With Henry Cejudo’s upset of Demetrious Johnson at UFC 227 on Saturday in Los Angeles, history was made. What better subject is there to learn a few lessons from than history?
By gaining revenge in his rematch with “Mighty Mouse,” Cejudo became the first-ever Olympic gold medalist to also claim Ultimate Fighting Championship gold. No doubt, the bout was contentious and for most folks came down to how you scored the fifth and final round. Regardless of what your scorecard looked like, there are bigger takeaways for the 125-pound division and the sport on the whole: Things are suddenly looking a lot fresher at flyweight, and in the broader context, don’t be too quick to dismiss a gifted prospect.
Of course, Cejudo-Johnson 2 wasn’t the main event of UFC 227, as T.J. Dillashaw retained his bantamweight crown with a first-round knockout of former training partner Cody Garbrandt. How did he do it? Superior technique and strategy, of course. However, what informs Dillashaw’s unique, tricky, high-octane offense that he used to vanquish Garbrandt twice in nine months? Apropos of this column, it’s his approach to learning.
UFC 227 offered us some more educational fat on which to chew, too. What’s the deal with Pedro Munhoz’s offensive approach to fighting? What’s the UFC’s strategy in China? Does Team Oyama still have something for your mama? Here are five lessons learned from UFC 227:
1. Don’t Throw Brilliance Out with the Bathwater
As I said, maybe you don’t think Cejudo won three rounds against Johnson; I’m with you, in fact, as I had a 48-47 scorecard for Johnson. Regardless of how you scored the fight and even considering Johnson’s claims that he may have torn his LCL and broke his foot during the contest, Cejudo proved himself to be 10 times the fighter he was than when Johnson destroyed him in less than three minutes just over two years ago. Cejudo has a long, arduous road ahead of him to forge the sort of legacy that Johnson has created for himself, but if nothing else, he showed he is truly an elite fighter and worthy of wearing UFC gold.
It may be surprising that “Mighty Mouse” was upset, but it’s not necessarily surprising that Cejudo was the man to do it. When Cejudo stunned the world at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and won a freestyle wrestling gold medal a decade ago, he was immediately tabbed to be the future avatar of the emerging flyweight division. A rags-to-riches Mexican-American with an amateur boxing background and Olympic wrestling gold medal who is only 21 years old? Before he was “The Messenger,” Cejudo was the chosen one.
Then, everything got confusing. Despite his preordained, anointed status as a future MMA champion, Cejudo seemed lukewarm to the idea. He said he wanted to be a boxer instead of an MMA fighter. He wanted to win another gold medal. It seemed like he wanted to do anything but be the flyweight bellwether of this sport. After failing to quality for the 2012 Olympics, he finally turned to MMA, but the complications didn’t end there. He failed to make his contracted weight four times in the first year and a half of his career, most notably when his botched weight cut ended up canceling his slated Octagon debut against Scott Jorgensen at UFC 177. UFC President Dana White even proclaimed that he would either need to fight at 135 pounds or he would be released.
I’m not sure what changed for Cejudo after that point, but there’s no doubt he got more serious about the sport, and over the last two years, he’s stepped it up to another level. His work with head coach Eric Albarracin seems to have transformed him on both a technical and professional level. Is he a perfect fighter? No, not by a long shot, but he has at least dedicated himself to MMA in a way that has paid rich dividends. Now he’s the UFC flyweight champion, a mantle the fight world pined for him to take and predicted he would almost a decade ago. It was a frustrating, confusing and often deflating road to get to “Henry Cejudo, UFC champion,” but we’re here now. How long he stays on the throne remains to be seen, but his journey to the crown is a reminder that even if we can identify professional pitfalls and deficiencies in elite athletes, there’s a reason we get excited about them in the first place; and even if they disappoint us along the way, we need not always despair and abandon hope for their fighting futures.
2. T.J. Dillashaw: Teacher’s Pet, but a Model Student
When Dillashaw, then in the middle of his first UFC bantamweight title reign, announced he was leaving Team Alpha Male in late 2015 to continue his training with the camp’s former head coach, Duane Ludwig, he was widely castigated by fans and more intensely by his former teammates. He was called a traitor, a snake and cast as a simpleton, subservient to Ludwig. Well, in light of his successful title defense and second win over former teammate Garbrandt at UFC 227, history seems to have vindicated Dillashaw and his career choices.
At some point in your life, you probably had a favorite teacher. Then the year or semester ended, you moved on from their class and you rued the fact you couldn’t continue learning from this person that actually made you passionate about learning and made you thrilled to acquire knowledge. Well, one of the positives of the fight game is that you don’t ever have to move on from your favorite teacher; you can learn from your preferred mentor as long as you wish. Dillashaw’s high-volume, stance-switching, dynamic offensive game is the capstone of Ludwig’s coaching career, and it has allowed them both to prosper. It’s not just that Dillashaw is Ludwig’s greatest student; he’s a great student, in general.
To my mind, what makes Dillashaw such an impressive and successful fighter isn’t just that he is tough as nails and has such a brilliant offensive arsenal; it’s that he is so adept at figuring out his opponents on the fly and attacking them. For instance, while I thought he deserved the nod in his initial bout against Raphael Assuncao, look at how readily he assimilated the information from their first fight and dominated him in their second encounter. While Renan Barao was essentially dead in the water to begin with in their July 2015 rematch due to a horrendous weight cut, Dillashaw took all the intel he gathered in their first meeting 14 months earlier, used all the same techniques and tactics with which he found success and destroyed Barao faster and more thoroughly. Nine months ago, Dillashaw handily lost the opening round to Garbrandt in their initial meeting, getting hurt and dropped in the first five minutes. He regrouped and knocked him out in the second; at UFC 227, he completely schooled Garbrandt at his own game, boxing inside the pocket, and didn’t even let him escape the first round. It was like he had every answer before Garbrandt even posed the question.
While it may seem spurious or silly, Dillashaw’s learning on the fly can even be witnessed in other less high-stakes athletic competitions. Cast your mind back to “The Ultimate Fighter 25,” where he coached opposite Garbrandt ahead of their first bout. The season’s coaches’ challenge was a game of tetherball, with both Dillashaw and Garbrandt standing on a narrow balance beam over a pool. Dillashaw, who had seemingly never played tetherball in his life, struggled initially and looked baffled by the schoolyard pastime. After falling behind 8-4 in the game, Dillashaw rapidly figured out the distance, timing and technique of the game, and suddenly, effortlessly scored six straight points and won the competition. Plain and simple, no matter the athletic endeavor, Dillashaw is a quick study and exemplary student, which is why he is once again a reigning and defending UFC champion for a second time.
3. Pedro Munhoz, On the Other Hand …
I’ve been high on Munhoz’s potential for a long, long time. Eight years ago, after just three pro fights, I thought he already displayed a level of well-rounded, technical dominance that would let him easily leap into the big time. It would take him another four years of cutting his teeth on the regional circuit before he brought his 10-0 record to the UFC, but I was excited nonetheless. I wasn’t even deterred when he dropped a lackluster UFC debut to Assuncao, who remains one of MMA’s most unsung and accomplished talents. However, in the four years since, Munhoz has been a frustrating and confusing enigma. It’s not just because he has seemingly plateaued and not actualized his potential, but because he fights in such a manner that is seems like he is actively sabotaging himself in the cage.
As mentioned, the Brazilian is offensively gifted. He can box, he has devastating low kicks and his guillotine choke is one of the most lethal trademark finishing maneuvers in MMA. Yet despite being such a capable technical striker and landing 4.79 significant strikes per minute, he absorbs a whopping 5.34 per minute. He’s blessed with a great chin, sure, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that he never even seems mildly preoccupied with dodging anything his opponent throws back. He telegraphs takedown attempts to a sympathy-inducing degree while walking headlong into rudimentary takedowns from opponents, a la his bout with Damian Stasiak. At UFC 227, despite blowing Welshman Brett Johns out of the water over 15 minutes, both the best and worst of Munhoz was on display.
Munhoz positively crushed Johns, but couldn’t get him out of the cage. While “The Pikey” should be lauded for his toughness, Munhoz’s uncanny lack of strategy had more to do with it than anything. Munhoz’s leg kicks had Johns hobbling on one leg for more than half the bout, yet he abandoned throwing them. While Munoz landed heavy punches, he still managed to eat 73 significant strikes from a one-legged, wounded opponent. At one point, Munhoz dropped him with a leg kick and then dove for a leglock of all things. He seemed pathologically obsessed with locking up his trademark guillotine but was so eager to cinch the technique that it not only became telegraphed but he was trying to roll Johns over and into full mount repeatedly without even first securing the choke. Munhoz is still just 31 years old and is 5-1 in his last six, his lone loss coming in a nip-tuck fight with the difficult and dangerous John Dodson. Nonetheless, it’s an ongoing annoyance to watch such a skilled and varied technician ostensibly do everything in his power to undermine his own ability in the cage.
4. The UFC’s Chinese Arithmetic
Consider this a refresher course or a follow-up lesson. After UFC Fight Night 132 in Singapore, a card on which Chinese fighters went 4-0, I wrote about the importance of the emerging MMA market in China, its importance for the UFC and the fact that the country’s foremost fighting torchbearers, at least for the time being, figured to be women. UFC 227 served to further highlight this reality.
In the second fight on the bill, strawweight prospect Weili Zhang made her Octagon debut and pushed her pro record to 17-1 with a commanding unanimous decision win over the ever-difficult and sturdy Danielle Taylor. Zhang wasn’t able to show the full extent of her explosive, sanda-inspired attack due to Taylor’s predictably conservative tactics, but she still managed to show flashes of her brilliant offense and athleticism that should serve to get her a more intriguing fight next time out, likely against an opponent more willing to engage her on the feet while allowing her to show off more of her exciting arsenal.
For my money, the three best active Chinese fighters in MMA are all women, and the UFC has two of them on its roster, with Zhang and Xiaonan Yan, who is now 2-0 in the promotion with wins over Kailin Curran and Viviane Pereira. The other is One Championship’s 125-pound women’s titlist Jingnan Xiong. Given One Championship’s pan-Asian platform and typically strong retention of its prized roster fighters, Xiong doesn’t figure to be headed to the Octagon anytime soon, but two out of three ain’t bad, especially given the fact that the UFC just announced its second card in mainland China, scheduled for Nov. 24 in Beijing.
With approximately 1.4 billion people and a rich tradition in martial arts, there isn’t a more intriguing and enticing market for the UFC to break into, but any long-term or lucrative success for the company in China will be contingent on the promotion’s ability to foster and develop native Chinese stars. By snatching up Zhang and other fighters like her, the UFC just might have a fighting chance.
5. Yes, Team Oyama’s Still Got Something For Yo Mama
If you ask even the most seasoned MMA spectators to name the best and most accomplished coaches and trainers in the sport, they’d likely run down a long laundry list of names before they ever mentioned Colin Oyama. Frankly, I think that’s a shame.
Oyama has been a steady staple in the corner of high-level mixed martial artists for years. At their competitive peaks as UFC champions, he was training Tito Ortiz and Ricco Rodriguez. Under his tutelage, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson emerged as an elite light heavyweight in Pride Fighting Championships. He led Carla Esparza to become the first-ever UFC women’s strawweight champion. He turned Ian McCall into, at one time, the top 125-pounder in the sport. For over 15 years, Oyama has been building and guiding top-notch talent yet consistently flies under the radar.
UFC 227 was a reminder that Oyama is still a factor in the fight game, with his pupils Marlon Vera and Alex Perez both pulling off sensational knockout victories, as Vera crushed Wuliji Buren with a devastating second-round body shot and Perez absolutely ran roughshod over highly touted Jose Torres, handing him the first loss of his career in a savage, one-sided blowout. While Vera doesn’t figure to be much more than a low- to mid-card action fighter in the UFC, the 26-year-old Perez, now 21-4 in his career, has really come into his own over the last two years, going undefeated over his last eight bouts, including a 3-0 mark in the UFC. He is a dynamic, finish-oriented fighter with a nasty array of chokes on the mat. In the Torres fight, he showed incredible gains in the striking department, landing 88 strikes in just three and a half minutes, with startling accuracy. Perez has a long way to go before he’s sniffing a UFC title, but if nothing else, his destruction of Torres is going to get him a bigger assignment next time out and another chance to remind us of Oyama’s coaching prowess.