Despite being “champion vs. champion”, the ramifications of Henry Cejudo vs. TJ Dillashaw are unclear with the seemingly imminent shut-down of the UFC flyweight division.
It seems like an attempt to neatly close the legacy of flyweight into the legacy of TJ Dillashaw, a top-three talent in all of the UFC with upside moving forwards at bantamweight, but it could also serve as an opportunity for Henry Cejudo to get the biggest win of his career.
While he won the flyweight championship against a man commonly seen as pound-for-pound #1, the decision was horrific enough that Cejudo’s legitimacy as the man at 125-pounds isn’t strong, so he needs a win over Dillashaw to find some respect as a champion. Meanwhile, Dillashaw has an opportunity to get a statement win in Brooklyn and to become a two-division champion, and a loss to Cejudo would be devastating to his own legitimacy at bantamweight. The UFC’s ESPN era will be ushered in with either the crowning of the fourth two-division champion or a new pound-for-pound top talent.
This fight is almost comically difficult for Cejudo. Henry really has developed as a striker and as a wrestler in MMA, as a somewhat-karate style has given him a more effective way to put his Olympic-caliber wrestling to use and his clinch game improved dramatically between the two fights against Demetrious Johnson (while he still favors the inside trip from the clinch, he wasn’t as easy for Johnson to carve up in the clinch in the rematch as he was in the first fight). However, Cejudo’s improvements are unlikely to be enough to challenge a fighter like Dillashaw, who is far more refined in every area in which Cejudo has shown promise.
Dillashaw’s boxing is better than Cejudo’s, as he has a good jab to set up his combinations and his pocket boxing is legitimately excellent. Dillashaw is constantly feinting and does a great job entering and exiting on angles to attack his opponent as they’re positionally disadvantaged or turning to face him, he moves his head well as he moves into the pocket, and his combinations are absolutely ferocious (as he showed against Barao).
Cejudo’s only real success against Johnson at UFC 227 was in a few boxing exchanges, and he’s unlikely to find that same success against Dillashaw. Moreover, Dillashaw uses his boxing and his constant feinting to set up his kicking game very well. Dillashaw mostly kicks to the head, but without being able to read the boxing of Dillashaw, the head kick is hard to track and it can come from either stance mid-combination (which is what did to Joe Soto, who thought he was circling into Dillashaw’s lead side off a 1-2 but missed the shift and got cracked circling into a head kick). Considering how badly he dealt with the (less tricky) outside kicking of Demetrious Johnson, Cejudo is disadvantaged at every range in the striking.
In the wrestling, Cejudo has been a deceptively weak top player in MMA; he wasn’t able to do much from on top against Johnson or against Sergio Pettis, and he hasn’t been able to effectively control anyone else in the UFC despite his wrestling pedigree. Dillashaw is not only bigger than Cejudo, but an excellent takedown artist with a brutal top game, both of which he showed against John Lineker. Lineker walked into double-leg trips again and again that Dillashaw feinted into, and Dillashaw was constantly dealing damage from the top position in one of his most complete performances. The best Cejudo can hope for in the wrestling is probably a stalemate, especially considering that his striking probably isn’t competitive enough to set up the shot against Dillashaw (who’s very difficult to pin down in the open).
Not only is Dillashaw better than Cejudo everywhere, but he’ll also be at a size advantage. Unless the cut to flyweight is absolutely murderous for him, Dillashaw is the abundantly clear favorite.
Prediction: Dillashaw via second-round knockout. This writer caps Dillashaw at -700.
More UFC predictions: