When Dominick Cruz defends his bantamweight title against Demetrious Johnson Saturday night in Washington, D.C. fans can expect to see an incredibly high level of mixed martial arts. At least they can if they are watching closely. It's a bout expected to be contested at such a frenetic pace, with such incredible speed and dexterity, that the details may only become visible with the help of slow motion cameras.
"In the athletic department, I'm going to assume I'm a better swimmer," challenger Johnson joked with MMA Nation's Luke Thomas. "...Everybody says I'm faster. I don't like to say I'm better than my opponent at this aspect or that aspect. Obviously everybody knows me for my speed. Yes, he's very athletic. We're both athletic guys. It's just like when you see a wrestling match and you have two athletic guys, and they're both equally good, you see a great fight...I think me and him are equally athletic people, we're not going to get tired, and it should be a great fight."
Johnson's camp believes the speed edge is theirs, but warns that speed alone is not enough.
"You can have the fastest car, run into a wall, and it's not going to win the race," Johnson's coach and MMA pioneer Matt Hume said. "You've got to be able to change your levels smoothly, you've got to have good footwork, you've got to have transitions and angle and things like that. That's why people see D.J.'s speed. Because he has all those things. You wouldn't hear Joe Rogan screaming about what a beautiful shot it was if he had run into his opponent's right hand instead."
In Cruz's corner, the champion's coaching staff isn't quite ready to concede the speed advantage.
"Negative. Don't get me wrong. Demetrious is lightning fast," Cruz's coach Lloyd Irvin told MMA Nation. "Dominick is just as fast....everyone always (talks about) what they're going to do to Dominick. Afterwards they say 'I didn't know he was that fast.'"
The champ himself concurs.
"I don't see it really being an advantage for him. He's quick, but I'm quick too," Dominick Cruz said in an interview with MMA Nation. "He's never really fought anybody as quick as me. He's never fought anybody who moves the way I move. He's never fought anybody who utilizes height and reach the way that I do."
"His footwork is different, his boxing style is different, his overall fighting style is different," Irvin explains. "You can't mimic it...his timing, his style, it's just different."
Johnson's coach, former Pancrase and Extreme Fighting star Matt Hume, has been around the sport since the beginning in 1993. He's seen a lot over his eighteen years in professional mixed martial arts. Enough that he thinks Cruz, who describes his own standup game as a mix of Muhammad Ali and meth head, is not an indecipherable enigma.
"Everyone says he's unorthodox...but there is consistency in his movement," Hume said. "When you study him, it's not just this crazy unorthodox movement you can't predict. He does do things over and over again. So it's pretty easy to look at tape, see those things he does over and over again, and get ready for those."
"There's a pattern for sure," Irvin concedes. "But with the eight different combinations that Dominick does over five rounds, there's no set time. He's so flawless with the timing and transitions of the movements that he does - you can try to get a pattern, but that pattern was just for that fight...unless you fight exactly like that person it's going to mess them up if they try to do that."
Cruz and Johnson are both mild mannered guys, so it's fallen on the coaches to to do any verbal sparring. The consensus seems to be that footwork will be the key to the fight, not just in avoiding or throwing strikes, but in the fighter getting in position to transition to the mat or clinch as well.
"Johnson is not as much of a power wrestler," Cruz said. "He's more of a scrambler. A real quick, timing based wrestler. He's looking to time things and finish the shot from there. The key to (stopping) that is range....the key to this fight is range and keeping him guessing."
Hume, appearing to channel a fanbase that hasn't quite embraced the champion Cruz, says that the difference between that two is that Johnson is looking to finish the bout if the opportunity presents itself.
"Cruz's footwork is to run away. Whereas Demtrious Johnson's footwork is to fight," Hume said. "Cruz is jumping from side to side, not having his weight over his feet where he's going to be able to strike hard. He gets away from people and they can't reach him. He gets away from people and jumps in and hits them - but you're not seeing him get a lot of knockouts. D.J., when he gets in there, will have his feet underneath him. He'll be able to throw power. And D.J.'s not going to have the problem that other people do of getting to him."
Irvin doesn't think Johnson will have any more luck than a typical Cruz opponent.
"I call him the Floyd Mayweather of MMA," Irvin says with a smile. "Because he doesn't get hit. He's flawless."