An anniversary Dominick Cruz wouldn't wish to celebrate is fast approaching.
Oct. 1 will mark two years since the UFC bantamweight champion was healthy enough to defend his belt in the Octagon. That's 24 months of prime real estate for a world-class fighter, meaning rather than competing against the likes of Renan Barao, he has been forced to recuperate through two ACL surgeries.
Cruz has dealt well with various disappointments over these many months. A blown-out knee in May 2012 cost him a trilogy bout against his heated rival Urijah Faber. At the end of last year, he required a second surgery after his body rejected an anterior cruciate ligament pulled from a cadaver.
Less than three weeks after Cruz turns 28 on Sept. 3, Barao will attempt his second defense of the UFC interim bantamweight title against Eddie Wineland in Toronto. By then "The Dominator" is hoping to have progressed to the point that he won't need to nurse his knee and, instead, can spar hard as he's wont to do.
Cruz's life right now is a series of eight-week training camps, said his longtime trainer Eric Del Fierro. There isn't a timetable for a full recovery because Del Fierro is concerned if Cruz has a firm date planted in his head the 135-pounder will "start pushing too hard." Instead, the trainer has established specific goals that are met incrementally.
"He's a special kind of athlete," Del Fierro said, "so I have to control his mind sometimes."
Cruz told ESPN.com Thursday that he had just been cleared by doctors to drill grappling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu sequences. A far cry from full-on sparring, though that may not be so far away if everything falls into place as he and his team hope.
"If it were up to him he'd be going 100 percent," the trainer said. "We're just following doctors' orders."
In an interview with MMAFighting.com this week, Barao claimed Cruz told him February 2014 had been targeted for a unification fight. Cruz, however, said Barao "misunderstood due to the language barrier," and it's merely a goal at the moment.
"Right now I'm doing no weight-bearing training -- that's why I'm just getting cleared to grapple now because grappling would be considered weight-bearing exercises," Cruz said.
In an attempt to keep things fresh, and, more important, stop Cruz from overexerting and hurting himself, Del Fierro set up a series of mini training camps "to show progress with his rehab." Cruz, a famously hard worker in the gym, bought into the "step-by-step" recovery sessions and experienced steady progress.
Next on the list is returning to the mat at Alliance MMA in Chula Vista, Calif., even if it's just to drill technique and position. Once that hurdle is cleared, live sparring should follow.
"So now I begin that portion of the eight weeks," Cruz said. "Then I get cleared to kick and add things together until I can do everything."
Cruz's extended absence hasn't caused Del Fierro to believe his charge needs a tuneup when he's finally able to return. They're not expecting or wishing for anything less than the best possible opponent.
"I wouldn't put anyone in a fight that didn't have a good camp, or wasn't 100 percent focused in camp," Del Fierro said. "Literally you're going to face every single scenario in camp that you would in a fight. If Dominick's running through a camp at 100 percent, there's no reason he shouldn't be able to face anybody in competition in the cage."