After 12 straight wins in UFC championship fights, flyweight king Demetrious Johnson looks as close to unbeatable as anyone to ever compete in the Octagon. Only a single one of those fights — the first one, against Joseph Benavidez — was particularly close. When Johnson first met Henry Cejudo back at UFC 197 in April 2016, a second squeaker was expected. After all, Cejudo was an Olympic wrestling gold medalist with a decent striking game and poise for days. Johnson couldn’t blow him out too, could he?
Of course he could.
In less than three minutes, Cejudo was toast, just like those who came before him, just like those who have come since. Now two years later at UFC 227, Cejudo, seemingly retooled and refocused, is back for a second crack at stealing Mighty Mouse’s cheese.
To date, Johnson has had two UFC rematches: One with Ian McCall, the other with Benavidez. In both instances, DJ won comfortably, topping McCall in a unanimous decision then knocking out Benavidez in just 2:08, his fastest UFC victory. Unsurprisingly, Johnson is seen to be a massive favorite over Cejudo — as much as -560 on some betting lines. He’ll continue to be until he finally loses.
Johnson (27-2-1) is a sizeable favorite for very clear reasons of all-around excellence. When he is discussed, it’s often in general terms. He is considered to be among the best mixed martial artists ever because of the thoroughness of his game and the way he melds techniques. True enough. But when you break things down to specific, individual pieces, you find that many parts of what he does are actually yet incredibly, underrated.
For instance, there may be no active fighter better than Johnson offensively in the clinch. For evidence of that, look no further than Johnson’s first whipping of Cejudo.
The entire finishing sequence was a clinch clinic, from the way he picked angles to the variety of strikes to the power he generated from short range. An elbow behind Cejudo’s ear started the rally, followed by a right knee up the gut, capped by a left knee to the head that wobbled the challenger, and it was almost a wrap. As a multi-shot sequence it is impressive; that it came against a world-class wrestler who has spent his life studying in-fighting is damn near ludicrous.
Johnson’s brilliance is in the small details, and it’s not just the clinch. His knees are underrated. He’s hurt several fighters with them, including Chris Cariaso in a dominant win. His power is underrated; he has knockdowns against arguably his three most decorated foes: Benavidez, Cejudo, and McCall. And his competitiveness is on another level. It’s no coincidence that he’s authored some of his best performances against the fighters who were perceived to be the most threatening.
If there is any one thing at the root of Johnson’s success, it’s his unpredictability. He is not a specialist in any one thing and does not force his ideas into a situation. He simply has an incredible ability to analyze split-seconds and meld into the moment. That’s mostly because he does everything well. His speedy footwork ensures he’s in the correct positions; his ability to switch stances forces his opponent to consider infinite angles; he can strike with precision, or fake a strike and level change, or fake a strike and move into a clinch. He is quick, he is creative, and he excels in every position. In short, his ability to seamlessly flow from one technique to another seems to be endless.
That’s a heck of a mountain to climb for any man, let alone one who has already tasted a lopsided defeat at his hands (and knees, and elbows). Cejudo has rebounded well from his first pro defeat however. In his three fights since, he’s gone 2-1, with dominant wins over Sergio Pettis and Wilson Reis, along with a controversial decision loss to Benavidez.
While his wrestling pedigree is second to none, there has been noticeable growth in his striking patterns over the last two years. His comfort level has clearly grown in reading opponents and finding the right moments, and the right strikes. He prefers a boxing range, and from distance has been extremely difficult to hit. According to FightMetric, only 29 percent of opponent strikes land. It helps to have that wrestling reputation to keep opponents a step beyond normal range of course; few want to engage Cejudo in that discipline.
In their first fight, Cejudo didn’t have the time to do much of anything, but he did take Johnson down on his sole takedown attempt. It was a golden opportunity to land some offense, but Johnson escaped in seconds. Those are opportunities Cejudo can’t blow this time around. Johnson has never been finished in his career, so Cejudo’s most likely path to victory is in turning the fight into a grimy wrestling match and out-pointing him. He can certainly land on his feet but it’s not the type of match that will favor him; Johnson has far greater potency and variety of weapons.
Of course, Johnson has already showed Cejudo what might happen if he wants to wrestle and dirty box. Cejudo will have to make a series of defensive adjustments to stifle what is one of Johnson’s key strengths. He’ll be better, no doubt, but Johnson’s wizardry in shot selection can only be stifled for so long, a factor that only gets exacerbated by the natural fatigue that occurs over the course of a 25-minute fight.
Expect a better, more competitive fight, but pick against Johnson at your peril. Mighty Mouse flies again, in a late finish.