It has been a long time since we witnessed the last UFC card in Brasilia on March 14 due to the global pandemic, but the UFC finally returns this Saturday May 9 in Jacksonville, Florida, with a stacked UFC 249 event headlined by a lightweight interim championship between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje in what will surely be a bloody fight. However, the most interesting fight to break down in this writer´s opinion is probably the co main event of the evening, a bantamweight championship fight between division ruler Henry Cejudo and divisional all time great Dominick Cruz.
Widely considered the best ever fighter at 135 pounds, Dominick Cruz is a favourite among hardcore MMA fans. He has defeated the best men the division had to offer anytime he was not injured, which has been a constant throughout his career, suffering reconstructions in both knees. Only two men have conquered Cruz inside the octagon, one being Urijah Faber who he subsequently defeated twice to close the rivalry, and Cody Garbrandt in which was Dominick´s last fight before a long layoff due to injury. As mentioned earlier, injuries have stopped Cruz from competing regularly throughout his prime, in which otherwise would have been probably a legendary career, even if it is still more than remarkable.
Henry Cejudo, of Mexican heritage, is the current UFC bantamweight champion and at some point in time he was simultaneosuly the flyweight champion. Not many people know this, but he is a gold medalist in Olympic wrestling, the youngest ever from the United States. He happens to be so humble he never mentions it. Just joking. The guy is unbearable to hear talk, but he is a very good fighter in his own right. After suffering two consecutive losses in the UFC octagon, he managed to defeat flyweight king Demetrious Johnson via disputed split decision and then defend the belt knocking out then 135 pound king TJ Dillashaw by early knockout. He culminated his run with a jump in weight to fight for the vacant bantamweight belt against top contender Marlon Moraes after the aforementioned Dillashaw tested positive for EPO and got stripped. Cejudo dug deep and after a rough start finished Moraes later in the fight.
Dominick Cruz has always been renowned for his unique approach to fighting, specially his footwork. He is a very complete fighter and a cardio machine. He implements a self made style that combines striking, grappling and movement as a whole, and the way he was able to integrate transitions to his game is unprecedented in the sport. A defensive specialist that seldom gets hit cleanly, Cruz is a never stopping dinamo and almost impossible to read on fight night because of his excellent sense of distance. We could define his style as a never ending chess game where he is always a step ahead of the opponent that leads to him outworking and outpointing the rival in most cases with relative ease. There is only one constant in Cruz´s game and that is never being in the centre line. If you were to watch a traditional martial arts striking match. let´s say boxing, your front foot would ideally point to your opponent´s centre of gravity. Dominick has made a career out of never being there, which leaves fighters astonished and with no answers in most cases. The only time Cruz invades that space is when he utilises his well educated jab which we could refer as the only traditional part of his fighting arsenal. The rest of his game consists in fighting constantly out of a wrestling like, always balanced position from which he can bob and weave, punch from akward angles or change levels with minimal effort. As mentioned earlier, he has a fantastic sense of distance that allows him to establish himself in front of the opponent all the time without overcomitting, and when fighters explode or rush in hopes of catching him they get instantly taken down, because being balanced is a key part of Dominick´s game and allows him to change directions effortlesly. If they refuse to try and invade his space he uses his lenght and volume to keep them stuck on the outside while mixing offensive takedowns of his own. Cruz is a very good grappler with a deep understanding of every position. He truly is a unique mind among fighters and his craft will probably be much more appreciated once he retires for good.
Henry Cejudo is a wrestler at core, and as expected out of an Olympic gold medalist, he is marvelous at it. However he has struggled to find repeated success with his wrestling in the octagon against elite oposition in the sense that what you get out of him is not a mauling from top but takedowns here and there, specially from clinch positions where he is fantastic with trips. Those takedowns served him well to edge Johnson by very controversial decision. This writer scored the fight for Cejudo but it was a coin flip. What Henry lacks is a functional Jiu Jitsu game and that is why he does not threaten with an all out grappling approach anymore against elite fighters as he did in his early days. Instead, he has focused on developing his striking. There are two clear phases in Cejudo´s MMA career, and the second one starts when he adopted a Karate like striking stance and also managed to somehow produce and astonishing physical transformation in his thirties, which coming from an Olympic level athlete is suspect to say the least. This new stance has granted Henry some success, as he did much better in his rematch against Johnson on the feet and then conquered Dillashaw by knockout catching him cold. In my humble opinion TJ was done before the bell that night, the weight cut was too severe for his body and I made some money betting on Henry by KO which sounded crazy to most. In his fight against Moraes, Cejudo was getting badly outclassed at distance, unable to mount any offense of any kind against the bigger and faster Marlon Moraes who punished him with leg kicks merciless. However, he dug deep, and managed to find his best work with lead right hands and excellent clinch punishment to break down Moraes mentally and physically. It was an excellent performance and an impressive display of will.
So how is this fight going to play out? I am going to say it clearly. I consider Henry Cejudo to be an extremelly overrated fighter right now due to recent bias. I think he is not a real bantamweight either, he happens to be a big flyweight who lacks the frame to truly become a 135 pounder, same way as Khabib as a huge lightweight that would probably be undersized at 170 to provide an example of a similar frame issue. I think Moraes was beating him handily before he randomly broke down, due to Cejudo´s effort sure, but Moraes is a guy who has serious gas tank issues and a bully in the octagon. Cruz will never stop or fade if he is not unconscious. The only guy to ever beat Cruz in all the sense of the word is Cody Garbrandt, and he needed to produce an all time great performance, while being much bigger, faster and powerful than Cejudo himself. How did Garbrandt beat Cruz? He simply refused to engage in any sort of actual fight constantly retreating around the octagon, forcing Cruz to initiate the action and beating him to the punch almost everytime, managing to outpoint Dominick and eventually hurting him, earning a clear decision. Even producing a stellar performance, Garbrandt arguably lost two rounds. I do not think Henry Cejudo can produce a near similar performance as Garbrandt did, and I do not think he can consistently outgrapple Cruz. In fact, I think Cruz is going to outgrapple Henry Cejudo in this fight most of the time. Even is Cejudo manages to get takedowns here and there, Cruz will get up fast and Cejudo lacks the submission game to threaten with backtakes while Dominick gets up half exposing his back as he likes to do sometimes. This leaves Cejudo in an scenario where he needs to find a random finish over an iron chinned fighter, because he lacks the striking prowess, lenght and size to outpoint Cruz at distance. Even if he managed to somehow land consistenly on the veteran, he has never shown the volume one would expect needed to outpoint Cruz over five rounds.
At the moment of this writing, Henry Cejudo is the comfortable favourite at around (-220). Dominick Cruz sits at (+185) as the dog. While there is always the unknown of Cruz´s health and him coming after an almost 4 year layoff, which surely has influenced the odds, and the possibility of Dominick´s body randomly breaking down in the middle of the fight, I expect Dominick Cruz to produce a stellar performance and severely outclass Henry Cejudo, with the possibility of a late finish. I think Dominick Cruz should be at least a 2 to 1 favourite in this fight.
OFFICIAL PICK: Dominick Cruz