FlyweightsJoseph Benavidez (24-4) vs. Henry Cejudo (10-1)
THE MATCHUP: I actually like this card quite a bit, and this is one of the main reasons why. Fights between elite contenders are always something to look forward to, and this one is a real humdinger. Benavidez has been plying his trade for around a decade now, and he has been a top five fighter for most of that time. The old Team Alpha Male saw -- that Sacramento’s best are always the bridesmaids and never the brides -- may boost the confidence of men like Dominick Cruz and Demetrious Johnson, but it does not make Benavidez any less of a threat to the rest of his division. In 28 professional fights, Benavidez has only lost to two men, and they are both reigning champions and pound-for-pound greats. As for the rest of the pack, Benavidez has beaten five of them in a row now, his longest winning streak since 2009.
Cejudo is far less proven on the MMA stage, but he is no walkover, no matter how badly Johnson beat him. He was undefeated prior to his tilt with the dominant champ, with wins over excellent fighters like Jussier da Silva, Chico Camus and Chris Cariaso. Outside MMA, Cejudo earned gold medals in both the Olympic and Pan American games. Fans may joke that Cejudo mentions his wrestling credentials even more often than Tim Kennedy does his army background, but it is certainly an accomplishment of which to be proud. More importantly, it means Cejudo is likely the best wrestler in the flyweight division.
Cejudo will need that wrestling to shine if he hopes to take out Benavidez. To be fair, Cejudo is a natural striker. Indeed, it was kickboxing that earned him his last several wins, with the wrestling serving as an auxiliary skill set and convenient fallback. He throws combinations smoothly with excellent timing and puts together his combinations well. That is impressive given the fact that Cejudo has only been fighting professionally for three and a half years, but his inexperience does shine through in subtle ways. For example, Cejudo’s combinations flow well, but they are fairly rote: Rarely does he seem to string together his shots to account for a specific opening in his opponent’s defense. His own defense, on the other hand, is lacking, a problem which Cejudo covers up by throwing volume and clinching whenever he wades into hot water. Defense and transitional striking are things that only time can improve.
There is no denying that Benavidez’s time in the sport has resulted in a dangerous, varied and almost effortless striking style. He attacks the head, body and legs with aplomb, rarely throwing fewer than two shots at a go. He strikes comfortably from both stances and employs a few veteran tricks to make his strikes less predictable and more effective. This creative dexterity seemed to improve for the short time in which Benavidez was being coached by Duane Ludwig; and now that he has transplanted himself to Elevation Fight Team to work with Ludwig once again, we can expect them to return in full.
Benavidez is a solid defensive wrestler, and he lives for scrambles on the ground. He seems capable of securing his trusty guillotine in just about every position. He is not Johnson in the clinch, however, and he can be put on his back when he lunges in with strikes from long-range, mostly because Benavidez has never toyed with the idea of throwing with anything less than full power. Just as Cejudo will need his wrestling, Benavidez will need his scrambling to win.
THE ODDS: Benavidez (-200), Cejudo (+170)
THE PICK: I have high hopes for Cejudo going forward. He is still relatively young, and even a year or two more could yield tremendous results for such a phenomenal athlete. Matching him against Benavidez on the heels of his first loss -- and what a devastating loss it was -- seems a little iffy to me. Benavidez is as crafty as anyone in the division and more dangerous than most. Cejudo will need to fight to a perfect game plan to get the win, and while he is certainly capable, Benavidez needs to lose to a non-champion opponent before I will predict it. Benavidez by unanimous decision is the pick.
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