Henry Cejudo vs Marlon Moraes - The Jack Slack Preview
How We Got Here
The news that T.J. Dillashaw had been caught red handed for use of EPO threw the MMA world into turmoil. While fighters have been caught for EPO before by commission testing—notably Ali Bagautinov—Dillashaw was the first that USADA had caught in its partnership with the UFC. EPO use is notoriously difficult to prove but this announcement came with an assurance that advances had been made in testing protocol. Even so, Dillashaw had made his way to the top of the sport and had always maintained a furious work rate and kept it up through rounds—it seemed extremely unlikely that this was a recent dabbling with EPO for the fun of it. Not only was Dillashaw’s legacy now in tatters, a suspicious glare had to be cast over any other fighter competing at the highest levels whose gas tank stood out.
But something positive came out of Dillashaw’s fall on the battlefield of public expectation. The UFC scrambled to put together a fight for the vacant bantamweight title and, for the first time since 2014 a UFC 135 pound title fight came into being that has nothing at all to do with Team Alpha Male and its various beefs. Two intriguing, worthy contenders are set to decide who gets the belt and to be honest the substitution of Dillashaw or Garbrandt or Cruz would do nothing to make it any more intriguing.
Marlon Moraes was half of World Series of Fighting’s appeal, with the other half being Justin Gaethje. The two were long serving champions for the organisation and while Gaethje made his UFC debut to thunderous applause and earned an impressive victory, Moraes’ UFC debut barely raised a golf clap. He met the confounding and aggressively boring Raphael Assuncao in what could in pro wrestling parlance be called a “burial”. In spite of his hype train stalling, Moraes rebounded with a split decision over John Dodson, and then bounced into the streak of devastating stoppages which carried him to his current position as number one contender.
Henry Cejudo has done nothing in the bantamweight division since he was sent up there for a single fight as a punishment for missing weight in 2014. The circumstances that have brought him here are remarkable. He bested Demetrious Johnson in a five round clash to win the flyweight title and immediately accepted the fight with T.J. Dillashaw that Johnson had always declined. Dillashaw was the bantamweight champ but wanted more silverware and insisted he would drop down to flyweight. Cejudo stunned and finished Dillashaw in the first minute of the fight but the bantamweight title was not at stake. This left Cejudo with a victory over the world’s best bantamweight and nothing to show for it. As it seemed like the UFC wanted to do away with the flyweight division a rematch for the bantamweight title seemed the most likely course of action… and then USADA intervened.
The Open Guard Conundrum
Earlier this week I made a Filthy Casual’s Guide to Cejudo and highlighted the improvements in Cejudo’s striking game since his change of striking coaches around the Benavidez fight. The focus of the study was on Cejudo’s longer stance and attempts to draw his opponent out. He likes to fight from Open Position or Open Guard—that is to say: mirroring his opponent’s stance, southpaw vs orthodox or orthodox vs southpaw. This allows him to throw a body kick into the opponent’s open side and sneak high kicks through if they begin to reach down to the body kick. It also means he can slide back towards his power side, attempting to draw the opponent’s right hand out into an over-extension, which he can then counter over the top.
This is where the question marks start popping up—the part where I admit I have no idea what to expect in this one because of the unique circumstances that lead up to it. All of the changes in Cejudo have happened since he fought Benavidez. Benavidez is a southpaw. Wilson Reis is a southpaw. Sergio Pettis is a southpaw. Demetrious Johnson and T.J. Dillashaw are both switch hitters but spend a good deal of the fight as southpaws. Yet Marlon Moraes is an orthodox fighter.
Everything about Cejudo’s new style has been built around the open side body kick and spiralling out to the open side—he switched stances to stay in a mirrored or open guard position against Demetrious Johnson, and the Dillashaw fight didn’t last long enough for us to see if he would do the same there. Ultimately what I’m asking is: how much of Henry Cejudo’s new game is open guard karate-boxing, and how much is just karate-boxing that happened to be matched against southpaws. Cejudo could do what the majority of high level point fighters do at the start of this fight and come out and mirror Moraes, fighting southpaw for long periods of the fight. Or he could fight his new style against an orthodox opponent, something we really haven’t seen much of him doing.
Moraes’ last fight against a southpaw—and really last fight that went any real distance—was against the incredibly irritating style of John Dodson and after some early trouble, Moraes sussed Dodson out well. With the open side (the side of the opponent’s stance which their navel is on) on the opposite side of the opponent to usual, Moraes tends to tone down the lead leg kicking to the body and the head and focus on kicking with his rear leg instead. Dodson’s repeated lunges in with his head forward allowed Moraes to time check hooks over and over again and, given Cejudo’s propensity to lead with his head (nodder style, rather than chin first), the check hook could still be a powerful weapon for Moraes here.
Moraes was dropped in that fight as Dodson rebounded off the fence with his usual left straight while sliding down the outside of Moraes’ lead foot. But Moraes adapted well and the next time Dodson came off the fence, Moraes slipped to the elbow side of the same left straight and clocked Dodson with a counter.
While Dodson is more in the business of running past his opponent and pumping arm punches, he did drop away to the open side on several occasions after Moraes stopped falling for his rebounds off the fence. Throughout that fight Moraes showed a great eye and tried to punish Dodson for repeating the same looks. For instance, getting Dodson to retreat on that angle, then stepping through on a wheel kick. Demetrious Johnson tried a similar thing against Cejudo with a high round kick.
Confidence and Kicking
While Marlon Moraes’ greatest improvements over recent years have come in his boxing (he is an MMA fighter who occasionally double jabs and therefore is a top quality MMA boxer) his kicking game is still responsible for bringing home the bacon. Stance match up only dictates the type of kicks available, most assume Moraes will kick against Cejudo whether he’s standing orthodox or southpaw. The question then is: how comfortable is Moraes in giving up his leg?
On the one hand, Demetrious Johnson’s greatest successes in the second Cejudo fight came from focusing on low kicks and avoiding getting drawn into punching exchanges. But on the other hand, Cejudo is more of a world class wrestler than almost anyone else we have ever called a world class wrestler in MMA. Moraes has been taken down just twice in the UFC and both came in the second round against John Dodson, both were simply Dodson running up the centre as Moraes kicked. That’s the trade off with kicking—whatever gets in the way of your leg is going to end up getting bruised, but you are giving up your balance and movement to execute the strike.
Against Dodson, Moraes was much more aggressive with his low kicking than I would expect against Cejudo. That is to say, he was throwing inside low kicks as Dodson stepped in—a great counter kick that can ruin the opponent’s balance and which Moraes followed with a corking left hook, but pretty much giving the opponent a chance to run you over.
If Moraes goes after Cejudo’s legs, the smart way to do it would be as Johnson did—get Cejudo backing up by showing him shoulder feints or non-committal punches, then chop at the lead leg as it trails. For a belt-and-braces approach, it would be safer to pursue kicks below the knee as these are so much more difficult to pick up. And of course, Cejudo has felt the effects of that peculiar shot, having almost lost the second Johnson fight inside the first minute as his numbed ankle gave out on him.
From Cejudo’s stand point, simply driving through on kicks shouldn’t be the goal even if it seems a likely way to get to Moraes the mat. Moraes counter hooks well off his low kicks. As he yanks his right foot back he will use it to turn the shoulders and power the left hook in that Andy Ristie sort of style.
As we discussed in the Filthy Casual’s Guide, the old Machida counter of stepping in on the kick with the right straight can flow beautifully into the single leg. Ideally, Cejudo would have been working on catches and parries for middle and high kicks ahead of this fight. As Jorge Masvidal showed us against Donald Cerrone, this is still a massively underused tactic in MMA.
There are two basic methods to parry the high or middle kick across yourself. The first is to take the kick on the arm and use the other hand to drag it down and across the body in that “downward block” motion that Jorge Masvidal did—this is good for setting up the counter left hook.
The second is the Saenchai / Cung Le favourite of taking the kick on the arm and scooping the other arm underneath to stop the leg between the wrists. From there the kick is dragged across the body.
The slick thing about this form of catch is that the leg can be dragged into a position very similar to that high ankle position in wrestling.
Cejudo loves the old heave ho finish from here, basically European uppercutting the underside of the opponent’s knee and hoisting them off their feet.
One important point to consider when talking takedowns is that both of John Dodson’s were rendered useless by Moraes immediately entangling a leg and threatening a heel hook. It has long been suggested that the kicking game and the leg entanglement game go together well because if the opponent grabs your kick and kicks your standing leg out, or you simply end up getting bundled over, the opponent is standing over your guard, in position to be entangled.
One thing we know about Cejudo is that he and his team recognise that different grappling approaches are necessary for different opponents. Cejudo immediately passed guard against Sergio Pettis and rode him from the back. Against Demetrious Johnson—who has always made great use of butterfly hooks to create scrambles—Cejudo made sure to always be turking one leg or in the closed guard. You would have to imagine that if he is attempting to take Moraes down off kicks, he will want to go to the floor with Moraes and get heavy on him, rather than give him space to create leg entanglements or scrambles.
A final thought for this fight is Henry Cejudo’s massive noggin. It always finds a way of smashing into his opponent’s face. He dropped Demetrious Johnson momentarily with a nodder, stunned Joseph Benavidez multiple times, and that T.J. Dillshaw finish began with Dillashaw diving onto the top of Cejudo’s head. Watch any one of his fights and you will see it multiple times, but it largely goes unnoticed.
Now the nodder works best against opponents who will run onto it. In fact it seems to work even better against an opponent who breaks their stance to charge in (briefly called ‘neo-footwork’ before everyone realised how lame that was.) Moraes isn’t the kind of striker who charges in shifting, he’s a very measured guy who shuffles in behind jabs, feints, double jabs, and all of that means that he is less likely to run his face right onto the top of Cejudo’s head. That doesn’t mean Cejudo can’t butt him though and it isn’t really the head butt that’s the problem, it’s that something always follows whether it is a body lock that is promptly sucked in and used to take the opponent down, or a left hook. But coming in behind the top of the head does expose a fighter to the intercepting elbow.
Upward elbows are incredible because they punish leading with the head (having a great chance of opening a cut) and also do not require the fighter to stray far from his usual guard, the force of the collision being provided by the opponent. Other answers for Cejudo’s butting include slapping on a double collar tie and trying to work from there, or using uppercuts to the front of the face which could perhaps be followed by hard low kicks with less risk of Cejudo dropping on the leg.
Henry Cejudo’s striking improvements have been remarkable. It has been one of the fastest turn-arounds I have seen in all my years following the fight game. But Marlon Moraes is a tremendously dangerous striker who has been recognising and exploiting patterns in some of the most notable strikers in the bantamweight division. Stopping Jimmie Rivera so quickly might have been fluke or a perfect set up, but to take apart Raphael Assuncao so quickly and John Dodson so comprehensively should tell you the level of tactician we’re working with him. Moraes is not just crafty but he is explosive and well conditioned to go with it. Whether Cejudo goes the smart route and tries to limit Moraes ability to strike explosively, or whether he goes full down the karate route and shocks us all again, he confronts a great deal of danger on Saturday night.