Henry Cejudo laid back alongside the UFC flyweight belt, the UFC bantamweight belt, and a large gold medal to signify his freestyle wrestling victory at the 2008 Olympics. He grinned at the camera, cheesy as he might seem, content with his lot. “The king of cringe” is alive and well and seems happy to leave the fighting to everyone else, having vacated his UFC titles and retired in May.
Indeed, at UFC 250 on Saturday, the bantamweight division will take shape for the first time since Cejudo walked away after stopping Dominick Cruz. Rafael Assuncao will oppose Cody Garbrandt in the co-main event while Aljamain Sterling will meet Cody Sandhagen, ostensibly to decide who will face the winner of Jose Aldo against Petr Yan for the title. Elsewhere, Sean O’Malley will face Eddie Wineland.
Assuncao is an iconic figure at the lower weights and has achieved more than most at bantamweight – perhaps Cejudo included – yet the Georgia-based man finds himself ranked down at five following setbacks to Sandhagen and Marlon Moraes. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt boasts 11 UFC bantamweight victories since 2011 and had his hand raised against the likes of Sterling, Moraes, and former titlist TJ Dillashaw.
While Assuncao might be the strongest UFC fighter to never contest a title in the promotion, he faces a former champion in Garbrandt, who has added Mark Henry and Ricardo Almeida to his training staff in aiming to recover from three knockout defeats in a row. On his day the Ohio native is tricky on the feet, yet his willingness to trade fire must be curbed.
After all, Assuncao can counterpunch with the best of them and could potentially deck “No Love” behind the ear once the action heats up. The American Top Team man should look to assert his jab while also using deft footwork and head movement. He ought to be wary of Garbrandt’s dangerous fists, but he can eke out a decision by boxing and moving.
That’s exactly what the Brazilian did in 2017 when he edged past Sterling, a 5-foot-7 striker with a mammoth 71-inch reach. Sterling was hot on Cejudo’s heels during his reign and has defeated competition such as Takeya Mizugaki, Brett Johns, and Pedro Munhoz. He brings debilitating kicks, astute feints, and an array of submissions which he can call upon early in the scrambles.
Sandhagen, on the other hand, boasts a height advantage at 5 foot 11 and has put paid to the likes of Assuncao and John Lineker, slowing both down with leg kicks. He trebles up the jab and parries counters well too. Also watch for his flying knees.
The question is will it be Sandhagen or Sterling who strikes within range first? Sandhagen should use his height, ramp up his output, and stay aware of takedowns. He can win with his jab but Sterling will carry a threat if he can assert kicks to the body and head.
Further down the main card, another pair of bantamweights hoping to emulate Cejudo are O’Malley and Wineland. Earning a UFC berth in 2017 with a one-punch KO of Alfred Khashakyan on Dana White’s Contender Series, O’Malley is a forward-rushing blur of spinning strikes, hail Mary crosses and well-disguised kicks to the head. His reckless style has nonetheless led to a ledger of 11-0 but Wineland should provide an acid test.
It seems like a lifetime ago when, in 2013, Wineland was head kicked into another dimension by Renan Barao, who many felt would progress to become one of the greatest of all-time. Since then Wineland, a veteran Texan with lovely fakes and off-centre head movement, has dipped to 4-4, yet the 35-year-old says he is training smarter than ever and appears motivated to upset his younger challenger.
Trouble is, O’Malley is as confident and loose as they come, and his switches from back-peddling to bombing forward will have been difficult for Wineland to prepare for. “Sugar” will look to stun his man early, and it will be up to Wineland to call on his 16 years of experience to fight his own fight, zip in and out of range and counter.
Whatever happens, UFC 250 will open fresh narratives at bantamweight. For instance, can Assuncao live up to his talent? Can Garbrandt’s new coaches guide him to past glories? And, of course, is O’Malley for real? Tunnel vision will be required as these athletes throw down in a new environment devoid of fans, atmosphere and sound. A new environment, indeed, devoid of Cejudo.