Demetrious Johnson defends his flyweight belt against the Olympian Henry Cejudo this April 23, 2016 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Single sentence summary:
Phil: The fun-size Jones-Cormier, as an Olympian takes on a P4P great.
David: Mighty Mouse defends his title against the King of Douse.
Record: Flyweight Demetrious Johnson (c) 23-2-1 vs. Henry Cejudo 10-0
Odds: Flyweight Demetrious Johnson (c) -400 vs. Henry Cejudo +355
History lesson / introduction to the fighters
Phil: Demetrious Johnson was one of two potential flyweight champions-in-waiting that WEC (and then the UFC) had in the bantamweight division. Even back then Joe Rogan would rhapsodize about how fast, technical and skilled he was, but the size differential between himself and Dominic Cruz was impressive. To describe Johnson as someone who just found his weight class (particularly one as sparsely populated as flyweight) drastically undersells him, however.
It's not that he dominates his division that is so impressive- it's that he dominates his division more and more thoroughly as time goes by. Most champions start off dominant, then get chipped away at by challengers over time, their weaknesses being brute-forced to the surface. Jones, Aldo and GSP all started dropping more rounds later in their careers. Meanwhile Johnson's gone from close, competitive title fights (his early fights against Benavidez, Dodson and McCall) to increasingly clinical shut-outs. That just doesn't happen in this sport for anyone else, really.
David: it would easy to dismiss his progressive dominance as a glitch in the quality of competition (to be fair there's modest merit to this in a vacuum) in his division, but this ignores and fails to address his actual in cage ability. Since this is the UFC, Dana has all the class in the world for fighters like Sage Northcutt and Paige Van Zant. But promote Johnson in any unique, or aggressive way? Of course not. I get it. Johnson isn't some loud, trash talking...wait...neither are they. You're slipping Dana. Promote the fighters that will pay the bills long term.
Phil: If you want someone to surprise you with an upset win, then Henry Cejudo is your man. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics he was no-one's pick to win gold, probably not even his own team's. Still, even despite that win he's gotten something of a reputation across both wrestling and MMA as someone with occasionally wavering motivation. He missed weight a lot in his earlier career, but has cleaned up his act of late.
David: Cejudo is still firmly entrenched in 'wild card' territory. Just like in the Olympics, nobody's really counting on him to win big this weekend. But his natural athleticism and effortless core strength has allowed him to remain undefeated.
What are the stakes?
Phil: As low as the #2 P4P fighter in the world fighting an undefeated Olympian could feasibly be. The narrative, like most DJ narratives, just hasn't caught fire with the masses. The hope is that the fight itself generates its own story which draws people in. Is it a vain one?
David: Probably. Because Dana is stuck in an alternate universe where Face the Pain is listenable enough to brand around, pure athletes will never get the same credence as celebrities. It's not that Dana is wrong on philosophy. It's that he's failed to lay the groundwork to promote an actual sport instead of theatre. If MMA endures, it will be because of fighters like Johnson, GSP, et cetera. The stakes are actually quite high. They just seem low because Dana's worrying too much about who the next t-shirt of the week is.
Where do they want it?
Phil: The most well-rounded fighter in the sport bar none, Johnson has shifted from being an outfighter towards something resembling pressure fighting in recent years. There are a number of reasons for this- he sits down on his strikes more, for example. More than that, though, I think it's just that as someone like DJ gets better and better the differentiations between fighter types inherently get blurred, and he becomes more aware and capable of capitalizing on granular, transitional mistakes. If someone makes a small step out of position and Mighty Mouse instantly punishes them for it, is that pressure or countering? Like GSP did, Mighty Mouse elides the boundaries: he corrals opponents into a slice of space by using round kicks, and immediately attacks that slice with stance-shifting punch combinations and clinch-to-wrestling phase shifting transitions.
David: Out of one, Demetrious Johnson is many. That's Johnson's game in essence. In a vacuum, he isn't the best boxer, or the best wrestler, or submission artist, but with his brain at the helm, each asset combined forms a nice Voltron like vehiculate of volition.
However, making him sound like some kind of jack of trades stereotype doesn't do him justice. For one, elements of each part of his game are truly elite; the quickness of his punches, or the timing of his takedowns, for example. Plenty of fighters are getting at creating opportunities for offense, but few are good at creating opportunities for offense without sacrificing defense. In that way, Johnson's defense is very much a product of his ability to support one phase of fighting to the next with pressure.
Phil: Pace and aggression are Cejudo hallmarks. Given how raw he is in the sport, he's an excellent offensive boxer. In fact, this has been almost the centrepiece of his game- rather than being a specific top-control threat, he tends to block takedowns in order to use his hands, and when he does use his wrestling offensively, he throws opponents down and then punches them on the way up.
Steady volume is actually not a particularly common approach at flyweight- most fighters in the division tend to be far more in-and-out. It essentially means that just in front of Cejudo is an area which is dictated on his terms- where he wagers that he's tougher and can simply put out more offense than his opponent. This has its problems, of course- he still doesn't have much head movement, and he may struggle to contest kicking range.
David: Cejudo's boxing is well above average. A lot of wrestlers develop their striking out of necessity. Slowly that necessity turns into utility. Cejudo has now entered the final phase that few wrestlers transitioning into MMA make, turning utility into hostility. His boxing at this point, is the most impressive part of his game. He's taken to the minutiae of boxing. When he moves, he takes microsteps forward to mask his effective transition game, and when throwing combinations, he keeps a steady base to avoid the potential effectiveness of counter punching. He can be a little inert on the ground because his actual submission game is non existent, but his positioning is already elite.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: These two have not really fought anyone like each other before. DJ hasn't fought anyone who could match or exceed his pace, and Cejudo has simply never fought anyone remotely on Johnson's level. I'd say the closest analogue would be Mighty Mouse-Bagautinov- while I doubt that the champion can get any traditional wrestling going, at least early, his favoured double collar tie may be more likely to work.
David: I think the real issue for Cejudo is how he deals with Johnson's pace for all five rounds. But for Johnson, I can't recall a fight lately where his opponent could completely negate his transition offense toward the ground.
Phil: The main one has to be what an incredible, one-of-a-kind game-day performer Cejudo is. In some ways this is one of the most potentially analysis-invalidating X-factors we've had. He may come out looking like a completely different fighter. In fact, I'd bet on it.
David: True, clutch is a thing. But Demetrious Johnson has been clutch for his entire gold tenure dating back to 2012. No amount of sports talk voodoo will change that. I don't think.
Phil: Cejudo represents a very different athletic and technical puzzle to the ones DJ traditionally solves. However, his inability to fight on the outside and the relative shallowness of his game means that DJ will likely find a way- whether it's using kicking, or the clinch, or even potentially his submission game, the champion just has more in the toolbox and is one of the very best at narrowing down exactly which tool to use. Demetrious Johnson by unanimous decision.
David: This fight should be tough for Demetrious early on. Cejudo will be able to react offensively an defensively to Johnson's punch and clinch entries. But every move he makes will be scouted, or then adjusted by Johnson. That layer of his game, the ability to reconfigure, will be the difference as always has. Demetrious Johnson by Decision.