With the start of the new year, UFC management would like nothing more than to mend the damage of the UFC 232 debacle and start anew. Fortunately for the executives and fans alike, the first card of 2019 ushers in a new epoch as the partnership with ESPN begins with UFC Fight Night 143, headlined by Henry Cejudo vs. TJ Dillashaw.
While those who called for this fight after Cejudo’s debatable split decision victory over Demetrious Johnson found themselves in the minority, that does not mean that this won’t be an intriguing bout. While the UFC is keeping no secrets about its desire to scrap the flyweight division altogether, it is apparent that the only chance the 125-pound roster has of remaining respected (never mind dutifully employed) is with a Cejudo victory. While this is not an impossible outcome, the flyweight champion has found himself in perhaps the most difficult first title defense in UFC history, facing the formidable bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw.
Paths to victory
The chances of Henry Cejudo finishing TJ Dillashaw are minimal. Cejudo has only one finish out of his nine UFC appearances, with a handful of stoppage victories occurring against unknowns on the local circuits prior to his UFC career. This lack of finishes is consistent with Cejudo’s background of Olympic wrestling, as he spent the majority of his athletic career competing under a ruleset which lacks any inherent method of finishing a fight. It is highly unlikely Cejudo will get his second UFC stoppage against an opponent who hasn’t been finished in eight years. The only remaining path to victory is to outpoint Dillashaw, a difficult endeavor.
Dillashaw is a talented defensive wrestler with an impressive ability to identify and exploit the flaws in his opponent’s game, most notably their striking. While Cejudo’s striking has improved drastically since his TKO loss to “Mighty Mouse” in 2016, there are still prominent chinks in the armor that Dillashaw and his coach Duane Ludwig have certainly identified and trained to exploit.
Dillashaw is an expert game planner
One of TJ Dillashaw’s most formidable weapons is the ability for him (and his team) to analyze flaws in his opponent’s game, subsequently punishing these mistakes on fight night in spectacularly violent fashion. Take for example how Dillashaw was able to dissect Cody Garbrandt’s weaknesses, countering them and knocking out the young prospect as a result. Speaking after his victory, Dillashaw provides insight on how he knew he could beat Garbrandt.
“Every time he throws a right hand, he drops his left. He’s looking to throw a left hook. He’s fast. He throws a big right, but he drops (his left hand) to his pocket. So we’re planning on timing it.”
In the following clip, we see Dillashaw exploit this mistake three times in a row, damaging Garbrandt to a point in which he never recovered.
Cody Garbrandt is a great striker, but Dillashaw and co. were able to recognize and exploit a weakness that others, including the bantamweight legend Dominick Cruz, were unable to. While Cejudo’s striking has improved significantly over his career, there are still flaws that are highly susceptible to being exploited.
Since reinventing his standup game, Cejudo has developed a karate style of striking to complement his wrestling. While it deserves respect from his opponent, he has yet to show a level of lethality with it that makes the inherent drawbacks to such an unorthodox stance worthwhile. The low karate stance allows for powerful kicks but puts the fighter at an increased risk for low kicks. While Demetrious Johnson wasn’t able to inflict consequential damage with strikes to Cejudo’s lower half, it is likely that Dillashaw will utilize a combination of traditional leg kicks and the highly feared and dangerous oblique kicks to rack up considerable punishment on his opponent.
Along with the susceptibility to lower body attacks, Cejudo has other flaws that will have to have been corrected if he wishes to best the 135-pound champion. As evident from the second bout with Demetrious Johnson, Cejudo was making mistakes such as flinching from feigned kicks…
dropping his hands while kicking…
and most notably dropping his left hand when he threw his right, the same mistake that Dillashaw exploited to beat Garbrandt.
If Dillashaw was able to finish the much quicker Garbrandt for making this mistake, he will certainly be able to do the same to Henry Cejudo.
Cejudo is going to have to out wrestle Dillashaw
This is not to say that Cejudo’s chances of victory are non-existent. He is easily the most decorated wrestler in the UFC, an accolade that is going to have to utilize if he wants to protect his belt. While Dillashaw does possess an impressive wrestling pedigree and skill set, it is in no way comparable to Cejudo’s. As previously mentioned Cejudo has not shown tremendous potential for finishing fights which means he is going to have to outpoint Dillashaw through five rounds of grueling wrestling pressure, repeatedly taking him down and holding him there.
This is an entirely plausible outcome of the bout, as Cejudo might be able to drag Dillashaw to the mat for at least three of the five rounds and obtain a majority on the judge’s scorecards. There are two roadblocks to this outcome: Dillashaw’s formidable defensive wrestling skills, and Cejudo’s insistence to try to strike with the bantamweight. If he insists to stand and trade with T.J. Dillashaw, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which the errors he makes on his feet are not exploited in a spectacular display of analytical violence, leading to a T.J. Dillashaw victory and an end to Cejudo’s reign as UFC flyweight champion.