Dominick Cruz, undoubtedly in my eyes the greatest bantamweight of all time and one of the greatest ever pound for pound. As I’m sure everyone who follows us already knows he is my favourite fighter ever. He was the guy that made me fall in love with MMA. Before I found him I was a typical ’watching only to see a KO’ kind of guy, he changed all of that and made me fall in love with movement, footwork and defence like no one had before before. He is also without question the king of comebacks, having had 2 extensive injury lay offs in the past and both times he has returned as if he never left, but can he do it again?
Standing in his way is Henry Cejudo. The former Olympic gold medalist freestyle wrestler turned elite mixed martial artist. A guy who has proven himself against the very best in the world in his respective divisions and has shown not only does his grappling hold up against the best of the best (as most expected it would), but he’s also developed a striking game that has proven to be a tough obstacle for even the most polished strikers at 125 and 135 and we’ll get into that shortly, but in short he’s a fantastic well rounded physical beast who is a tough test for absolutely anyone, let alone someone who has not fought for 3 years.
Dominick Cruz has made a living off of forcing his opponents to lead the dance and countering effectively whether it be with combinations or takedowns. His double leg in particular is one of the best in the game and time and time again he has goaded his opponents into throwing combinations or biting on feints before coming underneath with a double leg. Dom’s wrestling was probably best showcased when he fought the arguable GOAT, Demetrious Johnson. Whilst Johnson had success in the striking department, Dominick was just too big and strong for him and had his way with him whenever he forced grappling exchanges, he used double legs, ankle picks, hip tosses to throw DJ at will. He’s also proven to be a very competent defensive wrestler too, using the whizzer effectively to remain in control when guys such as DJ and Faber managed to get decent shots in on him, and having a great scramble game when he rarely does get taken down means he’s often able to roll into a dominant position as we saw multiple times against Faber in their second and third fight and also against Cody, however grappling success against Cody was limited due to Cody himself being a very competent wrestler with fantastic hips and balance, but even still Cruz showed flashes of brilliance but ultimately came up second best.
Henry Cejudo‘s wrestling needs no introduction, a freestyle gold medalist at the age of 21, the youngest ever to achieve that feat at the time. Since transitioning to MMA his wrestling has been adapted to suit an MMA environment well very. The variety of takedowns he has in his arsenal is extremely impressive, we’ve seen him use high crotch singles, single leg leg trips, double legs, inside trips from the clinch, you name it he does it. He’s a guy that has endless tools to take his opponents down, and although Demetrious Johnson managed to nullify most of Cejudo‘s offensive grappling once they hit the mat, Henry still managed to take him down on multiple occasions with inside trips, and rightly or wrongly that is what won Cejudo his flyweight title. When Henry does manage to establish control on the ground like he did with Marlon Moraes his strength and positional awareness really is on full display. When Marlon managed to free himself from a d‘arce choke attempt Henry stayed on top of him and forced his way into half guard with relative ease, in fact the only thing Marlon could do was hold on to Cejudo for dear life and try to stop Cejudo posturing up, which didn’t last long.
Coupled with his clear technical advantage over most when it comes to grappling, he is freakishly strong and durable and that is especially apparent in the clinch and Marlon Moraes found that out the hard way. After a strong start to the fight for Marlon Cejudo brutalised him in the clinch to the point where it looked like Marlon had never been in a clinch in his life. Henry‘s clinch really has come a long way during his time in the UFC, DJ had his way with a relatively green Henry and it seems like he really has learnt from that and made sure his clinch is up to a standard where it can he effectively used against top competition. He will often times blitz into range with combinations and look to clinch when close enough, or he looks to clinch off of knees to the body when opponents attempt to rush in on him. Marlon couldn’t free himself from Cejudo‘s thai clinch and the knees destroyed an already fading Marlon until Marlon became a shell of his normal self. Not only did Cejudo look fantastic in the clinch he was patient in waiting for the opportune moment to utilise his clear wrestling advantage, using a front headlock to initiate a d‘arce choke attempt and remaining in control when Marlon managed to roll free he eventually bullies his way into half guard and when the Marlon eventually gives Cejudo the space to posture up he finishes his off with a barrage of elbows and strikes, and by that time I think everyone was relieved it was over for Marlon‘s sake. It was a dominant performance after a testing first round and although Henry closed the show on the ground it was really his clinch game that ground Marlon down and broke him.
When it comes to striking Henry is no slouch either. A man who was once primarily a boxer with the odd leg kick has now evolved into a fantastic combination striker, his wide stance has allowed Henry to utilise range a lot more effectively, letting him dip in and out of his opponents range when he’s on the outside. The pawing jab and occasional hand fighting is also used effectively to gauge range on his opponents keeping him out of harms way. The wide stance does have it’s own drawbacks, the main one being it leaves his lead leg open for kicks, but Henry will attempts to counter leg kicks with big right hands over the top. We saw Marlon exploit Henry‘s wide stance lead leg in their first round with explosive leg kicks which not only battered Henry‘s lead leg but also created opportunity to land up top as well. The power in the leg kicks from Marlon also made it difficult for Henry to launch effective counters off of them but Henry still found an answer. Realising that he was getting beaten up on the outside he pushed the pace and forced himself into the pocket as the fight went on. Henry‘s entries into the pocket can be rather basic and often times repetitive, he tends to put his enormous head down and charge in a lot of the time, but hey, with a head that size it must be daunting to see that thing coming for you, whether his entry is effective or not. He has also evolved his kicking game to a whole new level, going to the legs, body and head, Henry doesn’t discriminate. His uses his variety of kicks to guide him into the pocket and more often than not he is able to open up boxing combinations off of his kicks. He also does fantastic work to the body with his knees, not only does he throw them in the clinch but he will use them to disrupt fighters when they attempt to blitz him with strikes. As well as being freakishly quick he has power to boot too, his main weapon being his piston like straight right which we saw at it’s best against Wilson Reis, shooting it straight down the pipe on numerous occasions and eventually it spelt the beginning of the end for Reis. In short, Henry has power, speed, the ability to put together combinations, counters, traps, he really has become a very competent striker, so much so that you forget that most of his combat sports career has been in a non striking environment.
Cruz‘s striking although not technically perfect serves it’s purpose. Dom is primarily a grappler and counter striker. When he does lead the dance he is not at his best. Cody exploited that perfectly, he made Cruz attempt to force exchanges and countered effectively. When Cruz is on the back foot he uses his legendary movement to set traps and keep his opponents one step behind him, missing frequently, loading up in frustration and getting countered with looping shots. He uses feints and false starts very well, his unorthodox movement coupled with feints keeps his opponents guessing, and it leads to them either stalling out of confusion or throwing sloppy strikes that are countered with ease. Cruz can and will throw combinations, he will level change and mix in kicks and often times out-strike better strikers than himself. But it all stems from his opponents leading the exchanges and creating the opening for him. When he leads his striking limitations are on full display. TJ Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt provide perfect examples of this. TJ fought Cruz the exact way Cruz wanted him to, he lead the dance, desperately trying to chase Dom and land big shots. This is not the way to fight Cruz, he uses his elusive movement to frustrate TJ, countering him frequently, mixing in takedowns and always being one step ahead. In the end TJ missed a staggering 300 strikes, it was not a dominant victory and TJ caused Dom issues especially when incorporating leg kicks late on, but the fight with TJ highlights his ability of out strike better strikers than himself when he is able to fight the way he wants to. Cody however had the perfect gameplay, Dom anticipated another game of cat and mouse with him being the mouse as usual, instead he found himself playing the role of the cat. Cody remained calm and patient, he refused to be drawn into Cruz game and he waited for Cruz to force exchanges, not only that he taunted Cruz, and for the first time in Cruz career he was the one losing his composure and trying to force opportunities. When Cruz has to lead he doesn’t have his main tool, which is his reactive striking and ability to read his opponents strikes as they come at him. This in turn really showed Cruz striking for what it is when it’s not used on the counter, very flawed. It’s a common misconception that Cruz has poor striking, but the flaws he does have are really on show when it used outside of the way it’s supposed to be used. When leading his looping shots can be easily avoided and countered by a competent boxer like Cody, and in the pocket Cody found plenty of success because he took away Cruz primary tool, his defensive movement as Cruz himself was the aggressor. As I stated previously, his striking game is moulded around the idea that his opponent is the aggressor, and he counters and makes reads off of that, when it’s Cruz that is leading the dance he struggles to read his opponents shots coming as well, nor can he set up counters and traps as he is busy trying to string together offence.
In short, if this fight was in 2010 I’d pick Cruz. Cejudo doesn’t have the razor sharp boxing Cody displayed in their fight (although it’s still good) and Cruz would have read Cejudo as he attempted to get within striking range and countered his entries. Cejudo‘s wrestling would have been met with elite takedown defence and scrambles and his lead leg would have been a vocal point of Cruz‘s attacks. However it’s 2020 and although Cruz has proven himself to be a comeback king, lightening doesn’t strike twice (well, three times in this case). Cruz is way past his athletic prime, and another long stint away from the cage may be too much this time. Let’s not forget the Cruz we saw reclaim the belt from TJ, defend it successfully against Faber and drop it to Cody was already showing signs of being past his best. Faber was at that point on the downside of his career, the TJ fight was awfully close and Cody exposed holes that many have tried and failed to do in the past. Another three years out, another list of injuries and a comeback fight against one of the current best in the world spells trouble for Cruz here. His defensive movement will work to an extent, his will have success countering when Cejudo enters the pocket but I just don’t think he can do it enough and when Cejudo does find success it will be in a big way, his powerful kicks and straight right will hurt Cruz when they do find a home. It‘s also worth noting that Cejudo has a fantastic ability to strike in transition, and Cruz was repeatedly tagged exiting the clinch when he fought Faber in their second encounter, so I expect to see a window for Cejudo to land combinations as Dom attempts to exit the clinch. Cruz‘s body is not once what it was, and Cejudo is a physical beast, his speed and power will cause Cruz issues and when Cejudo does close the distance, especially in the later rounds I believe his strength will overpower Cruz in the clinch and lead to flurries of knees to the body that will take whatever steam Cruz has left out of him. I hate to say it, but I believe we will see Cejudo stop Cruz in the championship rounds after a barrage of knees in the clinch and subsequent ground and pound.