Just a few years ago, champion vs. champion fights were so rare that the thought of them felt something like a fantasy. These days, they’re not so rare; the UFC Brooklyn matchup of T.J. Dillashaw vs. Henry Cejudo marks the the third in the last six months, following last July’s UFC 226 pairing of Daniel Cormier vs. Stipe Miocic and UFC 232’s Amanda Nunes vs. Cris Cyborg.
While the specialness of the double-champ showdowns may not be what it was, the bouts have been electric.
That trend is likely to continue as the promotion makes its push on to ESPN.
If you’re Cejudo, you may find some spark from the three most recent champ vs. champ fights, all of which were won by the smaller athlete. In addition to Cormier and Nunes, Conor McGregor moved up a weight class in 2016 and knocked out Eddie Alvarez. He may be an underdog, but it’s not uncharted territory. Moreover, fresh off his stunning defeat over the long-reigning Demetrious Johnson, Cejudo has to feel like he’s capable of anything.
Still, the stakes are large. UFC president Dana White has toyed with the idea of closing up shop on the flyweights, so as the current divisional champion, Cejudo is in many ways making a last stand for his division.
The 2008 Olympic wrestling gold medalist has made long strides in improvement over the last two years, adopting a modified karate stance that has opened up his offense. That renewed karate influence has been one of the quiet developments of recent MMA, as seen in champions such as Conor McGregor and Robert Whittaker, and Cejudo has taken to it well, making him a dangerous treat on the feet, a perfect complement to his elite wrestling ability.
When he began his career in the UFC, Cejudo used simple but sharp boxing basics. Coupled with his grappling skills, it was enough to get near the top, but not all the way. His refined style has added balance to his attack and polished his footwork, allowing him to better and more effectively spring his offense. He has a new comfort level with patience, showing an ability to set traps or invite an opponent inside by giving up space to set up a counter.
He employs a nice use of combinations that dig both to the body and then upstairs, often punctuated with hooks. It was this kind of setup that briefly dropped Joseph Benavidez in a performance that reignited talk as to Cejudo’s potential, even despite losing.
His shot selection has improved as well. Remember how he picked apart Wilson Reis with confidence in their matchup? That showed that Cejudo had taken a massive step forward in his distance control, a major signal that he was arriving as a complete package. That skill will certainly be put to the test against Dillashaw, who also possesses it in spades.
All of this is buttressed by his wrestling foundation. Cejudo could go 0 for his next 50 takedowns, and opponents will still walk into a match against him on high guard against his entries. The fact is, Cejudo has not been the best takedown artist in the UFC; in fact, he’s only been successful on 35 percent of his attempts, per FightMetric, but the threat is still there, and that’s enough to open up other avenues. He’ll slip in occasional level-change fakes to get off power punches, for instance. But when he does commit to the takedown, he’s more than capable. His three takedowns against Johnson might have stolen the win from Johnson.
If there is one downside for his karate style, it’s the susceptibility of the lead leg. The wider stance leaves it out further, making it an inviting target. Johnson, for example, drilled Cejudo 39 times with low kicks. Dillashaw is a bright strategist so it’s likely that he’ll move to exploit that shortcoming.
The current UFC bantamweight champ is coming off consecutive knockouts of former teammate Cody Garbrandt as he attempts to win a second belt.
Dillashaw works to present himself as a puzzle, full of shifting stances and movements designed to overload the senses and create doubt—and therefore, openings. He does this brilliantly, fluidly switching from orthodox to southpaw multiple times during the course of a single round. His style is also largely dependent on pace and pressure. He lands an average of 5.38 strikes per minute. Compare that to Cejudo’s 3.42 per minute, and you can see how Dillashaw has the possibility of building a lead and pulling away on the scorecards.
While kicks are not the main feature of Dillashaw’s game, they are quite prominent, as evidenced in his matches with Garbrandt. In the first fight between them, Dillashaw threw many leg kicks, setting up a high kick that had Garbrandt blocking low and getting floored.
Dillashaw’s darting, shifting nature creates the angles in which he flourishes. But it often works best with opponents that chase, as he’s the one setting the angle, and therefore, the trap. Many fighters lead with aggression, and he turns it against them. Cejudo is no longer a chaser. He can be aggressive but is now much more measured in his attacks. The way he approaches Dillashaw will be a major factor in how this fight develops. If he allows Dillashaw to set the rhythm and exchanges, it will be a tough night; if he can force Dillashaw into pursuing him, he’s chances improve greatly.
As for other attributes, Dillashaw certainly has an edge in power, as evidenced by his nine career knockdowns, most all-time in the bantamweight division. And while he’s not Cejudo’s equal in wrestling, he’s competent enough to boast an 86 percent takedown defense rate. He’ll need that kind of defensive performance to give himself the space to get off his offense.
Of course, the elephant in the room is Dillashaw’s cut down to flyweight. On Friday, he hit the scales at 124.6, and he looked gaunt. Since this is his first time trying this weight, it’s impossible to predict what effect, if any, it will have. But it’s certainly reasonable to wonder if depleting his body for the last few weeks will lead to any stamina issues on Saturday.
Any way you break down this match, it should be excellent. Two refined technicians with many strategic differences should lead to some fascinating and fun fighting. I’m going to bet that Dillashaw’s strike variety and power are the difference-makers in a unanimous decision victory.