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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 288’s Henry Cejudo

UFC Fight Night Cejudo v Dillashaw: Open Workouts Photo by Mike Stobe/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

Former double champion, Henry Cejudo, will return from retirement to challenge 135-pound king, Aljamain Sterling, this Saturday (May 6, 2023) at UFC 288 inside Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.

I will admit to feeling very unsure about Henry Cejudo’s return to action. His double champion run in general was odd despite its stacked name value. Did he deserve the Demetrious Johnson decision? How heavily do we weigh wins over dehydrated Dillashaw and an older, short-notice Dominick Cruz? The only truly incredible, undeniable win with zero potential asterisk mark is Marlon Moraes.

Point being: Cejudo was certainly great in May 2020, but how great? It’s been three years, and now at 36, he’s going to challenge Aljamain Sterling, a man whose resume is similarly marked by greatness and complicated nuance alike. Hopefully, this title fight proves illuminating.

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

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BLOCKBUSTER BANTAMWEIGHT BATTLE! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to Newark, N.J., for the first time in more than three years on Sat., May 6, 2023, with a blockbuster Bantamweight collision inside Prudential Center that will see Aljamain Sterling attempt another successful title defense against returning two-division titleholder and former gold medal-winning Olympic wrestler, Henry Cejudo. In UFC 288’s last-minute pay-per-view (PPV) co-main event, former Welterweight title challenger, Gilbert Burns, locks horns with No. 4-seeded contender, Belal Muhammad, in a five-round, 170-pound No. 1 contender eliminator match.

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Cejudo’s boxing background took him pretty far up the ladder, with a bit of help from his world-class wrestling of course. However, after the first “Mighty Mouse” fight, Cejudo reinvented his striking style to more of a Karate-boxing hybrid. Moving in a wider stance, Cejudo is able to blast power kicks and fire crisp straights down the center without any load up or tell.

It makes an already quick athlete look even faster.

For my money, Cejudo’s performance against Dominick Cruz is an all-timer in terms of effective game planning and execution. Cruz wasn’t at his peak, sure, but Cejudo still managed to come in perfectly prepared on short-notice to simply dismantle the longtime Bantamweight king on the feet.

Cejudo’s strategy wasn’t that complicated, but it was masterful nevertheless. Time and time again, Cejudo would throw some punches, getting Cruz to break stance and circle. As soon as Cruz was without his footing, Cejudo would charge forward and literally run into ripping low kicks, targeting the trailing leg as Cruz retreated. This is the best fundamental approach to taking apart a movement-based striker like Cruz, and Cejudo proved his adaptability by committing to the low kick far more than at any point previous.

In addition, Cejudo used his reactive takedowns and counter right to punish Cruz’s attempts to combo forward, leaving Cruz somewhat stranded. To close the show, Cejudo timed a perfect high kick/knee, punishing Cruz’s dramatic head movement perfectly (GIF).

Immediately prior to that performance was a very different showing against Moraes, who entered their title fight at the absolute height of his powers, widely being considered the uncrowned Bantamweight king. For the first eight or so minutes, the Brazilian looked the part, kicking Cejudo’s leg to shreds and landing heavy counters as the shorter man tried to find his distance.

Cejudo’s game plan wasn’t working, to say the least. He still managed to find a path to victory, however, via pressure and clinch. The Karate slickness was gone, but wrapping up a collar tie and slamming home knees never goes out of style. In the double collar tie, Cejudo finally found his answer, and he exploited that hole in Moraes’ defense ruthlessly. Those blows emptied Moraes’ gas tank, allowing Cejudo to gain top position and brutalize him with strikes.

Being able to execute a game plan, adapt from a failed strategy, and overcome heavy adversity — these are the traits that earned Cejudo his double champion status more than any single technique.

One of the most interesting and circumstantial developments about Cejudo’s Flyweight success on the feet is that all of his previous opponents were either Southpaws or switch-stance athletes. In general, fighters who like this boxing/karate mix tend to prefer open stance match ups between foes in opposite stances. Distance management becomes even more important, as the powerful cross and power kick of each man is quite easy to land.

Against these opposite stance foes, Cejudo very smartly tends to stick to that aforementioned cross and kick. If you have ESPN+ and the patience to navigate the website to find his title defense opposite Dillashaw, that bout is worth a 30-second rewatch. Dillashaw was only standing for about 20 seconds before getting dropped and subsequently smashed, but in that time, Cejudo threw nothing except for crisp crosses and right round kicks (GIF).

In battles of opposite stances, nothing is truly needed aside from a quick cross, hard kick, and good feints. Cejudo understands this well.

Another great example of dominant kickboxing from Cejudo’s Flyweight career came against Wilson Reis, a shorter Southpaw forced to try to close the distance. It was a terrible night for Reis, who ran into Cejudo’s loaded counter right hand repeatedly (GIF). At distance, Cejudo punished Reis’ mid-section with the right kick often. 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 (GIF). 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 rounds. 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. However, 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.


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 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.

The inside trip is the most standout technique in Cejudo’s arsenal (breakdown here). As his opponent looks to back their way out of the clinch or push the hips back to avoid the double leg shot, Cejudo will turn a corner and yank his foe over his inside trip (GIF). Since his foe is forced to respect Cejudo’s shot, the inside trip really sets itself up.

The Olympian possesses 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 a lot of 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, or transition to a double-leg and cut the corner.

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 other tricks from that position. 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 mixed martial arts (MMA) 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.


Cejudo is an absolutely remarkable competitor, able to turn it on inside the Octagon like very few others. He is also a 36-year-old Bantamweight returning from a three year layoff. How he performs on Saturday night is anyone’s guess, but it’s exciting to watch him reach for greatness yet again.

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.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 288 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard on ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 288: “Sterling vs. Cejudo” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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