UFC San Diego: Chito Vera makes statement with nose-breaking Cruz KO
Josh McNally

On the same weekend that the Professional Fighters League undercut its own much-touted "real sports" league model by having to replace several of its semifinalists due to visa issues, the Ultimate Fighting Champion proved the value in its own matchmaker model by booking a bantamweight main event of Marlon "Chito" Vera versus Dominick Cruz.

On paper, nothing about this fight makes any sense.

At UFC 252 on August 15, 2020, Vera beat the then-undefeated Sean O'Malley. This led to a bout with Jose Aldo, which he lost, but then Vera put together a sensational three-fight win streak which included a front kick KO win over Frankie Edgar that forced him into scheduling retirement and a mauling of upcoming prospect Rob Font. For all that, Vera moved up the bantamweight rankings to the fifth place.

O'Malley, on the other hand, admitted to taking easy fights following the loss to Vera so he could focus on building his brand via podcasting, streaming, social media etc. – and it worked as, coming off a three-fight win streak against unranked opposition and a no-contest with Pedro Munoz, 13th ranked O'Malley is fighting Petr Yan in Abu Dhabi at UFC 280 with a title shot on the line.

As for Chito's opponent, Dominick Cruz is in a very awkward position, which is becoming as he's one of the most awkward fighters in MMA history. At 172 cm tall – which is lanky for the 135 lb division – Cruz has spent most of his career fighting downwards and, to do so, he has invented a unique style of footwork.

Marlon Vera lands a headkick on Dominick Cruz. /Zuffa

Marlon Vera lands a headkick on Dominick Cruz. /Zuffa

He's always bouncing on the balls of his feet and then when he moves, he often mixes lateral movements in with range altering ones; most fighters will start on the outside, move in, land an attack then move back out to their starting position. Cruz will move in, land an attack and then slide out to his left or right to put himself in a more favorable position for whatever he does next.

This has proved to be incredibly successful. Going into this weekend's event, Cruz had a record of 24-3 with three championships and a 13-fight win streak between losses one and two.

It has also proved to be incredibly harmful. In the early 2010s, he suffered a series of ACL tears and then there was a three-and-a-half-year gap between losses two and three because of severe injuries to the tendons in his feet; the damage to the soles of his feet from constantly sliding on the mat was so bad that he couldn't walk and he needed collagen injections to repair the tissue.

During his time away from active competition, he became a commentator and now finds himself half in, half out, and facing Marlon Vera in a main event after winning two three-rounders in 2021. If this were professional wrestling, this is the kind of booking that would come accompanied with a Loser Leaves Town stipulation.

It seemed like Cruz knew that too as he came out all guns blazing, laying on his trademark zig-zag combos thick and fast. Chito looked to be struggling until halfway through the round when he connected with a stiff left that sent Cruz reeling and also into a more defensive posture that had him hunting for takedowns in the final minute.

Even though Chito only landed nine significant strikes in that opening frame, it set the tone for the fight. Cruz would buzz around and do the lion's share of the damage while Chito would put forwards an active defense knowing he only needed a brief window to turn the tide.

UFC commentators Michael Bisping and Brendan Fitzgerald (R) react in shock to Marlon Vera knocking out Dominick Cruz. /Zuffa

UFC commentators Michael Bisping and Brendan Fitzgerald (R) react in shock to Marlon Vera knocking out Dominick Cruz. /Zuffa

By round 3, it looked like Vera had grown into the fight. He was stuffing Cruz's takedown attempts and finding the timing on a lot of his combinations. He was also significantly less wasteful: after 15 minutes, he had landed 49 of an attempted 134 while Cruz had landed 81 out of 219.

By the fourth, Cruz had either burned himself out from so much action or had done so much that had given away his patterns as Chito leveled him in the first exchange with a right hand right down the pipe. Cruz went down and sprung back up. When they went at it again, he did his trademark lateral shift and got kicked square in the face. Even without the slow motion, the blood spurt was obvious; Vera had broken Cruz's nose.

Referee Herb Dean pulled Vera off Cruz perhaps a second too late but that only emphasized how quickly the headkick KO came. And in an instant this main event went from making no sense to making complete sense: by taking a scalp like Cruz's, Vera has rendered the result of O'Malley's fight at UFC 280 null and void already. He's the real deal and he's coming for the championship.

Cover: Marlon "Chito" Vera poses with his family and his team following his win over Dominick Cruz in the main event of UFC Fight Night: Vera vs. Cruz at the Pechanga Arena in San Diego, California, U.S., August 13, 2022. /Zuffa

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