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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC on ESPN+ 1’s Henry Cejudo

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Flyweight kingpin, Henry Cejudo, will square off with Bantamweight roost-ruler, T.J. Dillashaw, this Saturday (Jan. 19, 2019) at UFC Fight Night 143 inside Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

Cejudo climbed up the 125-pound ranks without much difficulty to earn his first title shot opposite Demetrious Johnson, but he learned that night how much he still had to grow to defeat “Mighty Mouse.” Upon his return to the cage less than one year later, Cejudo showed vast improvements even in a loss to Joseph Benavidez. Afterward, Cejudo continued to grow, scoring his first knockout win and another dominant decision to earn a second shot at the king. The rematch was a closely contested battle over five rounds, but ultimately the split-decision went to the challenger. Now, Cejudo faces another of the sport’s pound-for-pound greats, this time in defense of his newly-acquired crown.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

In the last few years, a recent trend in mixed martial arts (MMA) striking has emerged: the combination of karate and boxing. More specifically, taking the distancing, kicks and often stance of fighters with karate background and incorporating the superior combinations and head movement of boxing. Robert Whittaker and Conor McGregor are perhaps the premiere example, but Cejudo definitely fits the mold.

Prior to his professional career, Cejudo trained as a boxer while deciding what to do next after his wrestling career. Even back in his UFC debut, that training was apparent, as Cejudo put together his punches well and carried more power in his hands than the average undersized Bantamweight.

Since the loss to Johnson, Cejudo switched his approach a bit and worked more like a karate fighter. His stance widened, his right hand landed as a counter more often, and his right kick to the body landed with greater consistency (GIF). Interestingly, part of this may be circumstantial, as each of his last four opponents were either Southpaw or switch-stance fighters, making that right kick/right hand double threat a no-brainer.

The most karate-like and overall most dominant kickboxing performance of Cejudo’s career came against Wilson Reis, a shorter Southpaw forced to try to close the distance. It was a brutal night for Reis, who ran into Cejudo’s counter right hand repeatedly (GIF). In general, Cejudo keeps his right hand loaded at all times, always ready to be pitched down the center. In addition to a dozen counter rights, that right kick landed with brutal effect all night. Beyond the usual application of the right hand/right kick double threat, Cejudo also mixed in level change feints to set up both strikes and keep Reis thoroughly confused (GIF).

As for actual habits rather than individual performances, Cejudo has a few strategies that are employed pretty consistently regardless of opponent. For one, that right hand being constantly loaded allows Cejudo to effectively spring forward with a right hand lead often. The way Cejudo crouches into the punch means he can transition into a shot easily — or trick his foe into thinking the cross was a shot in the first place — but it did also allow Johnson to counter with some hard knees to the body.

Another frequent habit of Cejudo is the use of body-head combinations. His body shots are again aided by the threat of his wrestling, but it’s also common to see Cejudo push himself into a very close range after covering distance with his right hand — a range he can easily target the mid-section. In a great example of both traits, Cejudo dropped Benavidez in the opening minute of their fight by closing the distance with a lead right, punching at the mid-section, then coming up high with a hard hook (GIF).

Though Johnson was the superior kickboxer even in the rematch, Cejudo made the exchanges close enough that his takedowns were enough to swing the round. In that regard, perhaps the most important habit of Cejudo was to at least try to counter a majority of the kicks thrown at him. It’s very difficult to check kicks from a Karate-oriented stance, and Cejudo paid the price for that stylistic choice, but Cejudo also got his own licks in by lunging forward with punches while Johnson was still on one leg. He missed a lot of those punches, but some of them landed with real power, and overall it forced Johnson to kick less frequently.

Wrestling

In 2008, Cejudo became the youngest American to ever score a gold medal in Olympic freestyle wrestling. He’s quite arguably the most decorated wrestler in the UFC, and while early on he struggled to truly take advantages of that background in the cage, that tide has shifted in the last two years.

First and foremost, we have to cover what has become Cejudo’s signature move: the inside trip. It’s the topic of this week’s technique highlight, in which we’ll cover the fundamental movements of the trip, how it ties together with his wrestling, and how the trip should look vs. actual application.

The inside trip is the most standout technique in Cejudo’s arsenal, but the man really does possess a wealth of wrestling technique. Every once in a while, he’ll flash a transition or finish that he’s yet to use inside the Octagon and do it perfectly, better than another fighter who does it all the time.

Cejudo is that caliber of wrestler.

Therefore, it’s a lot more helpful to pick and explain individual takedowns than look for too many trends, because otherwise there’s too much variety. For example, Cejudo repeatedly targeted Sergio Pettis’ lead leg as a result of Pettis’ Southpaw stance. Since the lead leg was close, Cejudo was easily able to latch onto it when shooting. Once his hands were clasped, Cejudo would dump his foe to the mat, elevate the leg (GIF), or transition to a double-leg and cut the corner (GIF).

In the rematch with Johnson, Cejudo landed a great finish to the single leg as his foe tried to hand-fight and kick the trapped leg out of his grasp. Cejudo barely had the ankle trapped at this point — meaning a conventional dump and most transitions were no longer options — but he managed to club Johnson off-balance with a single-collar tie while elevating the trapped leg a bit. More than a brilliant technical move, it was a moment of opportunism, enough to get Johnson to stumble to the mat and give up top position.

Aside from his inside trips from the clinch, Cejudo has shown plenty of tricks from there. In the rematch with Johnson, Cejudo was able to hike up an underhook and spin to the back, known as a throw by in wrestling but immensely difficult to do to a world-class competitor like Johnson. In general, Cejudo does a great job at mixing his mat returns from that back clinch, transitioning between attempts to drag foes down, lift and return, or trip out a leg.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Cejudo has yet to score a submission in his professional career nor can I remember him really attempting one. Conversely, Cejudo has never really been threatened by a submission either, and he’s spent plenty of time on the mat with elite grapplers. Cejudo’s grappling is wrestling with a few guard passes added in, and while thus far that has limited his offensive opportunities on the mat, his results cannot be denied, either.

Conclusion

Cejudo damn well may be fighting for the future of the Flyweight division. If he wins, he has the option to either chase Dillashaw back to 135 pounds or defend against someone like Benavidez, who does hold a recent win over the champion. Either way, those options are much more appealing than being forced to Bantamweight after the 135-pound kingpin beats him in his own weight class.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.