Don’t Sweat the Technique: A Comprehensive Look at Henry Cejudo’s Game

Henry Cejudo’s time in mixed martial arts has been a mixed bag. Although he spent a large part of it undefeated in two organizations, all the while showing world class athleticism, a great ability to pick up on the finer points of the sport, and world class wrestling. What he didn’t always show was depth of skill, variety of skill, or professionalism (most of his career was marred by missed weight cuts). Nonetheless, Cejudo was seen as a future superstar in large part due to his Olympic pedigree, world class wrestling, world class athleticism, and a (presumed) potential to reach a particular demographic. And from March 2, 2013 to April 23, 2016, Cejudo was unbeaten and hadn’t really been tested on the way to a title challenge against Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson in the co-main event of UFC 197.

That night Cejudo’s undefeated streak and hype train simultaneously derailed, as the Olympic gold medalist was systematically dismantled. His athleticism, physicality, and wrestling had been tabbed as being capable of presenting a stern challenge for Johnson, if not providing Cejudo a clear route to victory. That proved not to be true, outside of a brief moment of success in the clinch, where Cejudo controlled, then took “Mighty Mouse” down in dynamic fashion. Cejudo was outmaneuvered, outworked, out struck, and embarrassingly outclassed in the area he was supposed to dominate (the clinch).

The thorough undressing of Cejudo forced an adjustment, both in point of emphasis and in versatility. All the way up to his title shot, he had essentially been a wrestler/boxer, which, when matched with his natural talent, was more than enough. On that night he found out that when the gap in physical talent wasn’t canyon-like across the board, the lack of a balanced, disciplined, and versatile game was a recipe for disaster against the best fighters/athletes in mixed martial arts. Changes needed to be made in regards to tactics and techniques.

Eight months later, at The Ultimate Fighter: Tournament of Champions Finale, Cejudo was once again in the co-main event, this time against the 2nd best flyweight in the world, Joseph Benavidez. Once again Cejudo came up short, albeit amid much controversy regarding the judging of this extremely competitive fight. But the real story wasn’t so much the result, but the huge leaps forward made by Cejudo. He showed an aggression, maturity, awareness, activity and technique that had previously been unseen. And even in spite of a loss, the improvements made and the technical efficiency shown against Benavidez forced people to reevaluate previous thoughts on Cejudo and raise the seemingly firm ceiling on his potential as a fighter.

Cejudo is an elite wrestler, but the majority of his pedigree is defined by and communicated through his prodigious physical talent. He has the complete package in that regard. He generates big power, and has shown impressive hand and foot speed, balance, and physical strength, as well as world class explosiveness. In a division full of high end athletes, Cejudo is truly an apex predator. But his tenure in the Ultimate Fighting Championship hasn’t been a masterclass regarding wrestling; “The Messenger” has sought a different path in the Octagon, downplaying his wrestling chops in favor of strikes, emphasizing his brief (albeit successful) career as an amateur boxer.

Cejudo has a stance and positioning born out of an extensive amount of drilling and sparring individually in boxing, something that is still pretty rare among the majority of MMA fighters. Cejudo’s striking has been historically punctuated by his extremely sound punching combinations, as well as a distance-gauging left hand that allows him to determine the range he needs to cover to land leads or counters on an opponent trying to play a long range striking game. Similarly to Ronda Rousey, a fair amount of his striking had been attribute based, meaning that while he had education in his striking, a large part of his consistent success with it was the fact that he outclassed the majority of his opponents. Another similarity Cejudo has with the former women’s bantamweight champion and pound-for-pound entrant is that Cejudo’s wheelhouse is the clinch. This is due in part to his outstanding athleticism, but also because of the versatility he has shown there. He has used it to control opponents against the fence, to force extended grappling exchanges to diminish explosiveness and cardio, to set up a variety of takedowns, and to set up attacks with knees and punches to break opponents down. This versatility in the clinch has also allowed him to attack with impunity when throwing combinations or leaping in with straight shots or lead hooks, as that would create clinch opportunities whether he lands or overshoots.

Defensively, Cejudo’s clinch game allows him to manage opponents whose volume and pressure are too much for his footwork and athleticism to keep him away from. Recent improvements in his overall game have allowed him to make use of a more judicious and controlled use of the clinch, as he has embraced the full spectrum of strikes, incorporating kicks and kick-punch combinations that allow him to effectively defend, counter, and attack different ranges without having to resort to huge explosive movements to cover distances. Now Cejudo can carefully navigate these distances, increasing the efficiency of his energy usage and the accuracy of his shots.

Cejudo still remains one of the best wrestlers in MMA, with an outstanding array of takedowns, including but not limited to trips, singles, doubles, and so on. If Cejudo wants to get in on you and get you down, he will get in on you and get you down. Cejudo is that good.  As good as he is at those two things, he hasn’t been outstanding at is control nor has he developed anything resembling a legitimate submission game. Defensively he has been bulletproof, and it’s hard to think of a fighter or situation that will arise that will expose it as anything less than that.

The issue of control is a big one in this fight. Reis is going to want to control the pace and place of the fight. He understands the huge disadvantage he is at in regards to durability, strength, speed, and explosiveness. He is going to want to use feints, varying attacks, movements, and angles to limit Cejudo’s ability to explode in spots that can turn or end a fight. The slower the fight, the more Cejudo’s lack of seasoning will appear, both on the feet and in the overall game. Gifted or not, experience counts, and the gap in experience between the two is immense.

In the two fights Cejudo has lost, his opponents were able to wrest control from him, limiting and managing his bursts of offense and athleticism. Reis will look to follow suit. It is up to Cejudo to be devastatingly effective, maximizing each and every opportunity he has to flash those physical advantages and force exchanges, both in the wrestling and the striking. That should allow his athleticism to be the determining factor in the fight, because that is the one clear advantage he has.

The problem for Reis is that he is clearly on the decline in regards to consistent speed, explosiveness and physical strength, which is manageable against lesser athletes, especially the ones who lack the wrestling pedigree to limit his ability to dictate where fights take place. That is the story of Reis fighting style and career. He’s a guy who can fight in all phases of mixed martial arts, but one who lacks the depth of skill in each area not to be exploited by guys who won’t be intimidated by his athleticism or versatility.

Reis is a competent striker offensively, very sharp, accurate and powerful with his kicks but inconsistent defensively and somewhat limited in regards to his hands. Wilson is an effective, measured and efficient wrestler and grappler, regardless of who he is compared to his skills stand up but Reis is defensively inefficient regarding his takedown defense and ability to create scrambles to improve positions or reverse positions. Which goes into another point, Reis’s vaunted jiu jitsu. It is good, some would say elite. But only when he is working from top position, when put on his back, especially in mixed martial arts Wilson’s ability to apply offense, counter offense, defend offense is average at best. A very bright spotlight was placed on that in his fight versus Demetrious Johnson. As mentioned earlier his physical tools and versatility usually buffer him from being exposed by being placed in bad spots or being exposed by an inability to keep a fight at the range he wants or force it into a range he wants.

Had he faced Henry prior to his fight versus Johnson, he may have been able to flummox him, and systematically outwork him by attacking him on all fronts but unfortunately for him Cejudo did face “Mighty Mouse” and that one sided drubbing forced him to reset, refine and rededicate to becoming the best mixed martial artist he can be. And if the fight with Benavides is any hint of how good he can become, Reis is in for a world of trouble; what works against Wilson even more is the fact that Cejudo went through a full camp to prepare for streaking flyweight Sergio Pettis before being forced to withdraw and is going through another full camp for Reis. Meaning that all the improvements, both technical and strategical, should be fully honed and ready for execution; Cejudo before the Johnson loss would have been a handful for Reis, this new and improved version of “The Messenger” is going to be more than a handful in my opinion.

Wilson is a legitimate top ten fighter, but far behind the two best in division (Johnson, Benavides). The experience factor is important, as seasoning and savvy make a big difference in all fights at all levels. The fact is Reis is on a decline, hasn’t really beaten anyone of note (quality, athleticism) and is coming off one of the worst losses in his career; I believe Cejudo is trending up and the combination of his wrestling, his athleticism and his reimagined striking style will be too much for the former Elite XC Champion.

Wilson Reis is on the decline physically and was soundly defeated in his last appearance. Another loss essentially closes the door on his career at flyweight as long as Johnson reigns. This is a must win for him. Unfortunately “The Messenger” is in the same spot, coming of two losses in a row he cannot afford a third if he ever hopes to be the fighter we hoped he would upon news of his entry into mixed martial arts. On Saturday night I believe he takes the next step to legitimacy and possible super stardom in mixed martial arts.

Photos via Zuffa