through an opening in the opponent’s guard. rushing forward as if into a Vitor Belfort style punching sprint across the ring (see his contest against Wanderli Silva if you don’t know what I mean by this). Instead, however the aptly named dart usually consists of a single harpoon like (and point scoring) shot that comes in before Cruise again disappears out of range.
The footwork for this is almost gymnastic as it involves stepping forward with the lead leg to allow the punch, but then also pushing off that foot to switch weight into a backward motion to allow the escape.
If you consider this from a birds eye view (which sometimes makes the consideration footwork patterns easier, trust me, try it) you can remember the footwork by thinking of the phrase “I see”, because the feet trace versions of the letters I and C.
Let me explain. In the dart, it is as if with the lead leg Cruz traces is drawing a lowercase ‘i ‘ he traces the line of the ‘i’ when moving forward to deliver the strike, the dot of the ‘i’ (known as tittle for all you trivia fans out there) represents the point at which the front foot plants to allow dominic to push off it and reverse his momentum. This shifts the weight onto the trailing foot which it at the other end of the ‘I’
Importantly, at the same time as the weight shifts to the back foot it becomes the centre point for a pivot, as the front foot traces an inverted c shape. This then moves Cruz’s body off the centre line from whence the strike came and where the opponent will want to strike in retaliation. Watching the movement in slow mo, you can almost imagine Cruz holding a red rag on the centre line.
The keys to practicing and applying this pattern are to repeat the movement, trying to step forward and then push off the same foot backward, reversing the momentum. This sounds easier than it is and whilst the prospect of simply stepping back and forwards repeatedly might sound like something that’ll make you look odd in the gym, I guarantee Dominick Cruz has spent time doing it. Once you’ve mastered that, try working the pivot or C in at the end. I and C, I and C. I see.
From there you can try this on a bag, striking and then being out of the way before the bag swings back, then with a willing drill partner and finally in live sparring.
This technique requires speed and agility so if you’re not a fighter blessed with those attributes it will be more difficult, but if you master the footwork it will make things much easier.
The other advantage of this technique, which you will also see used to great effect by Eddie Alverez is that the pivot allows the darting fighter to score a clear point before circle away from the retaliating fighter and avoid being cornered. Watch out for it in Cruz’s fights and see how he uses it to control his management of position within the cage and avoid becoming trapped.
3. Crouch and Bump
Speaking of agility. Another technique that Cruz has taken from boxing but made his own is the crouch. What makes Cruz’s version so effective is the speed of his transition in and out of this position and the that way this negates the MMA counters.
Watch any Cruz fight and you will at times see him approach his opponents in a posture that makes him look like Quasimodo doing an impression of a crab. His lead shoulder is bent low, his back curled and often his hands placed low too (which isn’t just cockiness but helps with balance and offers a wider range of options depending upon what the opponent does, either to block or use the uppercut)
You’ll see Ali, Roy Jones jr and particularly Naseem Hamed use this technique a lot to invite the opponent to strike. By keeping his head off the centreline in this position Cruz is able to bait the opponent into coming forward but escape easily to either side. The weight being primarily in the back foot, allowing him to push off backward to evade and, if the opportunity arises counterpunch (an Ali speciality).
But wait, I hear you cry, this is more posture, what does it have to do with footwork? Well, other than the placement of weight in the back foot, the footwork focused details are what make this technique a beauty.
Firstly there is the placement of the front foot. By crouching and dipping the shoulder but placing the front foot further forward Cruz is able to deceive the opponent by creating an optical illusion. Having the foot forward in the crouch creates the impression that the target (the chin and jaw) is further forward in space than it actually is.
The opponent thinks they are striking to the point where the front foot is but in fact the head is further back.
It sounds far fetched but it is precisely the technique employed by Hamed and Ali. When the opponent tries to strike at where they ‘think’ the head is they telegraph their movements allowing the crouching fighter time to evade by pushing off the back foot, slip to either side and escape, or if they have the speed, to counter punch.
In Dominick’s case this technique is taken to another level by his ‘bumping’. That is, his tendency to almost ‘bounce’ into a crouch for only an instant before either switching to the opposite shoulder or moving out of the position entirely.
The disadvantage in MMA for someone employing the crouch in the manner that Ali and Prince Naseem would is that the same front leg that creates a cool and disorienting illusion against strikers become a juicy target for anyone with grappling prowess. It also leaves you open to overhand rights if trying the uppercut as discussed below.
In Dom’s version however the ‘bump’(which employs a similar pattern to the dart in that it involves coming in and pushing off the same foot)means he is never in that stance for long, being only momentarily present in the crouch means he presents the target before whipping it away and never remains long enough for that wrestling shot or indeed the overhand right strike to land.
Watch how Cruz employs this technique in his fight with Uriah Faber and you’ll catch several examples of Dominick coming in with the crouch and no longer being there when Uriah swings desperately and hits nothing.
To drill this technique in practice you can either try just the crouch, or if you are feeling light on your toes, the bump as well.
A fun way to train this is to run with the game of ‘tag’ analogy. Work with a partner and using the crouch try to avoid being ‘tagged’ by keeping your weight in the back foot, head further back than the front foot and slipping sideways off the centre line following a strike from this position.
As soon as your partner manages to catch or ‘tag’ you with a shot you switch and allow them to try the crouch. It is important to try drilling this both as the aggressor and evading partner as it allows you to understand the mechanics of the movement from both perspectives. You’ll soon see that the front foot distance illusion is no joke.
4. Uppercut from crouch
Having looked at some of the ‘float like a butterfly’ aspects, it is worth mentioning one of Dom’s favoured ‘sting like a bee’ tactics.
From that same crouched posture it is very easy to invite the opponent to overcommit and leave an opening into which the uppercut can be thrown. With the weight still planted in the back foot to allow an escape if necessary Cruz an instead use that anchor point to generate power for an uppercut that comes from an unexpected and somewhat concealed angle like an unwelcome jack in the box.
Try building this into your ‘tag’ drills for the crouch and bounce, though perhaps warn your partner about it first, if it lands flush as it often did for Naseem Hamed it can be very effective.