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This marks the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s debut on the ESPN family of networks, so a big splash was expected, and the organization kind of-sort of delivered. There is a pay-per-view level main event, as the promotion moved the Henry Cejudo-T.J. Dillashaw superfight up a week from UFC 233, essentially putting a bullet in that card after it was left without its own viable headliner. While the UFC scrambled to put its best foot forward -- it added a Donald Cerrone fight to headline the prelims and whatever problematic star power Greg Hardy provides -- there is no real killer hook, like the heavyweight title fight that kicked off the promotion’s debut on Fox. Still, what the UFC has come up with should be a fun action card from top to bottom and something that at least beats some of the more recent Fox offerings. Plus, after three weeks off, it is good to have the UFC back.
Let us take a look at UFC Fight Night 143, set for Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York:
UFC Flyweight ChampionshipHenry Cejudo (13-2) vs. T.J. Dillashaw (16-3)
ODDS: Dillashaw (-210), Cejudo (+175)
For better or for worse, 2018 was the year of the superfight, and the UFC kicks off 2019 with the same theme. However, this is an odd one, mostly leading to questions about the future of the UFC’s flyweight division. This bout was first announced while rumors swirled that the UFC was shutting down the weight class and sending Demetrious Johnson to One Championship, so conventional wisdom was that Cejudo would be moving up to take on Dillashaw. Instead, for reasons that are still unclear, Dillashaw moved down to 125 pounds, even as the UFC continues to cut fighters who lose in the weight class. Adding to the not-quite-superfight feel: While Cejudo is now likely the UFC’s best flyweight under contract, that comes with a bit of an asterisk, as public opinion was split over whether he deserved the decision win over Johnson that brought him the belt. With that said, Cejudo is now clearly a championship-level fighter, showing the kind of determination to improve over his MMA career that you would expect from an Olympic gold medalist. Every setback has lit a fire under Cejudo. Weight issues early in his career led to Cejudo cleanly making 125 pounds every subsequent time out, while a blowout loss in his first fight against Johnson led him to adopt a much stronger boxing game to supplement his elite wrestling. It resulted in a well-rounded, well-put-together game that allowed Cejudo to compete his second time around with one of the best fighters of all-time. Cejudo has officially cashed in on all his prospect hype, and less than six years into his pro MMA career, he may not even be in his prime yet.
As for Dillashaw, his own legacy as a champion is in an odd place. His first title reign came in a stunning upset over Renan Barao, as Dillashaw was the challenger by default and left with a dominant win, but he never really got out of the gates. Injuries to Dillashaw and Barao led to a year-plus wait before the rematch, and then Dillashaw lost his title via controversial decision to Dominick Cruz. After that, Dillashaw had to wait almost two years to earn his title back and has basically spent the last two years doing nothing but beating the brakes off of Cody Garbrandt, first winning the title via second-round knockout in 2017 before finishing Garbrandt in the first round in their August rematch. Dillashaw has probably been the consensus best bantamweight in the world for a few years now, title or not, but it would also be nice to see him actually put together a long, diverse reign as champion. Not only does he have the talent to do so, but 135 pounds has become one of the UFC’s deepest divisions, so Dillashaw would have no lack of interesting challengers. For now, we get this sojourn down to flyweight for some reason, even if the resulting bout is one of the best that the UFC can put on.
It will be interesting to see how the styles of these two interact. The first Barao fight was the coming-out party for Dillashaw’s quick, varied striking, and over time, he has developed an extremely intelligent standup game, probing and feeling out his opponents early before figuring out how to pick them apart. This dynamic was clearly at play over his two fights with Garbrandt. In the first round of their first fight, Garbrandt’s quick reactions almost led to Dillashaw getting knocked out, but the next round saw Dillashaw take over and score his own finish. The second fight saw Dillashaw continue to adjust for an even more dominant win. As opposed to Garbrandt’s sometimes aggressive style, Cejudo could frustrate Dillashaw much like Cruz did; and with Dillashaw moving down, Cejudo might be the quicker fighter. Considering Cejudo’s improvement from fight to fight, it is easy to see him adopting a conservative style that does not give Dillashaw a lot to adjust to and exploit. There is also the question of how effective Cejudo’s wrestling will be in this one. Dillashaw came up as a wrestler and showed off that skill against John Lineker, but while he will have the size advantage, it remains unclear how well the bantamweight champ will be able to defend an Olympic-level wrestling game that Cejudo is increasingly adapting to MMA. Dillashaw may just be able to keep this fight standing, as he reads Cejudo and picks him apart, but if Cejudo can get his takedown game going like he did in spurts against Johnson, this fight becomes even more interesting.
It is also worth bringing up the odd dynamic at play here. These superfights have traditionally seen the smaller champion moving up, but with Dillashaw moving down, that upends a lot of conventional wisdom about the larger fighter having a strength advantage and, in general, raises questions about how good Dillashaw is going to look cutting 10 extra pounds. In a fight this close, that will be the ex-factor that decides things. Consider the images that came out on social media of Dillashaw looking distressingly gaunt weeks out from the fight. It is a narrow a call, but the pick is Cejudo via decision.
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