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While tending to injury, Cruz gives back

Las Vegas -- It doesn’t look easy, but Dominick Cruz can still hold a pen.

Fresh off surgery on the right hand he injured during his bantamweight title defense over Demetrious Johnson earlier this month, Cruz is on the mend but still ailing. These days, he’s doling out a lot of left-handed handshakes, a lot of left-handed fist-bumps. When he writes his name he’s forced to improvise a bit, using a grip with his swollen and discolored right that probably wouldn’t win him any penmanship competitions but still gets the job done.

Cruz says it could be anywhere from four to 10 weeks before he’s able to punch something again, but the Tucson, Ariz., native now fighting out of San Diego is doing whatever he can to stay active. That means a lot of cardio, rehab and twice-weekly physical therapy sessions that he hopes will speed up the recovery process.

It also means that when Cruz finds himself in Las Vegas for this weekend’s UFC 137, he jumps at the chance to attend an out-of-the-way event on Wednesday night, where he and welterweight Dan Hardy sign autographs and take pictures with a little more than a hundred local kids and their chaperones at an area Boys and Girls Club.

He does it because while he himself is down at out, Cruz says he wants to do what he can to give back.

“I think this is really important,” Cruz says. “Right now, I’m coming off an injury, so rather than being at home, why not come out and help out with the kids and the community? Everybody else works 24/7 and as a fighter, why should I be any different? So this is just a different line of work for me, a way to help the community and a way to do something while I’m on injured reserve.”

Few of the fans who attend Saturday night’s fight card at Mandalay Bay will venture far enough off the strip to find the Lied Memorial Boys and Girls Club on Vegas’ West side. It’s a well-hidden, but fairly sprawling facility with gyms and pool tables and a baseball diamond. Volunteers there say the complex gives neighborhood kids a place to go and something to do whenever they need one.

According to organizers, Wednesday’s “Boys Night Out” event is one of its biggest of the year, where boys who might not otherwise have many positive role models in their lives are paired with local mentors for an evening of special activities. In the spring, they’ll do something similar for girls, though tonight has a pretty male-centric vibe.

The SWAT team is here -- complete with a bomb-disarming robot for the kids to inspect -- as is a fire truck and a lineup of hot rods and racecars all parked around the baseball diamond's infield. There are areas for football tossing and soccer dribbling and something called a “sponge race,” even if a surprisingly blustery fall evening seems a bit cold for that.

There are also the two UFC fighters, who many of the kids are admittedly becoming familiar with for the first time. Some of the older guys, the mentors -- who fit more neatly into the fight company’s targeted 18-34 year-old male demographic -- are the ones who seem more excited to see them at first. Once the word gets out about who Cruz and Hardy are and what they do though, the kids come in droves.

For Cruz, it reminds him a little bit of his own childhood, when he says he spent a lot of afternoons playing basketball at a local Salvation Army after school.

“I never really got to meet a whole lot of pro athletes growing up out there in Tucson ...,” he says. “I look at these kids and I remember when I was their age, just running around and how stoked I would have been to see any pro athlete. I would have been in heaven. I try to put myself in their shoes when I come to events like this and just be here for them.”

One such youngster sidles up to Cruz midway through the autograph session and timidly asks him for a picture. Before the kid knows what hit him, Cruz pulls him in, throws an arm (his left one, naturally) over his shoulder and smiles for the camera. The kid stands there nearly paralyzed with surprise and awe at the moment.

Afterward, Cruz signs a photo for him and the kid wanders off, dazed, maybe a little confused and grinning ear-to-ear. A minute ago, he may not have known who Dominick Cruz was. Now, he might never forget him.

“It’s a good feeling when you see people get hyped up,” Cruz says. “Sometimes you forget that you can make somebody’s day.”