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UFC 227: Dillashaw vs. Garbrandt 2 – Demetrious Johnson vs. Henry Cejudo Toe-to-Toe Preview

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Demetrious Johnson vs. Henry Cejudo co-headlines UFC 227 this August 4, 2018 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.

One sentence summary

David: Will we finally get to see the Mouse Trap?

Phil: Jones had DC, Aldo had Mendes…does DJ finally have his rival?

Stats

Record: Demetrious Johnson 27-2-1 Draw | Henry Cejudo 12-2

Odds: Demetrious Johnson -450 | Henry Cejudo +400

History / Introduction to both fighters

David: MMA usually goes through cycles of despair, and it’s not always about the presence of racist BS, injuries, and boomerangs. Sometimes it’s on the absence of something. And MMA has missed Mighty Mouse. Not only did he make history in his last fight, but he made HISTORY. I’ve probably seen his reverse flying armbar/flying suplex armbreaker/ASDSAFDFSD a thousand times; sometimes at work when I’m supposed to be working but my boss allows it because it’s better than anything in self help’s repertoire of cliches. There was nothing cliched about DJ’s submission win over Ray Borg. There’s nothing cliched about his fighting, and we’re all the better for it. Maybe not Cejudo, but certainly everyone else.

Phil: Line ‘em up, knock ‘em down, and that’s how the Mouse does it. If he’s not the best striker in his division, he’s at least in the top 3. He’s probably the best wrestler. He’s the best clinch striker. From a practical MMA perspective, he’s one of the best submission artists. Faced with this kind of dominance the UFC’s promotional engine has sputtered, not least because Johnson has been visibly uninterested in treating fighting as anything other as a series of eminently solvable problems, and in part because they consistently bury every one of his challengers. If the build-ups to his fights are lacking, and the results feel like foregone conclusions, the actual performances are poetry in motion.

David: I feel like we’re still unpacking Cejudo’s career. He went from majestic prospect to title contender in very short order. He lost a title fight, then a tough decision. He was spectacular in failure but it was okay but he’s still relatively young. Then he won his next fight, and followed it up with a rough performance. He wasn’t as spectacular in victory (at least against Sergio Pettis), but he’s still getting a title shot. Maybe it’s the Wilson win residue, which is fine. That beatdown was certified.

Phil: Cejudo has seen the top of the mountain and gotten some impression of just how high it might be. In a relatively predictable twist, this lit a fire under him, which I think most of us saw coming. He seems to be one of those people who is fuelled by perceived disrespect- who has little interest in doing something until people tell him he can’t. He tailspun out of an incredible wrestling career, and refused to take much of his early MMA journey seriously, bouncing up and down between flyweight and bantamweight. I’m not saying he was lazy in the run-up to the DJ fight, because he certainly wasn’t, but he’s undoubtedly redoubled his efforts. Now the question is whether he’s the talent that everyone wondered that he could be, or if he’s just going to be the DC to Johnson’s Jones.

What’s at stake?

David: Another feather in DJ’s legacy cap. It almost feels like DJ’s reign is just getting started. He’s 31, relatively young, but also relatively old, but nothing about his recent performances or movement indicate anything approaching a decline. Even the UFC, 11 fights and 6 whole years later, finally looks excited about having one of the best fighters in the world.

Granted, the footage was clearly put together by someone who played Mortal Kombat as a kid, but only because they knew their parents would hate it, and watches tennis and Gordan Ramsay—but still; at last, some creativity from the UFC.

Phil: “Demetrious Johnson plays video games so do something video game related.” This has been the easiest promotional layup for the UFC imaginable, so it’s nice to see them finally sink the shot. Other than that, if DJ wins it’ll be seen as a foregone conclusion. If he loses? Perhaps people finally get behind him as they realize how much they miss having him holding the belt.

Where do they want it?

David: You ever watch AI wrestling, Phil? Maybe one of these days when nuclear holocaust goes down, we’ve inexplicably survived with a group of people, and we find the last remaining marijuana, we can preview an AI wrestling match. Until then, this is how I think about DJ’s movement. I like to imagine that Cejudo’s trainer sounds like Aldred right now, describing Bane to Batman. “You can’t beat him Henry! Look at his training! His speed, his ferocity. He just transitioned a successful suplex into a successful armbar midflight for F’s sake!” Take every arbitrary description of a villain too powerful for the hero, and that’s more or less DJ’s skillset. But it would be one thing if DJ were just a collection dangerous punches, kicks, or submissions.

In sports like basketball, hockey, or football/soccer, offense doesn’t begin with a goal or a pass. It begins with a zone entry. Are you attacking space, or are you attacking the man in front of you? Do you have multiple options, or just one? MMA demands the same questions. This is what separates DJ from everyone else. Where most fighters are there to attack the opponent, Johnson attacks space. A jab that sets up a takedown; an overhand that sets up a knee; a kick that baits out a counter; a feint that allows him to reset his feet. It would be one thing if DJ were merely a smart fighter; or a fighter with a strategy. But he’s probably the fastest fighter on the planet. So he has the ability to reconcile strategy (planned purposed) with tactics (planned actions) in every break, or lull of a fight. It’s why he’s simply the best around, and nothing’s gonna ever keep him down.

Phil: God dammit David. I just went down a sumo robot rabbit hole watching that video. That is amazing and the best possible analogy for this division. DJ is not merely amongst the best at the disparate elements of MMA, but he is one of the best at combining those areas. Jon Jones is a phenomenal clinch fighter, but he has no real way of accessing his clinch. Luke Rockhold is an animal from top position, but not much of a wrestler. These boundaries don’t really exist for Johnson. His striking passes into his clinch into his wrestling and his submissions. He has a preference for pressuring, but he can counter effectively. Just look at this discussion with Cormier on who’s the pound for pound king. Cormier comes out of the gate trying to be the big brother, and then DJ effortlessly snipes him: “Oh yeah, it’s happened before, when Jon Jones came back.” Ice cold.

David: Cejudo began his fight career exactly the way you’d expect an elite wrestler to begin their career. First by trying out new things, then by returning to his roots, and ultimately settling into the Ideal Fighter per his coaches. Sometimes it never works out for the wrestler (like Jake Rosholt). They’re too busy splitting the difference, and never get to grow comfortable — either with who they are, or who they aren’t. In a best case scenario, they evolve into something different, where their foundational skillset provides nuance rather than raw definition (like Frankie Edgar). Cejudo is closing in on that Edgar similarity. I don’t think he’s there quite there, but he’s inside the same tier. Cejudo has a natural raw strength he can draw from when he’s punching. His transitions still need a little work; it’s the least fluid part of his game (in part because I think the spectrum of grappling techniques are not something he’s fully digested). But he’s a beast when he plants his feet down, and let’s that straight hand rip. He’s getting better, but his fight arc hasn’t really come full circle, though it’s a testament to his skillset that it’s still enough.

Phil: The idea of Cejudo being someone driven by perceived disrespect seems to feed through to his fights as well. Throughout his early career, pure offense was the order of the day, largely delivered through pocket and dirty boxing. While the wrestling was clearly there, he seemed to keep it in his back pocket in a notably Romero-esque way, where I got the impression that he simply refused to accept that his opponents were worth taking down. Instead he relied on being able to simply outpace his opponents. While he wasn’t a soft hitter, he’s tended to sacrifice power for the ability to put multiple punches together. That changed sometime around the Joe B and Reis fights. Against Benavidez, he was still throwing volume, but backed it up with an absolutely crackling body kick. Against Reis, we saw more of a long distance counterpuncher, with something of a Machida / McGregor-esque stance for drawing opponents onto the power hand. It’s been impressive, but I still don’t think we’re done seeing it all being drawn into a cohesive whole. He’s wrestling more, he has at least two separate striking modes he can access, but can he put it all together? There’s no better time to answer that question than now.

Insight from past fights

David: I mean, this was the story of the first fight. It’s amazing how large Johnson makes the clinch look. Because he attacks clinch entries with speed, leaving himself options with deft exits, opponents are usually defenseless within the first several seconds. Cejudo got absolutely destroyed. But I expect him to actively scout this part of DJ’s game. Will it be enough? Not even close. For one, even with the knowledge that he has to avoid the clinch at all cost, I go back to the Pettis fight. Cejudo did a solid job in spurts on the feet, but whenever Pettis would swiftly counter, or land a strike, Cejudo’s instinct was to clinch. So there are two layers to Cejudo avoiding the clinch: a) scouting DJ correctly and b) stifling his own instincts. That’s not even counting how prominent Johnson wants to make that his attack plan.

Phil: The Pettis fight was interesting, because it showed the limitations of Cejudo’s new striking style- that it was very much built on speed and explosion, and that in close pocket exchanges he still lacked any fundamental defensive techniques like head movement, parries or pivots- I think this is one reason why he’s adopted that style, because it allows a lot of defense to be offloaded onto pure footspeed. It did also show that he’s not too proud to go to his wrestling nowadays.

X-Factors

David: How do those omega waves look?

Phil: Oh damn I’d already forgotten that one. You are bringing the fire today.

Prognostication

David: We’ve been here before; previewing a truly great fighter at the pinnacle of their careers and maaaybe overstimating them (or perhaps just underestimating the opponent). But DJ is the greatest fighter I’ve ever seen. Everything Cejudo does well, Johnson’s already seen, while the sport of MMA itself has yet to see everything DJ can do. Demetrious Johnson by Mouse Trap, Round 4.

Phil: One fight which keeps springing to mind is the Mendes-Aldo rematch. Aldo polished him off in surprisingly quick fashion in their first fight. Mendes showed impressive growth afterwards, and by the time he made it back to Aldo he was able to take the featherweight GOAT right to the brink, pulling Aldo’s best self out and perhaps taking something from both fighters in the process. In the end though, greatness is greatness. And he still lost. Demetrious Johnson by unanimous decision.



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