In early August of 2018, Henry Cejudo looked stuck in flyweight limbo.
Cejudo was just one of the many 125-pounders unable to defeat Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, who held the flyweight title since the UFC’s introduction of the division in 2012. Less than two years later, Cejudo has become a two-division champ, No. 3 in the UFC men's pound-for-pound rankings and has developed a personality that has made him one of the most talked-about fighters in the UFC.
Cejudo first tasted gold when he was 21 years old as an Olympic wrestler. Entering the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a young and relatively unknown competitor, many people didn't give the American much of a chance to win. Cejudo came from behind in points in three of his four matches to become the youngest American Olympic champion in freestyle wrestling at the time.
In 2013, Cejudo announced he began training for a career in MMA. A year later, the UFC signed him to the promotion. Being one of just three Olympic gold medalist wrestlers in UFC history, the then-27-year-old entered the organization as a top prospect.
While Johnson was dominating the flyweight division, Cejudo quietly racked up a 10-0 pro record (4-0 in the UFC) which placed him on a collision course with the champion. When the two finally met in the Octagon, Johnson showed his dominance and stopped Cejudo in the first round, ending the hype train behind the Olympian.
Going 2-1 in his next three fights was enough to get Cejudo another shot at the belt in the stale flyweight division. Two years after getting knocked out at the hands of the champion, oddsmakers weren't giving the challenger much of a chance. At one point, Cejudo was a massive +395 underdog. This fight was enormous for the challenger. Most fighters don't get three opportunities to fight for the belt, especially against the same opponent so a loss would cause Cejudo to rethink his career trajectory.
Fortunately for Cejudo, the rematch was a completely different fight. He was able to neutralize Johnson's offense with a series of takedowns. While he didn't do much damage, he controlled the bout using his wrestling. When the final bell rang, and the judges' scorecards came in, there was a new champion crowned.
Johnson's reign had ended, but nobody thought he was finished. The trilogy fight seemed inevitable. Then, the UFC made an unprecedented move and traded Johnson to ONE Championship in exchange for welterweight Ben Askren.
“Mighty Mouse” was gone, and the division he dominated for so long seemed like it would follow him. While Cejudo was still taking victory laps, the flyweight division was on the verge of collapse.
For a long time, UFC president Dana White, along with many fans, were losing interest in the 125-pounders. Johnson was a quiet and humble champion, which was a relief from the Conor McGregor imitators, but from a promotional standpoint, it was tough to get people interested in his fights. Notably, the quick and nimble flyweights don't have the knockout appeal of the heavier divisions, which fans crave.
The UFC dropped flyweight fighters by the day. Rumors about dismantling the division seemed inevitable. But first, White had to decide what to do with Cejudo. It looked like the plan was to set the new flyweight champion up to fail.
The promotion booked Cejudo to face bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw in a flyweight title fight. While it was never explicitly said by White or anyone in the UFC, if Dillashaw captured the belt, many believed the 125-pound division would be absolved. Suddenly, the future of the division and many fighters' futures were on Cejudo's shoulders.
‘The King of Cringe’ is born
On fight night, Cejudo entered the Octagon as a surprisingly large underdog for a champion. But, this was something he grew used to, and never let it affect him throughout his career. Cejudo once again rose to the occasion and shocked the world by knocking out Dillashaw in 32 seconds. It wasn't just the fact he defeated a world-class opponent with an immense amount of pressure on him, but to do it so quickly in such a dominating fashion showed the world he should never be doubted again.
With this win, the “King of Cringe” was born. It is not to say Cejudo didn't always have a cringy personality, but he took this idea to a whole new level. Days after defending his belt, the champion was writing love poems to WWE superstar Nikki Bella, challenging women's flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko for her belt, and just generally doing weird things. But, he owned and lived the persona, so for that, it's tough to hate.
Cejudo's loyalty to the flyweight division ended immediately after defending the belt. His ambition to become a two-division became a priority over defending his belt for a second time. He wanted to rematch Dillashaw, this time challenging him for the 135-pound belt. A failed PED test during their first bout caused Dillashaw to be suspended for two years and forced him to relinquish his belt. It created the perfect opportunity for Cejudo to step in.
With no bantamweight champion, Cejudo looked to continue his hot streak and become the fourth person in UFC history to hold two belts simultaneously. In June of 2019, he took on Marlon Moraes for the vacant belt. Unsurprisingly, Cejudo showed up to the weigh-ins wearing a crown and attempted a magic trick.
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) June 6, 2019
For some, the gimmick made it hard to take Cejudo seriously, but when he steps in the Octagon, he puts all the noise aside. He performs best when the lights are the brightest. Once again, Cejudo captured gold and defeated Moraes by third-round knockout to secure the bantamweight belt.
He was now the self-proclaimed “Triple C.” Olympic champion, flyweight champion and bantamweight champion.
Injuries sidelined Cejudo for just under a year and forced him to relinquish his flyweight belt. Despite not fighting for an extended period, Cejudo has never toned down his cringy behavior and remains one of the most polarizing fighters.
On Saturday, Cejudo steps back in the cage to face former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz in an empty Florida arena. With many gyms closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it's hard to say how these fighters have been training, but let's hope Cejudo has been training harder than this:
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