Cruz, Barao, Hendricks, more
Former bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz helps tackle this week's hot topics
Each week, ESPN.com MMA writer Brett Okamoto, ESPN Insider senior editor Mike Huang and a special guest panelist tackle five questions that are buzzing in the world of mixed martial arts.
This week, former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz joins the panel.
1. Who should Dominick Cruz fight first when he returns to the Octagon?
Dominick Cruz: Man, what a question. Who should I fight first? I should have never lost my title, if we're talking about shoulda, coulda, woulda -- but with the injuries I've sustained, I'm happy with just getting in there and fighting. Period. I know that's probably not what everybody wants to hear, but the truth is I have no expectations of myself other than to get through this camp and have the fight of my life. That's all I want to do. It doesn't matter who it's with.
Brett Okamoto: Honestly? Some random, 135-pound dude with a 6-9 career record and no knockout power. You see this in other combat sports: Guy takes some time off and he comes back to a tuneup fight, right? Something to knock the rust off. Cruz doesn't really have that luxury. I doubt the UFC will have him fight some unproven, no-name bantamweight on a random undercard. He's going to get thrown into the mix right away. I believe in the mentality of always taking a UFC title fight when you can get it -- but Cruz's situation is pretty unique. He should fight someone in the middle tier of that division, but he'll likely end up with a top 10-caliber opponent.
Mike Huang: Out of respect to Cruz, who didn't necessarily "lose" his title, you'd think he'd fight someone with a pretty big name. But the matchup really should take into consideration that Cruz is coming back after a long layoff and knee injury. Will Cruz be at the top of his game? Maybe not, so the UFC might want to wait before pairing him up with a title contender or even a top-10 guy. Just spitballing here, but maybe someone like Nam Phan? The guy's a gamer who could give Cruz a good fight, but he's also lost three in a row. He's got a somewhat well-known name and could give Cruz a decent challenge.
2. Which UFC welterweight has the best chance at beating Johny Hendricks?
Cruz: The best style matchup fundamentally for a guy like Hendricks is another powerhouse like Tyron Woodley. Stylistically, what gives Hendricks trouble is an opponent who is just as powerful and just as good of a wrestler as he is. He has a tough time dealing with that because he is a power-based fighter. I see Woodley giving him the toughest time, but with all those guys at the top, it's a pretty even board.
Okamoto: Robbie Lawler. Most of the guys at the top of this division are capable of beating Hendricks on their absolute best night, but in general, Lawler would be the guy, if any, you would pick to do it. Mostly because Lawler is just the best martial artist of the group. He can stand with Hendricks, as we've seen. Lawler can hurt anybody. If he fought better in the fifth round of that first fight, this is a totally different question to the panel right now. Lawler is the biggest threat, hands down.
Huang: It's got to be either Robbie Lawler or Matt Brown. Each has momentum on his side, and neither has looked better career-wise.
3. Who is a tougher fight for Jon Jones: Gustafsson or Cormier?
Cruz: Gustafsson. He's at home in the striking battle. He doesn't need to wrestle. A lot of guys are striking to wrestle. They're not striking because they love to strike and want that kind of fight. Gustafsson is looking for that kind of fight, and he's one of the few guys who has been able to prevent Jon Jones from a takedown and to force the fight where Gustafsson wants it. With Jones against Cormier, I feel that Cormier has the tools, but I think he's not quite as home in the stand-up realm as Gustafsson is. Cormier has to really look for takedowns and put Jones on his back, and Jones is very hard to put on his back.
Okamoto: Gustafsson. Size does matter in a fight against Jones. It's hard enough to try to deal with everything he does well. You have to worry about the reach on top of that? Nearly impossible. As great of an athlete as Cormier is, he's not as equipped physically to handle Jones as Gustafsson is. I also think Gustafsson's striking is more advanced than Cormier's, which is big in a Jones fight. Cormier's wrestling is a game-changer, for sure, but in terms of the full package, Gustafsson is the tougher fight for the champ.
Huang: I'm going to say Cormier. Everybody points to the length disadvantage for Cormier, but Cormier is essentially a heavyweight and is used to fighting heavyweights, and in the clinch I think he could outperform Jones. Going into a fight with Gustafsson, Jones would know he had already won since he is familiar with Gus' style, strategies and power.
4. Was Renan Barao overrated heading into UFC 173?
Cruz: No. He was not overrated. It's plain and simple: The style of a fight is what makes things different. Always. Certain people are going to be harder for others. Renan was just up against a style he didn't expect. The best style is unpredictability, which is basically no style. It's just being able to adapt and mix and read the person you are fighting. T.J. Dillashaw was able to make those reads because of the high output of offense he had. He kept Renan on his heels and didn't let him adjust.
Okamoto: Probably a little bit. Now, easy. Take it easy. "Overrated" can feel like a really ugly term if you take it the wrong way. But realistically, by definition of the word, the man was overrated in this fight. Oddsmakers had him a 9-to-1 favorite. Very few observers were shocked by those odds. The other side of that, of course, is that Dillashaw was probably underrated going in.
Huang: I think it was more that T.J. Dillashaw was vastly underrated. Barao's track record and stellar performances gave no reason he shouldn't have been a minus-800 favorite. And perhaps Barao even underestimated Dillashaw.
5. Should Dan Henderson move to middleweight, stay at light heavy or retire?
Cruz: I'm never going to ever say somebody should retire. You'll never hear that from me. So, that's out. I don't know where he should move. I don't think anybody has the right to tell Dan Henderson or even speak the notion of what he should do. The guy has fought in every weight class there is. He's done it without gloves, with gloves, done it on short notice -- he's done everything. You don't tell Dan Henderson to do anything. He's Dan Henderson.
Okamoto: He's reached that "What's left to accomplish" stage of his career. If he wants to have a few more fights -- try to go out on a high note -- he definitely has the right. He's not defending himself as effectively as he used to, but he's not in need of any "fragile" packaging tape, either. He can still handle himself in a cage. In terms of 185 versus 205, I would say stay at 205. Who wants to cut weight and dehydrate at age 43? And the speed disadvantage Hendo would face at 185 would be no picnic.
Huang: Well, I hate to see Hendo go out as someone who stayed around too long, but I'd like to see what he could do at middleweight. He got thrown around by Cormier pretty easily. I'm up for seeing Hendo try, but I think the odds of him succeeding are getting long.
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