TJ Dillashaw’s January loss and USADA suspension has seemingly spelled the end of an era; after the fall of Renan Barao, the division was ruled by one of the strongest top-threes in recent memory, and now, none are near their former positions.
Cruz’s perennial injury issues and two victories over Garbrandt seemed to pave the way for Dillashaw to build a resume fit for a great, only to get finished in 30 seconds by one Henry Cejudo; now Cejudo takes on the “champ-champ” challenge he denied Dillashaw, moving up to 135-pounds and intending to cap a historic winstreak with some more gold at UFC 238.
His opponent is Marlon Moraes, one of the most skilled fighters in the entire promotion riding an unparalleled wave of momentum. Debuting in June 2017, Moraes dropped a razor-close decision to top-contender Raphael Assuncao; since that loss, Moraes has been unstoppable, on a four-fight winstreak in which he has scarcely been challenged. Moraes was the top contender even before his last win, and is the clear top bantamweight at this point (after defeating the other top bantamweight Assuncao in their rematch in February 2019); he looks to beat flyweight king Henry Cejudo to cement himself as a pound-for-pound talent.
Henry Cejudo claims to be one of the most accomplished combat athletes of all time, and it’s fairly difficult to disagree with him; an Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling, Cejudo came to the UFC and got a decision over Demetrious Johnson (widely believed to be a top pound-for-pound talent) on his second try to become the UFC flyweight king. Cejudo went on to defend his title against another elite fighter, then-bantamweight king TJ Dillashaw, and swarmed him in under a minute. A win over Marlon Moraes would put Cejudo in talks as an all-time great, with belts in two genuinely good divisions.
Henry Cejudo has a wrestling base, but it hasn’t proven as effective as one would expect from someone with his credentials; for the most part, Cejudo’s endgame as a wrestler tends to be empty top control, and while that convinced the judges to give him the decision over Johnson (as he spent long periods locking Johnson down from half-guard), it isn’t a top-tier top game. As a takedown artist, Cejudo is quite good; against Johnson, he consistently showed an inside trip from the over-under (where the clinch game had gone so catastrophically for Cejudo in his first fight with Johnson), where against Sergio Pettis, it was largely the high-crotch entry. While he’s had trouble making his wrestling work in the past (for example, against Chico Camus), Cejudo at least has the level change as a meaningful threat that he can build off.
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For someone with such an illustrious wrestling base, it’s fairly surprising (in a good way) that Cejudo’s wrestling has become secondary to his striking; after his losses to Johnson (at 197) and Joseph Benavidez, Cejudo totally revamped his game on the feet, and it has turned him into an immeasurably better fighter. Beginning with his fight against Wilson Reis, Cejudo has bladed his stance to move in and out quickly, building his game around his distancing and his rear hand (Cejudo sometimes switches to southpaw, but mostly settles into orthodox and does right-hand work). For the most part, Cejudo’s game is pressuring behind kicks off the rear leg, and looking to counter his opponent’s entries with the right. Against Sergio Pettis, he found some success pulling from the jab to close distance with the right, and against Wilson Reis, it was angling into the open-side to create a route for the straight. Cejudo isn’t a particularly diverse counter threat and he isn’t that comfortable in the pocket (despite winning a few exchanges there with Johnson), but he does a good job backing out after hitting his counters or falling into the clinch.
Cejudo is a passable pressurer who isn’t particularly easy to hit, but one consistent liability has been outside-kicking; Demetrious Johnson looked for leg/body kicks throughout their rematch, and while Cejudo was sometimes able to catch the kick and threaten the right or the knee tap, he ate most of them cleanly. This spells a potential spot of trouble against Marlon Moraes.
Marlon Moraes was a dominant champion in World Series of Fighting, promising enough that most expected big things from him when he entered the UFC; for their part, the UFC looked to shoot him straight to the top, booking his debut fight against Raphael Assuncao (a true top fighter who’s exceedingly difficult to look good against). It’s disingenuous to even call that fight a misstep, but he came away with an L on his record; after his bounce-back against John Dodson, Moraes ran through three top contenders in less than five combined minutes. Even in the bantamweight status quo, no one has a better claim to being called the best; however, to get the hardware, he has to beat Henry Cejudo in Chicago.
Marlon Moraes’ striking is his greatest asset, and it’s entirely accurate (especially with the recent unavailability of TJ Dillashaw) to consider him the best in the division; not only is Moraes a technically sound and crafty striker, he’s also a genuinely terrifying athlete who doesn’t need many clean connections to end a fight. Moraes is one of the sharpest counterpunchers one will see, and while he has a lot of tools to make that work, one of the best is his left hook; Moraes can not only punish blitzes with the left (the way he did multiple times against Dodson barreling towards him), he can also use the jab to close distance and draw counters to punish (which was seen a lot in his first fight against Raphael Assuncao to land left hooks, and the second fight saw Moraes use the jab to set up and close into a monstrous overhand right).
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In addition, Moraes is extremely dangerous on the outside, a multifaceted and cripplingly powerful kicker both on the lead and on the counter (the latter a truly rare skillset; unlike more limited kickers like Barboza, pushing Moraes backwards doesn’t mean he can’t still kick hard). Moraes’ kicking game was on-display most strikingly against Sterling and Rivera; against the former, Moraes turned a counter-switch-kick into a knee as Sterling changed levels, where Rivera ate a switch-kick to the head as he was convinced by Moraes’ jabbery that he could afford to take time to find range a bit. Assuncao ate a few kicks to the body as he looked to push forward against Moraes in their first fight, and Moraes has also shown his ability to finish fights with just a few cracking leg kicks in WSOF. What ties all that together is not only sound footwork on the outside, but also blistering speed and real power for 135.
Moraes hasn’t really been tested as an anti-wrestler in the UFC (has in WSOF where it hasn’t looked like a notable weak point, but not at a particularly meaningful level of competition), but his grappling has generally looked good; he had next to no trouble finding his way out of Aljamain Sterling’s attempt at an aggressive guard, and he submitted Raphael Assuncao (a very strong grappler) with a guillotine after a knockdown. Moraes doesn’t really have any glaring weaknesses to be easily exploited, and is a very tough test for any bantamweight (including the flyweight king).
Conclusions and Capping
While Cejudo has overcome seemingly-insurmountable challenges before, Moraes seems like one that he’ll have particular trouble dealing with. Cejudo is a fine pressurer, but he’s likely to have trouble with Moraes’ educated pivot (something he hasn’t really had to face, even with Johnson) and his absolutely brutal counterpunching to keep an opponent from crowding him the way Cejudo did Dillashaw. Kicking with Moraes could work to push him back, but conceding kicking range to Moraes is also most likely a mistake; Moraes is a better-versed and more dangerous kicker than Cejudo, and Cejudo’s issues with an outside-kicker (shown at UFC 227) are likely to manifest more catastrophically than they did against Johnson (where both he and the judges mostly just ignored the kicks). Cejudo will also likely have trouble making his wrestling work; Moraes is a hard man to clinch with (Cejudo’s attempts at closing off counter-rights like he did against Pettis’s jab probably get him hit with left hooks), and he’s hard to stand still to shoot on, even if his anti-wrestling abilities from WSOF are totally ignored.
If there’s an X-factor in this fight, it’s Moraes’ reliance on being the faster man; against someone like Assuncao, that edge was evident in every single exchange, where former-flyweight (and extremely quick) John Dodson was able to surprise Moraes early by just running quickly towards him (despite being a far less nuanced threat than Assuncao, he had more success with raw athleticism). That said, as the Dodson fight showed, pure speed likely isn’t enough; Dodson didn’t have the craft to keep from running into well-timed counters despite being the faster man, and aside from that knockdown, got picked apart throughout. It’s tough to confidently bet against Cejudo given all he’s done so far, but Moraes is probably a bridge too far.
Prediction: Moraes via KO1. This writer caps Moraes at -200.
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Henry Cejudo vs. Marlon Moraes is the main event of the upcoming UFC 238 pay-per-view fight card. UFC 238 is exclusively available via the
Long-time MMA fan. Catch my (incomplete) betting history at betmma.tips/sriramsays.