The UFC is hosting its first event on ESPN+ this weekend and the company seems to be putting its best foot forward, but the main event between Henry Cejudo and T.J. Dillashaw hasn’t seemed to gain the traction that it should have. Dillashaw is the UFC bantamweight champ and Cejudo is the flyweight champion, this is the kind of champion vs champion fight that the UFC shied away from for the best part of a decade after B.J. Penn versus Georges St-Pierre. Unfortunately, since lifting their self-imposed ban on champ vs. champ bouts, the UFC has very quickly flogged the idea like a dead horse.
This is the fourth such fight in relatively quick succession. Then consider that Dillashaw’s strong recent showings and Cejudo’s very close victory to win the title have most considering this a foregone conclusion. It could well be that Dillashaw smokes Cejudo easily and early, but in examining the match up there seems to be a lot more going on here than many would admit, and there is plenty of potential for a cracking scrap.
Whether you think Cejudo beat Demetrious Johnson in their title fight or not, he certainly gave Johnson trouble. In fact, Cejudo went from getting easily smoked by Johnson in one round, to giving Johnson the most spirited battle of his career just two years later. One of the most obvious changes which allowed Cejudo to do this was his adoption of a karate style stance. Long and bladed, this stance has one leg well ahead of Cejudo’s hips and one far behind, which makes it good for quickly moving in and out, and less useful for cutting the cage or floating around laterally.
Cejudo’s game from this stance is pretty simple. Henry will look at his opponent’s stance and will switch to mirror it: if his opponent is orthodox he will go southpaw, and vice versa. This puts him into what is called open guard or open position. From there, when his opponent steps in, Cejudo will retreat and angle slightly off to the opponent’s power side or "open side."
This is in hopes of setting up counter punches, particularly that “open side counter” that Conor McGregor, Stephen Thompson, and others have made so famous: getting the opponent to overextend with their rear hand and following it back to their jaw.
We will always return to the Wilson Reis fight as the example of everything going absolutely to plan. Reis kept following and Cejudo kept spiraling out and hitting him with hard counters. The great part about using this strategy against an opponent who just wants to keep punching, is that if they don’t over-reach they will be forced to simply follow and turn. Every time Wilson Reis turned to correct for Cejudo’s slight angle, Cejudo could step outside of Reis’s lead foot—occupied in pivoting—and go to classical southpaw vs orthodox offense: the rear hand straight or the stepping knee. That is the spirit of fighting from open guard, attacking from inside and outside of the lead leg.
Of course, this idea of spiraling out from the opponent’s advances isn’t a magic bullet. Demetrious Johnson realized that Cejudo was getting close each time he stepped in to punch, so he dropped the punching and leaned heavily on kicking from long range. Low kicks are a pain if you fight from a long stance because your lead leg is always out there, presented. Cejudo tried to withdraw his leg from kicks and return with counters, but as the distance was such that the end of Johnson’s leg was going to connect with the end of Cejudo’s lead leg, it was difficult for Cejudo to cover the ground in time. Cejudo did time some more successful counters when he went to that Lyoto Machida staple of trying to anticipate the low kick and step up the center of it.
Additionally, that slight angle that Cejudo takes as he retreats, and having his rear hand cocked and ready to counter, can make him susceptible to the high kick on that side. Johnson noticed this and came close on a couple of attempts—feinting as if to step in and punch but clipping the top of Cejudo’s noggin with a high kick instead. Now this matches up interestingly with T.J. Dillashaw because Dillashaw is constantly stance switching and kicking. The left high kick, off both stances, is also seen dozens of times in any Dillashaw bout.
Where the fight gets interesting for Cejudo is that Dominick Cruz had a lot of success in drawing Dillashaw out. Dillashaw works marvelously against forward moving opponents, or opponents who will follow him around the cage as he darts in and out, or opponents who are so puzzled that they stand still. Dillashaw doesn’t look nearly as sharp against opponents who give ground and invite him in. In fact, Dillashaw’s moments of success against Cruz came when he took a step back and allowed Cruz to lead, when he was chasing Cruz he over-reached, got hit with back-stepping counters, and gave away his leg on kicks, being threatened by takedown attempts that never would have troubled him ordinarily.
Cruz drawing a Dillashaw charge and slapping him with a counter swing.
And that is, after all, what Cejudo is: a wrestler and the most accomplished to win a title in the UFC. While Dillashaw is a natural bantamweight and expected to have some strength on Cejudo, Cejudo’s timing and placement of takedown attempts has really improved along with his striking. Cejudo set to work striking with Demetrious Johnson so convincingly that any time the two fell into a clinch he was able to effortlessly hit his inside trip.
The inside trip is an interesting look in MMA—it was a favorite of Fedor Emelianenko, and you most often saw it in the UFC as a move to scrape the opponent’s leg out from under him while along the fence. In the most familiar MMA version—the one that Randy Couture made famous—the fighter will use his underhook to draw his opponent off the fence and then hit the inside trip on that side.
Randy Couture peels Kevin Randleman off the fence with an underhook and hits the inside trip.
Cejudo’s inside trip is hit from an over-under—either having fallen into the clinch or having stuffed a takedown attempt—and the trip is performed on the overhook side.
Against Demetrious Johnson, who will immediately create a scramble when taken down, Cejudo was able to grab the cross face and apply the “shoulder of justice” as soon as Johnson reached for his leg on that overhook side. While Cejudo’s improved striking was responsible for his hanging with Johnson in their rematch, it was likely this well timed trip being used a handful of times that won Cejudo the key rounds on the judges’ scorecards. It will be interesting to see how often Cejudo can draw Dillashaw into clinches through his shifting charges, and whether he will be able to get the bantamweight champ down from these clinches.
Having considered some of the key points of the main event match up, let us have a look at a couple of the intriguing names further down the card.
The Fighting Fisherman
Gregor Gillespie is the self proclaimed best fisherman in MMA and one of the hottest prospects in the UFC right now and faces his first “name” opponent on Saturday. Yancy Medeiros isn’t perfect but he’s a very solid fighter and a good measuring stick for Gillespie who is one of the most exciting prospects on the UFC roster but still largely untested. Medeiros is coming back down to lightweight after Donald Cerrone put an end to his three-fight winning streak up at welterweight. Gillespie has gone 12-0 in his career, has accumulated five straight victories in the UFC, and has stopped his last four opponents.
There aren’t a lot of consistent methods for knocking out or submitting the best fighters in the world, but pace is one of them. A high pace forces mistakes, removes the space in which measured strikers like to work, and quickly drains a fighters’ gas tank and will. From Conor McGregor to Justin Gaethje to Cain Velasquez, pace is a killer in MMA and Gillespie is operating the same philosophy.
The double leg is what Gillespie is about, but as his first round against Glaico Franca showed diving wildly after takedowns just doesn’t work at a high level anymore. So the striking gets him there and the striking, honestly, isn’t all that bad. It is meat-and-potatoes stuff but like any good wrestler-turned-MMA-fighter, he understands the value of expectation is deception. So Gillespie gets to work pumping the jab early and puts it in his opponent’s mind next to the level-change. Then when Gillespie starts feinting with his head and shoulders, he can draw reactions and crack his opponents while they’re out of position. He caught Franca with this in the first round of their fight and very quickly starched Andrew Holbrook.
Medeiros should be an intriguing test for Gillespie because he is a slick enough striker to hurt Gillespie if he becomes too predictable. Franca and Gonzalez both had success getting in Gillespie’s face early. Franca threw Gillespie off with strict straight hitting, Gonzalez with powerful high kicks and uppercuts as Gillespie ducked for the takedown attempt. Medeiros is capable of these things, and when you add his winding front kick to the solar plexus, he could certainly make Gillespie’s life very difficult if he can maintain the range.
Hernandez vs. Cerrone
A final intriguing bout on this card is the match up between Alexander Hernandez and Donald Cerrone. Cerrone is an old hand who is coming back down from welterweight, Hernandez burst into the UFC by starching Beneil Dariush on short notice and followed it up with a grindy decision over Olivier Aubin-Mercier.
Hernandez seems heavily influenced by T.J. Dillashaw, shifting stances constantly and bursting in with quick flurries. This dazzled Dariush but also saw Hernandez clattered a couple of times with swinging counter hooks by Aubin-Mercier.
Meanwhile the book is pretty written on Cerrone, he fights so often and so consistently shows the same looks that everyone and their mother knows what they need to train for. He hates pressure and straight hitting, but he has added a nice intercepting knee to punish shorter fighters pressing in on him. He kicks like a mule and while his hands can be flappy, they work well in setting up his feet.
Also Cerrone consistently surprises opponents with his grappling. He has been ducking in on shots a lot more in recent years and while this didn’t always work out great at welterweight, coming down to lightweight, where he is often the bigger man, we might see him attempting to rag-doll smaller fighters like Hernandez.
Essentially Hernandez-Cerrone will likely come down to whether Hernandez can actually get in Cerrone’s face and fluster him with striking, or whether he will try to float around on the outside or grind into lengthy periods of fence wrestling as he has in his last two UFC bouts—both styles which seem to play into Cerrone’s established strengths.