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Dominick Cruz: Champions will get younger and younger

A guest on last week’s “Inside MMA,” WEC Bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz was asked by host Kenny Rice how he felt being a young champion. A soft-spoken Cruz responded, “I think champions are going to get younger and younger as time goes on.” His opinion is an interesting one.

It took almost three and a half years for the UFC to find its first young champion. Vitor Belfort, at 19 years old, became not only the youngest fighter to win in the octagon, but the youngest champion in UFC history. If winning the heavyweight tournament at UFC 12 doesn’t qualify Belfort as a champion however, Josh Barnett remains the youngest, having won his belt at age 24. It may be a good idea to look beyond a list of the UFC’s champions, though, to see just how deep the younger generation is beginning to dominate. The UFC is focused on the heavier spectrum of the scale—looking to organizations more welcoming to the smaller fighters makes it obvious that the most innovation and potential rests in the lighter divisions.

In the WEC, lightweight champions Ben Henderson (26) and Jamie Varner (25) have excited audiences for years. Astoundingly, WEC featherweight champion Jose Aldo is only 23 years old; Dominick Cruz is only 24. Aldo’s deadly mix of precise Muay Thai, stubborn takedown defense, and the enigma of his unseen Jiu-Jitsu game is enhanced by his relentless focus on being the best, without distraction. It is almost scary to consider what he will be like when he reaches his prime. Cruz flustered the more conventional Brian Bowles in winning the title, using precise striking and an elusiveness rarely seen in mixed martial arts. Indeed, Cruz looks more like a boxer in the cage than a mixed martial artist, but he has grown up learning every facet of the sport. His style is his own, and it was tailor-made to be effective, and to confound his opponents. That is the nature of innovation.

Bellator Fighting Championship’s featherweight champion Joe Soto is only 23, and their welterweight champion Lyman Good is 24. Keep in mind these are current champions. Some dangerous contenders, in every organization around the world, are the same age as these guys, sometimes younger. How terrifying will Jon “Bones” Jones be when he is 24? 26? 30?

Just how does Dominick Cruz think he got this far? “I’ve just been fortunate enough to get my mind together and get on top early,” the champion said, smiling. “Let’s just see what kind of work I can do up top, for as long as I can.”

It will be interesting to see what these young champions will accomplish. Just how much they can change mixed martial arts as a sport remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: the younger generation of fighters, whether they are champions now or sitting in a high-school classroom, will keep everyone interested for a long, long time.

  • Rich S. says:

    It’s true.

    Right now the belts are locked down by some of the best guys the sport has ever seen. But, just imagine, after BJ, Anderson, and GSP retire, for instance, every single guy that holds the belt after them has the potential to lose it in their first defense.

    They are getting younger and younger, yes, but not many of these new guys have the potential to be the greatest champions ever, at least not right now.

    You have the very young Bones Jones moving up in the LHW ranks, the young Dos Santos rising in the Heavyweight ranks. Say either of them wins the belt within a year. I could easily see Bones losing his fist defense to Machida, or Dos Santos losing to Cain..

    Urgh, I guess what I’m trying to say is, yes, the champs are getting younger, but, with younger champs comes more competitive fights, and with more competitive fights we have less dominant champions.

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  • says:

    @Rich S.

    Just because they will be younger, does that guarantee they won’t be any less dominant than current champions in the respective weight classes? Age is not an indicator of a fighter’s ability to maintain his status as champion. Experience does play a role, but it seems you’re making the “assumption the younger they are, the less likely they’ll be a dominant champion” without evidence. Of course I don’t expect evidence since this is merely an opinion, but I’m just curious as to why you have taken that stance you hold.

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  • Rich S. says:

    I suppose I was thinking more of the other top dogs in each division, rather than comparing the young with the old. I should’ve clarified.

    What I’m saying is, after these legends leave, the unbeatable champs, it’s going to be “Any Given Sunday” in there with these guys..

    Here’s a few hypothetical instances:

    Say Frankie Edgar fights Tyson Griffin for the belt. That’s a tough fight as it is, whereas BJ may dominant either of them. So then, let’s say Griffin wins a close war, well then he has to defend against Florian. Again, that’s an extremely close matchup. Now say Florian is finally champion, but he has to defend his belt against Sanchez.

    I guess my statement wasn’t so much based on young champions as it was on the rest of the guys that are left after the current champs leave..

    Right now we’re in this freaky limbo where no one can win the title in at least 3 of the weight classes (Assuming BJ gets the LW belt back). So once that spot opens up to everyone it’s going to get crazy..

    I’m digging myself deeper.. Let’s see. Look at the competition right now. Let’s talk about GSP, BJ, and Anderson. Right now, they are on a completely different level than any of the competitors in their respective divisions, even after BJ’s recent loss. So, the Florian’s and the Maynards and Marquardts and Alves’s and Koschecks are all on the same level. After the aforementioned champs move on, essentially, it’s a level playing field.

    Again, I think that was less focused on young champions and more focused on just all the contenders that will be rising to the top soon..

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  • says:

    I think Cruz’s message was different from yours, but speaking on yours, I think you’re right. The level of dominace by a single fighter in the lw, ww, and mw division in the ufc is astounding. It really just depends if they want to show up to fight because history has proven they’re a cut above the rest.

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  • elsicilian says:

    Let’s also keep in mind that this nascent sport is only about fifteen years old, and rapidly evolving. Accordingly, the younger crop of fighters is inevitably more advanced (generally speaking) than their predecessors, while virtually every breakthrough champion who comes along becomes one of “the greatest champions ever” almost by definition.

    That’s not to take anything away from GSP, Silva, Fedor, BJ, Aldo, Lesnar, et. al. … but it is difficult to believe that the best fighters in 2030 won’t be lightyears ahead of our champions today.

    All in all, it’s a great time to be an MMA fan!

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