The UFC flyweight title will be on the line Saturday when champion Henry Cejudo defends against bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. The card might serve as both the start of an era, as it is the first UFC event on ESPN+, and the end of an era, as the UFC is reportedly close to shutting down the flyweight division.
The main event is an intriguing style matchup between former wrestlers who both successfully adapted to MMA in their own way. The following statistical categories highlight the differences and similarities between the two fighters that could turn out to be the deciding factors.
Despite coming from a wrestling background, Dillashaw and Cejudo have become effective strikers during their time in the UFC. However, Dillashaw has a decided edge. His career striking differential -- significant strikes landed per minute minus significant strikes absorbed per minute -- stands at plus-2.44. That rate is third highest among ranked bantamweights and higher than that of any ranked flyweight. While Cejudo maintains a positive differential, his plus-0.82 number puts him basically at the average of ranked flyweights and bantamweights (plus-0.83).
When it comes to avoiding strikes from opponents, the two champions are rather similar. Dillashaw absorbs 2.94 significant strikes per minute and avoids 66 percent of his opponents' attempts, while Cejudo absorbs 2.60 per minute and dodges 67 percent. The key differentiation between the fighters comes in terms of landing meaningful strikes.
During his UFC career, Dillashaw has landed 5.38 significant strikes per minute, which is third highest among ranked bantamweights and flyweights. Cejudo lands only 3.42, which is below average for the same group (3.66). Most followers of MMA would easily recognize that Dillashaw is the more prolific striker. However, the disparity in striking differential clearly illustrates the fact that Cejudo will need to find a way to engage while avoiding a straight striking battle.
Dillashaw is not a particularly accurate striker. He lands 41 percent of his significant strike attempts, which is about average for ranked flyweights and bantamweights. However, he more than makes up for this shortcoming with volume. During his UFC career, he has attempted 13.06 significant strikes per minute. This is an activity rate that most fighters, even in the lighter divisions, can't keep up with. In his last nine fights, his rate has been even higher, as he has attempted 14.64 per minute.
On the other hand, Cejudo attempts only 8.04 per minute. In order to be successful, the flyweight champion will need to find a way to prevent Dillashaw from wearing him down with volume. If Cejudo is not able to initiate grappling exchanges, he will likely struggle to match Dillashaw's striking pace.
In 2008, Cejudo became the youngest American to win an Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling. Even though he reached the pinnacle of the world's oldest sport, that grappling dominance has not always translated into his MMA career. In the UFC, he has averaged 2.31 takedowns per 15 minutes, which is only 12th best among ranked flyweights and bantamweights. Despite not having the best career takedown numbers, though, his wrestling was vital to his success against former flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. In their second fight, Cejudo went only 3-for-11 on his takedown attempts but managed to land attempts in three of the five rounds, which contributed greatly to what turned out to be a razor-thin split-decision victory.
Considering the offensive striking disparity, it would appear to be smart for Cejudo to integrate wrestling into his game plan for this fight. However, that might turn out to be easier said than done against Dillashaw. The bantamweight champion has stopped 86 percent of the takedown attempts against him. On top of that, he has never allowed a single pass on the ground, and he has absorbed only 13 significant ground strikes in his UFC career.
Even if Cejudo cannot consistently score takedowns, his wrestling still should be an essential element of his attack. In the last five years, Dillashaw has lost only one fight. He dropped a decision against Dominick Cruz in 2016. In that fight, Cruz attempted 11 takedowns and landed four.
Initiating grappling exchanges will not only disrupt Dillashaw's offensive striking strategy but will also allow Cejudo to establish the clinch. Like most fighters, the majority (62 percent) of Cejudo's landed significant strikes come at distance -- that is, standing and not in the clinch. However, he has also done a lot of damage in the clinch. In his UFC career, 26 percent of his landed significant strikes have come in the clinch position.
On the other hand, Dillashaw lands a larger percentage of his significant strikes (71 percent) at distance. This proportion has only risen since he developed his trademark movement-based striking style later in his career.
Even if Cejudo fails on his takedown attempts, he could use the attempts to put himself into the clinch, which has proven to be a more advantageous striking position for him than Dillashaw. Once again, Dillashaw will not make this easy, as he has allowed only 11 significant clinch strikes in his last five fights.
By working from the clinch, Cejudo could also potentially save himself from absorbing power shots from Dillashaw. This is another area in which the bantamweight champion has the statistical advantage. In his UFC fights, Dillashaw has scored 0.72 knockdowns per 15 minutes of fight time. His last two bouts, against former champion Cody Garbrandt, boosted his rate since he landed two knockdowns in each fight. Prior to the series against Garbrandt, Dillashaw had landed five knockdowns in his first 13 fights.
In his nine-fight UFC career, Cejudo has scored only three knockdowns and finished only one fight with strikes. On the other hand, he has proven himself to be rather durable, as he has never been knocked down due to head strikes. He has surrendered only one knockdown in his UFC run, when Johnson dropped him and stopped him with knees to the body at UFC 197.