UFC Flyweight ChampionshipDemetrious Johnson (27-2-1) vs. Henry Cejudo (12-2)
ANALYSIS: When Johnson tapped Ray Borg with a flying armbar at UFC 216, it was yet another great achievement for one of the sport’s best fighters. Johnson had pulled off one of the most impressive submissions in UFC history, affirmed his status as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world and racked up his 11th straight defense of the flyweight crown, breaking Anderson Silva’s record for consecutive title defenses. Now what? Johnson has been in an odd spot for the last few years, with his overwhelming dominance harming his legacy in a somewhat backwards way. By cleaning out the division so thoroughly, Johnson has forced the UFC to rush prospects like Borg, Cejudo and Kyoji Horiguchi into title fights, mostly because of the lack of any fresh options; and because Johnson has never been a draw at the box office, the promotion has been hesitant to put him in a superfight. That brings us to his rematch with Cejudo, who has spent the last two years developing and may represent Johnson’s toughest test to date.
It seems funny to think that at one point there was a ton of doubt as to whether or not Cejudo would ever reach his potential in mixed martial arts. A 2008 Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling, Cejudo’s post-Olympic wrestling career was dogged by a reputation for coasting on his talent -- something that followed him into MMA. His last two pre-UFC fights saw him badly miss weight, and his slated organizational debut at UFC 177 fell through due to similar issues. However, Cejudo worked through those issues and earned a title shot within two years; and losing to Johnson seems to have lit a fire under the former Olympian. Cejudo’s striking game suddenly came together in an even fight against perennial contender Joseph Benavidez, and he flashed some surprising knockout power against Wilson Reis at UFC 215. In Cejudo’s most recent win, a one-sided rout of fellow contender Sergio Pettis at UFC 218, he was not quite as good on the feet but instead showed a career-best form in terms of mixing together all of his offensive skills, including a reliance on that Olympic-caliber wrestler. This still feels a bit early for a rematch, as Cejudo continues to improve, but he has clearly established himself as Johnson’s top contender and should acquit himself much better in the rematch.
Despite Cejudo’s improvements, it remains difficult to shake the image of how his first fight with Johnson went down; after some brief moments of control, “Mighty Mouse” managed to escape Cejudo’s wrestling game and subsequently destroy him in the clinch, crumpling him with knees. While Cejudo has done an excellent job of putting together an active, well-rounded game, his wrestling still acts as his safety net. It feels a bit absurd to say that an Olympic-caliber wrestler will not be able to implement that part of his game, but that is exactly what happened in the first fight, so at the very least, there is a chance that it happens again. If this takes place on the feet again, it still feels like Johnson’s fight to lose; the best part of Johnson’s game is his ability to transition between phases, and one could easily see Johnson outworking Cejudo on the feet, then in the clinch and back again.
ODDS: Johnson (-500), Cejudo (+400)
THE PICK: If the first fight between the two had never happened, I would probably be picking Cejudo. I love the game he has put together. While he can beat most of his fellow flyweights on the feet, he has an Olympic-caliber wrestling game to fall back on. However, Johnson had little trouble dealing with his wrestling the first time, and at a certain point, I have to believe that will also be the case in the rematch. I hope this winds up being the biggest test of Johnson’s career, but “Mighty Mouse” by decision is the pick.
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