Before November, Henry Cejudo and Sergio Pettis were a lock for the next shot at Demetrious Johnson. But TJ Dillashaw has made their mission at UFC 218 more complicated.
The flyweight division has been the topic of speculation in 2017. From Dana White’s inflammatory comments, to frequent questions about their champion moving up, there was no shortage of flyweight news. Henry Cejudo and Sergio Pettis are locked in a clear title eliminator at UFC 218, but will the recent surge in TJ Dillashaw’s popularity push them to the background?
Henry Cejudo has the most pressure going into Saturday’s bout. His 4-0 run to start his UFC career was halted by Demetrious Johnson in stunning fashion. “Mighty Mouse” dominated Cejudo in a first round victory that solidified his place as one of the best fighters of the era. The former Olympic gold medalist has only made two appearances since then: One against Joseph Benavidez, where he lost a decision that the majority of spectators believed he won. The second was an impressive knockout of former title challenger Wilson Reis in which Cejudo was able to showcase the strides he has made in his striking.
Both fights showed the evolution of Cejudo’s game, but the loss to Demetrious was very decisive and the champion has looked only more dominant since then. “The Messenger” recently survived the fires of Northern California, but that story was soon forgotten when TJ Dillashaw throttled Cody Garbrandt for the bantamweight title and subsequently called out Johnson himself. A fight between Johnson and Dillashaw is a bout that is already being considered the best fight that has ever been made in the flyweight division, and that puts all the pressure on Cejudo to win in electrifying fashion at UFC 218 if he wants to make himself the more appealing option for a fight with “Mighty Mouse.”
Sergio Pettis has the advantage of having never fought Johnson, which leaves him as one of the few contenders the champion still needs to dispatch to complete his sweep of every flyweight contender in the division. Pettis is currently on a four fight win-streak and recently went the distance with Mexican upstart Brandon Moreno, a bout where he showed an impressive gas tank and accurate counter striking.
That said, Cejudo is a different level of fighter entirely. Cejudo is more explosive and well-rounded than any fighter Pettis has fought before. “The Phenom” also hasn’t scored a finish since moving down to flyweight, leaving him with plenty to prove that he can be a threat to Johnson should he win.
Stylistically, Cejudo’s size is a huge factor. He cuts a tremendous amount of weight to make the 125 limit and a move up to bantamweight down the line is a very real possibility. That said, he hasn’t shown any issue with his gas tank before and has only missed weight once in his career. His strategy should be to initiate the clinch and close the distance between himself and Pettis. He is the more accomplished grappler and will be able to wear down Pettis by making him carry his weight against the fence. On the ground, his wrestling and fight IQ should allow him to maintain top position and avoid any submission attempts.
For Pettis, he should look to counter strike in the center of the Octagon like he did against Moreno. He will likely have to weather an early storm from Cejudo but the more success Pettis has on the feet, the more pressure he puts on Cejudo to take risks. That will create openings for Pettis and he has the skills to capitalize on even small openings left by opponents.
The elephant in the room: can the winner make themselves more appealing than TJ Dillashaw for a shot at Johnson? The winner would be the clear number one contender, to be sure. But the future will likely depend on Johnson. After all the controversy this year, will he and the UFC be able to come to terms for the fight? Johnson has made it clear he wants more money than usual to take a fight with Dillashaw, and that is one of the areas where a bout with Cejudo or Pettis is much easier to make. Regardless of the decision, the flyweight contenders know that a title shot doesn’t happen without a victory. The more electric the fight, the better chance that the winner will fight Johnson next, which is all the motivation either man will need to put on a show at UFC 218.