Bantamweight is not a good division to be in right now; while it’s been choked with terrific prospects-turned-contenders (Petr Yan and Cory Sandhagen) and veterans who have righted the ship (Aljamain Sterling), the title scene has ground to a halt at the hands of Henry Cejudo.
At least looking at the names he’s beaten, one could think this was justified; a run of Demetrious Johnson, TJ Dillashaw, and Marlon Moraes is truly the stuff of legend and justifies a money fight at least a little bit. However, with the mitigating factors behind the first two (an arguable robbery and Dillashaw’s new weight-class, respectively), Cejudo’s resume rings hollower than it should, and pursuing Jose Aldo years past his prime doesn’t help matters at all.
It’s still very good, especially with the tremendously gutsy Moraes win, but fully substantiating his claims of being the pound-for-pound king requires more than just numbers and names. The title defense in front of him, however, doesn’t guarantee anything more than that.
On the other hand, insofar as “old legends” go, Dominick Cruz is about the toughest man for Cejudo to rely on to be an easy fight. This isn’t just a product of a bizarre style he’s built from the ground-up, but of Cruz being one of the most ridiculously mentally tough fighters in the history of fighting; as brittle as his body has proven throughout his UFC career, Cruz’s return in 2016 was a truly inspiring tale, as he recaptured the belt that he hadn’t lost in the ring against a top pound-for-pound talent in TJ Dillashaw while struggling with plantar fasciitis.
Since that return, though, Cruz did lose the belt, and to an opponent who is closer to top-15 than top-5 right now; the division has deepened considerably since Cruz’s last fight nearly four years ago, and his opponent in Jacksonville stands at the top of that new mountain. The stage is set for Cruz’s second return to be even more ludicrously impressive than his first.
For a fighter who seemed to hit a hard ceiling in 2016, Cejudo’s career since has been a surprise that no one expected. The former Olympic champion got sliced up in the clinch easily by Demetrious Johnson in their first meeting and outpointed by the crafty Joseph Benavidez, and while the latter wasn’t a wide loss at all, it seemed that he was a bit too raw to hit his ceiling without a major mid-career revamp; he wasn’t deep into his career at that point, but the gap between him and the champion seemed massive, and a total restructuring of every part of his game seemed like a huge ask.
In fact, it was, but Cejudo made it happen; since that Benavidez loss, Cejudo hasn’t lost in five fights, and the improvements he made were obvious. Being a two-division champion at 125 and 135 is massive, and he has the opportunity with the current bantamweight champion to become a true all-time great. Before those more relevant challenges, Cejudo needs to dispatch the one he’s chosen for himself.
Considering his accolades as a pure-wrestler (a little-known gold medal at the Olympics, in fact), Cejudo isn’t particularly effective as a wrestler in MMA. This has been a problem for him since his fight against Chico Camus, and it likely stems from just not having particularly strong takedown entries in the open (that link to his striking); against an opponent like Sergio Pettis who’s athletically outmatched, Cejudo can just grab a high-crotch, but opponents like Jussier Formiga gave Cejudo fits in terms of effective-wrestling. The exception seemed to be Demetrious Johnson in the rematch, who got inside-tripped from the over-under a concerning number of times, but even there, Cejudo’s top-game (against a fresh opponent) is pretty much nothing at all.
The point this is meant to make is that Cejudo has relied almost entirely on his striking against elite opponents, and that’s even more impressive than leaning on a skillset he’s worked on for his entire life; Cejudo turned out to be a natural striker, as quick as they come and a bruising puncher, and his revamp after the Benavidez loss was nothing short of a revelation.
Even against Benavidez, Cejudo was far from bad; he got outsmarted a bit for being a bit one-note on the counter, but he looked like a strong pressurer who could hang in the pocket. Afterwards, though, the wrestle-boxer template seemed to be phased out of him, and he showed up to his next one looking completely different. Really, the long stance was mostly aesthetic, with the exception of the Wilson Reis showcase; it got him leg-kicked a lot by Demetrious Johnson (and his successes in the pocket weren’t particularly attributable to it) and Sergio Pettis didn’t have a great deal of trouble dealing with it on the feet, but his true development was just a tactical reliance on being absolutely indestructible. It’s a difficult thing to quantify or even explain, but Cejudo’s success can be attributed to both his absolutely overwhelming athleticism and a team that knows exactly how to leverage it.
The best example was the aforementioned fight against Marlon Moraes, where Cejudo won the bantamweight belt. Moraes was a dynamo at 135, and for eight minutes or so, Cejudo seemed at his mercy; the kicking game worked just as well as it did for Johnson, and his entries just got him laced with counters in combination. But Cejudo was indefatigable and Moraes wasn’t, and as Cejudo committed to marching through the counters and overwhelming Moraes with sheer speed, he took over; it wasn’t a particularly nuanced game he played, as he just poured volume off his right hand (out of both stances) and ignored the counters coming back at him, but it worked because he knew the advantage he had and pressed it until his opponent was broken. Cejudo is easy to understand as a fighter but what makes him a great fighter is a bit more subtle; however, that greatness is undeniable.
Dominick Cruz’s career in the UFC has been defined far more by his absence than his presence; a terrific and dominant WEC champion (with the exception of the Benavidez rematch that Cruz probably should’ve lost), Cruz retired that belt when the UFC bought the promotion out and defended his new UFC belt twice before going on a long injury hiatus. He returned to beat Takeya Mizugaki three years later, and left for two more years.
While the WEC title was as legitimate as a bantamweight belt got at the time, it speaks to how inactive Cruz has been that he has a mere five wins under the UFC banner (and two of them were over Urijah Faber) since the merger in 2010. Despite all that, Cruz is an all-time great already, a top-10 all-time in a lot of people’s books; the context of beating TJ Dillashaw off a massive injury layoff that was shortly preceded by another massive injury layoff is just absolutely unimaginable. A win over Cejudo at UFC 249 would be just as defining to his legacy; many fighters win the belt, few get back to it, and very few get back to it twice.
As a fighter, Cruz is the opposite of Cejudo in a lot of ways; where Cejudo is a hard-nosed forward-moving grinder at his best, Cruz’s style is defined by a great deal of moving around on the outside, out of stance, feinting in and out. A lot of Cruz’s game is to draw his opponent’s counters out and make them hesitant, which helps a lot in the later rounds to pour on volume; however, the other component is to draw his opponent into chasing him.
Cruz is (or, maybe, was) one of the very best takedown artists in the history of MMA, and most of it comes from his system on the feet to draw his opponent into them; Cruz is not only a good wrestler from the clinch (where he threw Demetrious Johnson around), he’s an absolute savant at shooting reactively under an opponent’s strike or drawing their response before shooting underneath it (which was how he finished Takeya Mizugaki). Cruz can win rounds from on top, his top game is better than Cejudo’s, but his reactive takedowns also serve to dissuade his opponent from chasing him.
Cruz’s striking is a great example of substance-over-form, even though the form is what has inspired dozens of awful clones; in terms of pure footwork and punching mechanics, Cruz is not very good. Downright ugly, in fact. And that’s what got him in trouble against Cody Garbrandt, the fact that his mechanics leave him mostly unable to put weight into his shots and the tighter boxer was able to just outtrade him inside (and outposition him, since Cruz sees staying in stance as more of a suggestion). That said, he has been a very effective striker, and that comes down to how smart of a fighter he’s proven to be at every turn; the way Cruz does things isn’t as good as they should be, but he understands striking to a degree that most don’t.
In fact, conceptually, Cruz is a bit of pioneer r; he angled in and out of exchanges, he was a terrific ring-general on the outside, and he could draw out his opponent’s intentions like no one else. The substance made up for the form, all the way until he ran into one Cody Garbrandt, who he still figured out to some extent in round five. If Cruz shows up looking good, he would be a great challenge for Cejudo, and a win worth having.
Conclusions and Capping
Unfortunately, one can’t really expect Cruz to come in looking good. Cejudo is tough for Cruz at any point; he’s an active kicker which should help him cut Cruz off a bit (Dillashaw had a great deal of success kicking his leg late), and Cruz is reliant on takedowns to keep his opponent from simply chasing him around. When Garbrandt could deny the shot, he didn’t have much trouble just smashing through Cruz as he exited, and Cejudo is at a smart-enough camp to expect him to do the same (with his wrestling background in his back pocket). The athletic disparity at this stage is also likely fairly high, with Cruz’s brittleness (he’s historically tough but the issues can’t be ignored) against Cejudo’s inability to be hurt by even the most offensively potent man at the weight-class.
Prime Cruz has a shot at making Cejudo look bad; he can outfight like no one else at the weight class to defuse Cejudo’s pressure, he’s smart defensively where Cejudo is still a bit raw as a technical boxer, and he can go five rounds easy. But the chances of prime Cruz back, after four years on the shelf, are slim to none. While Cruz making another winning return to a belt is a compelling pick from a narrative perspective, the only reasonable hope is that Cruz bends the knee but doesn’t break it again.
Prediction: Cejudo via TKO4. This writer caps Cejudo at -250.
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