Raising an MMA Champion: Suzette Howe and her son Dominick Cruz
There are many different facets of life. When it comes to the most common, there are parents. Everyone has them as without them, there would be none of us.
Going from a regular person to one with one of the greatest responsibilities of them all is life-changing. Welcoming a child into the world is something that’s impossible to forget. Thus leading to several more unforgettable moments in the continually progressing stages of the parent’s life, and now most importantly, the child that has become the center of their universe.
In the modern-day sporting atmosphere and the ever-expanding world of technology, it’s easier than ever to hurl negativity into the direction of those who have put themselves out there more than others. But what’s often forgotten is that the person on the receiving end remains exactly that – a person. A person with a family that loves and raised them just like everyone else.
To get to that center stage, no matter what the athletic endeavor may be, the individual had to be molded in some form or another. Humans are creatures of habit and as they grow their surroundings are absorbed. A strong support system is absolutely priceless. Surely, in some cases, it’s the lack of support that ends up being strong enough motivation for many. Perhaps especially in the realm of hand to hand combat. However, no situation is created equally and there’s always an origin fueling the drive.
On March 9, 1985, in San Diego, California, a woman by the name of Suzette Howe would welcome her son, Dominick Cruz, into the world. Unbeknownst to her, she would go onto raise one of the greatest Mixed Martial Arts fighters that the world has ever seen.
Howe and her family that also included her mother and other son, Derek, lived in Tucson, Arizona for most of Cruz’s childhood. A marketing specialist of over 25 years, Howe owns her own company, Show U How 2, and is also a successful author with an MMA inspired book series. The first of which has been out for a year now is titled Broken Before Battle: Changing Lives Outside the Octagon. She currently finds herself working on the second installment of what will be a trilogy series. The next being Broken Before Battle: Raising Champions for Tomorrow.
Going in-depth into the lives of eight fighters and coaches in her books, Howe’s goal was to share the brighter side of the athletes who were once perceived as participants in human cockfighting. The focus is on what they’ve had to overcome and the impacts they have on their communities.
“When I was in third grade I knew I really wanted to write and I’d eventually write a book, there’s a lot of people that have a book in them,” Howe told The Body Lock, “I didn’t really know that it would be about the MMA perspective, but in advance of writing it, I had been in connection with all these guys and listening to their stories and just really felt honestly like that was something I was given to do. I just wanted to make sure the perspective was very different and unique from maybe the other things that have been covered out there and it definitely is.”
In writing about the humble beginnings that she’s experienced through the fighters she’s met along the way her and her son’s journey, Howe can relate in her own ways.
In Tucson a part of her family of four, Howe was a single mother raising her sons in a trailer park earning roughly $10,000 a year. Times weren’t easy, but the family made it work as best as they could. Cruz shared with Sports Illustrated (SI) in 2016 that there were occasions where he would watch his mother cry alone in her bed when all he could do was hug her for comfort.
“I watched my mom, every single day when I was a kid, put others first,” said Cruz, “She was always trying to do the right thing. If she got food stamps, she never took advantage—she only bought what she needed. She taught me how to care, how to stay humble, and how to stay true. She never steered from that. She is still the most whole, happy person, and that has made me a stronger person.”
Cruz would come in contact with the sport of wrestling in seventh grade where he competed at 78-pounds. It would be here that the seed for something special was truly planted.
Attending high school in Tucson at Flowing Wells High School and continuing on with his amateur wrestling, it would, unfortunately, end here. An ankle injury put a halt to Cruz’s collegiate wrestling ambitions which led to him studying at a community college to try and become a firefighter. While working three jobs to pay for school, Cruz would also find his way into boxing and kickboxing. And, of course, this soon led to MMA.
“For myself, when I got started [with MMA], even I really wanted to do things for self-defense, and I got really involved and loved the heck out of training and all of that kind of thing,” Howe expressed, “So Dominick had been involved since he was out of high school. And going to his fights and everything is how we got involved, of course. Learning the ins and outs of it all. Then like I said, getting to know some of the other guys and the stories that they share, it’s international, the guys that I was having the privilege of being around. So it really was a unique perspective. Wilson Reis is from Brazil his [story is] very, super-powerful, very challenging. Brendan Loughnane is from the UK and he’s pretty hot right now with the PFL and everything, too. It’s been a really, really amazing journey. Kind of like a second mom.”
On January 29, 2005, Cruz would make his professional MMA debut at 155-pounds in a lightweight contest.
With his background in boxing, he would adapt elements from what he had learned and some of the fighters he watched growing up. In essence, due to his large size disadvantage, he felt forced to create his own unique defensive style to avoid being hit by what was for his first eight fights, the opposition of larger opponents.
Regardless, he still managed to defeat them all and actually end up going down as statistically one of the most defensively sound fighters there’s ever been. His seventh pro fight would arguably be a big turning point as it was there that he met the host of the event, his longtime head coach at Alliance MMA, Eric Del Fierro.
For Howe as well as any mother or parent, she had no idea what her son would grow up to be. Sure, everyone may have an idea, but predicting exactly what that may be is quite the task even for Nostradamus. But for it to end up being something as dangerous and demanding as a combat sport, it definitely requires some mental processing for all involved. In the end, she’s more than okay with it.
“He has a brother, so as siblings, they would fight, things like that. But no I did not imagine it,” Howe said of Cruz getting into pro fighting, “And that’s one of the things … I did a podcast with Cage Free Chicks recently and that was one of the things; you never know what your children are going to grow up to do. And that’s very true. That’s one of the reasons I also wanted to just kind of write about the experience but also shed some light with other parents because ‘little Johnny’ wants to get involved in a martial art or something, it doesn’t mean that he’s going to be beating people up. As a matter of fact, it should mean the opposite.
“If they learn the respect and the morals and how it gives a channel of focus. It’s incredible. Some of the guys in my first book had really severe challenges as kids. Seth [Baczynski] became a better person. Phil [Davis] says that education was really difficult for him, but he pressed through. It was really hard for Danny [Martinez] too because he had to learn how to fight and learn how to manage family because he had a young family. So all of that kind of thing is in there and it’s just been a really cool journey.
“When Dominick was doing wrestling, I didn’t really know anything about MMA and wrestling was wrestling,” she continued, “But getting out and then having him at a high school, get involved and start doing the lower-key fights if you will … It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s really good.’ He’s disciplined in it. He came up with all his own style and everything and that’s why he was good. He wasn’t just doing what other people were doing. So as a really young kid, I mean, kids are gonna fight and play, this and that. He played soccer and baseball and then wrestled, so we didn’t know what he would grow up to be, but it’s been incredible.”
After his eight-fight start to his career in the lightweight division, Cruz would enjoy a three-fight stint at featherweight before finding his true home of bantamweight at 135-pounds.
As a member of the gone but not forgotten World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) promotion, Cruz would keep on tactfully infuriating everyone who stood in his way. Utilizing his movement-based style to perfection and outwitting every opponent more than the next. “The Dominator” would claim the world title in just his fifth fight in the division.
Howe had done it. Although her son was always going to be a champion to her no matter what it was that he was doing, she could now officially say that she literally raised a champion. Ultimately, that was just the beginning of the legacy.
Cruz would establish himself as the greatest fighter his division had ever seen and an innovator with his unique style. Two title defenses in the WEC later, and he had also earned himself the inaugural UFC bantamweight title. He would defend the latter crown a total of three times across two separate reigns. Thus giving him seven wins in championship fights overall. A number higher than any other at 135-pounds.
“Being a fighter is one thing, you know?” said Howe, “Being a mom of a champion in the sense of like all these other kinds of sports that are out there and everything else, being an MMA fighter, it’s very different because there’s so many misnomers about the pay, the workouts, the intense training, they train all the time. I’ve trained but there’s no comparison. None. They’re doing two-a-days, their two hour trainings are hard, hard, hardcore. So most people have no clue about that either.
“But it’s been neat because just knowing I had always said when he was young that he was a leader, and I raised all my kids that way. I knew they would be leaders in their area of expertise, whatever that would be as they grew up. So just helping him stay in that mindset to always treat people well and really wanting to focus on the fact that you stay in your lane. You do the things that you know are good and right and true.
“With regard to fighting, some people would say, ‘Well, how on Earth? How is that good?’ It is an art. It’s a martial art,” she continued, “There’s so much respect and honor and all of that in there. And so, learning some of those things, too. I think people will understand it more fully, and the amount of give back. A lot of these guys are working with youth or training with youth or giving something back. Dominick has done a lot of that as well. And he just does it naturally, but then also officially so it’s from a champion perspective. I think he’s down to Earth. That’s one of the things we always wanted to make sure too was that he just stayed who he really is. He doesn’t let things get to his head.”
While “time” may always be the biggest thing remembered about Cruz in relation to his in-cage profession, his mother was worried about it beforehand.
“He’s worked hard to get where he’s at. Very, very hard,” Howe stated, “Stayed very focused, lost a lot of time and things like playtime, kid time. I talk about that in my book, like I just was concerned that he didn’t get to live the life of a kid very much because he was wrestling all the time when he was young. Moving into being an adult, you give up a lot to do that to become a champion, let alone keep it and stay as long as he did.”
Following Cruz’s shutout victory over future fellow all-time great in Demetrious Johnson at a 2011 UFC Fight Night, the bantamweight king’s will would be tested like never before – and it wouldn’t be at the discretion of another fighter.
Midway through coaching season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter opposite his rival Urijah Faber, Cruz would suffer a torn ACL. An injury that by itself is troublesome enough as is. Well, a second would follow making that two in the span of three years for the champion. The second coming after his body rejected the cadaver tendon that was used for the reconstructive surgery.
Finally set to come back for a fight with the interim champion Renan Barao, Cruz would then suffer yet another injury. This time it was a groin tear. As a result, the UFC was forced to strip the undisputed champion of his title due to inactivity. The trophy that he had worked so hard for was lost without him actually losing it inside the Octagon walls.
Many in the community placed their blame on the results of his injuries on his style which relies heavily on footwork and lateral mobility. Revealing an unbreakable mindset and desire to persevere, the boy from Tucson wasn’t going to let things end this way.
Cruz returned three years after his three ligament tears for his first three-round non-title bout in five years and six outings. Welcoming him back was the top 5 ranked veteran, Japan’s Takeya Mizugaki.
Over the years of his reign, Miss Howe’s baby boy would become a critique magnet for his seeming inability to finish fights. So when he returned from a staggering three-year layoff that included a miraculous recovery from often career-deterring injuries, no one expected what ended up unfolding inside the MGM Grand on that 2014 September 27 night.
In just 61 seconds, “The Dominator” reminded everyone why that was his nickname. A left straight into a blast double-leg takedown put Mizugaki on his back and shortly after, Cruz was using his fists like hammers on his opponent’s skull. He was back in a flash … then gone again just like that.
Confirmed to get a crack at the title he never lost in competition, Cruz would wind up suffering another ACL tear in the months after his fight. This time to the opposite knee.
As a parent, knowing your child is in pain or hurt is one of the worst thoughts and feelings imaginable. In a general sense, kids are going to hurt themselves every now and then. Whether it be falling down or just playing around, bumps and bruises are to be expected – but, of course, they’re preferably avoided if possible.
In the case of Suzette Howe and her son, she’s gone through an experience that few mothers ever have. Major injuries that affected the individuals’ way of life. Occurrences that literally put the world on hold.
Between having such a uniquely unfortunate injury-riddled history or even watching him fight in the first place, the toughest part for Howe as a mother of a championship-caliber MMA fighter has been the overall difference. Even though fighters are still just people like everyone else, their lifestyles are one of a kind.
“Seeing the discipline that he had at a young age with regards to wrestling and the grit that is required there, I knew something bigger was coming because he loved it so much,” she started, “I remember having difficult conversations with his coaches because he had to keep on such a low weight. That was one of the most difficult times when he was young. Now then you take that and put that a little bit further with regard to MMA, now you’re doing that professionally. So you still have the weight thing. It’s not as aggressive because he had to stay at that all the time when he was in wrestling, but it was watching all the eating challenges. Not being able to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner. Stuff like that when he was young then when you get older, he’s in MMA. Now he also is having to travel quite a bit. And again, the sacrifices are big. Relationships, downtime, vacations, things that a lot of families take for granted.
“I have a lot of friends that they all meet and go skiing, or they all meet and go do this and that. Well, that’s not something that becomes an easy thing for us at all. So that’s been a little bit more difficult, but really, when he was young, and he loved it so much, how can I not support him? It’s what he chose to do. It was legal, it was moral and it’s ethical. So hey, it may not always look that way to certain people. That was one of the reasons I wanted to write too because I wanted people to realize, ‘No, there are rules even though it may not look like it.’ And that is hard watching your son get hurt. But I also don’t really necessarily look at him as my little baby boy. I look at him as a professional man that has chosen this as his career, and I’m his backup and full support. So I pray. Honestly, that is part of who I am. That’s part of my role in what we are as a family – who we are. And that is one of the things that I believe has gotten us through as well.”
When the going gets tough, doubt inevitably creeps in for us all. And in situations like the ones that Cruz was faced with, how can he be blamed? Therefore it reveals the importance of a support system. Because even if you might not be able to believe in yourself in those darkest of times, and all hope may seem lost, there’s always someone still there. For Cruz, it was his mother.
“Losing everything brings the true people into your life and gets rid of everyone else,” Cruz explained in his 2016 SI interview, “People seem to fall off, and the people who love you and care about you make you stronger in your weakest times. My mom made me stronger at my weakest point.
“When I had no belt, everybody left. I was sad and depressed, and she showed me that I needed to love myself. I don’t need a belt to be happy. I didn’t need to be the best in the world to be happy, and I don’t need fighting to be happy. I define my happiness any way I want, that’s my decision—and my mother was a shining example of that.”
To rebound from his self-proclaimed rock bottom, Cruz did the unimaginable once again – but this time to a greater extent.
After missing out on the entirety of 2015 as he healed up, he would return and be granted with his expected title shot against the now champion, TJ Dillashaw.
Dillashaw at the time was a key piece of Team Alpha Male. The gym that so happened to be the rival of Cruz’s as it was helmed by the aforementioned Faber. If the comeback story alone wasn’t enough, there was extra fuel added to this dramatic fire.
Kicking off the first UFC event of 2016, Cruz headlined as the challenger to Dillashaw in Boston, Massachusetts. And what the TD Garden would be treated to was a masterclass of technique between two of the division’s best ever.
Even though Cruz had made it back to the Octagon and was competing at the highest level as he always had and his family always knew he could, he would continue to battle through adversity. Hindered but hidden, a case of plantar fascitis in one of Cruz’s feet had made itself present prior to fight night and as the fight went on, it only worsened.
It wouldn’t stop the former champion though as he battled valiantly and got his hand raised to once again become the bantamweight champion of the world. The belt he had never lost was back around his waist.
2016 would be a hallmark year in terms of activity for Cruz as he became one of the lone 11 fighters in the UFC’s 83 champion history to have fought in three title fights in a single year (including interim titles and excluding the Superfight title).
Arguably crafting an even greater legacy for what he had to overcome, Cruz has produced many incredible moments in his career at this point. So how do you pick just one that stands out the most? For Howe, there is obviously a lot to be proud of. But the reclaiming of the title after four major injuries is admittedly tough to top.
“The Mizugaki one was really amazing but TJ was too for two different reasons,” the author recalled, “[Against] Mizugaki, he came back and he only had to fight three rounds which was really sweet. But he came back with such a vengeance and almost shocked himself. If you view the replay you look at that, he’s walking around, going – from my perspective, ‘Oh, my gosh, look what I just did. Did I? Whoa,’ But it was also that he was so confident. And he knew that he knew that he could do that. He had so many people just talking trash about him not being able to do that. Then he turned around with regard to TJ and did the same thing. Only bigger because of his championship.
“A lot of people don’t know what that takes to go from zero to champion again, because of the workout but also you go from a three to a five-round [fight]. There’s a significant difference and a lot of people, the general public doesn’t get it, they don’t understand it. But the intricacies of what he had to put his body through to get there. Incredible. So then having that year, that 2016 year was grueling because he had three championship fights. Who does three championship fights in one year?”
Since the end of 2016 when he suffered his first and only career loss at bantamweight, losing his title, Cruz hasn’t fought. Instead, he’s been further progressing in his analyst and commentary roles that he first got into during his time off after the initial ACL surgery in early 2012.
Of course, this was never the plan as the injury bug continued to rear its head as the now 34-year old broke his arm in late 2017. Thus leading to a cancelation of his scheduled bout with Jimmie Rivera. Roughly a year later, another return would be halted when a ligament in his shoulder was torn ahead of his matchup with John Lineker. An injury that Cruz described as “the ACL of his shoulder.”
Officially now having been out for longer than when he was from 2011 to 2014, it’s nothing new for Cruz. He and his mother believe in him fully. He’s wanting to be ready, continues training, and is doing everything he can – but doing it smartly. If anyone has proven that they can come back better than they were when they left, it’s the kid from Flowing Wells High School.
“That’s Dominick. He never gives up, he never stops,” Howe said of her son, “He does do what is recommended by medical because he’s highly involved every day in that, which you can see on his social media. But he takes that very, very seriously because of the injuries he has had. He doesn’t want to ever do anything early or anything like that. So he’s learned that his body just is different than some of the other fighters and that’s what he had to overcome.
“[Regarding work outside of fighting,] it has been really cool because I could see it way early on in his career, but he couldn’t see it really until he had issues where he was almost forced into it. He had to do something and keeping his head in the game and commentating, he can now speak to people and organizations and all of that from a very different perspective that he never would have. As a young kid, he wouldn’t even get in front of a class. Well, this is something he knows. He lives it, he breathes it, he knows it well. And I’m super, super proud of him. But also he has recreated himself. And that’s brilliant.”
Parents shape their children into who they become. It takes a champion to make a champion. Without the strong support system that he’s had every step of the way, would we have ever seen Dominick Cruz reach his full potential? The answer feels pretty obvious at this point and he would surely agree.
Broken prior or not, we all face battles in life that are better fought with a loved one by our side.
Broken Before Battle: Changing Lives Outside the Octagon can be purchased on Amazon at the link: here.