UFC 288: New, improved Henry Cejudo resumes quest to go where no man has ever gone before in MMA

Henry Cejudo was at the peak of his powers. He was 33 years old, had just stopped a legendary opponent and was clearly one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world. He'd come up with a shtick as the UFC's "King of Cringe," and he was among the promotion's biggest stars.

And then, as the crowd in Jacksonville, Florida, chanted his name and roared in appreciation of his immense talent, Cejudo opted to walk away.

"I had done everything," Cejudo said of his retirement. "What more was there for me to do? What else could I do? I had done everything under the sun, from the Olympic champ to the flyweight champ to the bantamweight champ. I defended both of my belts. [I was] the youngest in history to win an Olympic gold medal. Saved the flyweight division. The youngest USA Wrestling Hall of Famer of all time. In other words, you're welcome."

Had he not retired, he said, "Right now, no doubt, I'd be bigger than Conor McGregor."

Cejudo is different than most, and embraces his "King of Cringe" persona. During his retirement. he became an elite coach. He didn't just work with middling fighters, either. Some of the greatest talents of our time made the trek to his Fight Ready training center in Arizona to learn from him.

And almost to a person, they praised his innovative ways and creative mind for helping them get better at their craft.

"I have been extremely fortunate to coach people like [Jon] Jones, Demetrious Johnson, Zhang Weili, Jiri Prochazka. It's been a Rolodex full of champions and killers," Cejudo said.

Like most of his peers who retire young, Cejudo has unretired and is back in the game. He's 36 now and again chasing titles and records. On Saturday in the main event of UFC 288 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, he'll challenge Aljamain Sterling for the bantamweight title. If he gets that, as he expects, he wants to work his way toward a fight for the featherweight title.

During his first run, Cejudo would refer to himself as the greatest combat sports athlete of all time. He turned serious, though, when the topic came up Thursday and he challenged a reporter to name an athlete who accomplished more in combat sports than he has done.

When the reporter mentioned Jones, Cejudo interjected. He's thought about this a lot, and it means a great deal to him. It's not just a joke; it's something that has pushed him and motivated him to dare to be great and not just settle for being good.

"I asked you a question and you haven't given me an answer," Cejudo said to Yahoo Sports. "Who deserves that title? Who has done more than me. Jones is the greatest in MMA. I get that and I agree with that. But across all of combat sports, who would you say has done more than I have? Remember, Olympic gold medal, two weight class championships in the UFC, on my way to a third. Who has done that?"

In 2012, ESPN ran a poll that asked the same question, "Who is the greatest combat sports athlete of all time?" Notably, it put boxing in a different category, though boxing is a combat sport. But it seeded wrestler Dan Gable No. 1, but then-UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva won the poll with 43% of the vote. He beat out Gable, wrestler Aleksandr Karelin, Jones and early UFC tournament winner Royce Gracie.

Henry Cejudo is returning to the Octagon on Saturday for the first time in three years, and he's trying to remind the world why he's one of the greatest fighters of all time. (Louis Grasse/PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Henry Cejudo is returning to the Octagon on Saturday for the first time in three years, and he's trying to remind the world why he's one of the greatest fighters of all time. (Louis Grasse/PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Gable and Karelin were great wrestlers, clearly more accomplished at their craft than Cejudo. Neither of them, though, fought in the UFC, let alone won a UFC belt. Cejudo identified Jones as the greatest MMA fighter of all time, but Jones hasn't accomplished nearly as much as Cejudo in wrestling. Gracie didn't have nearly the overall game to put him in the running in this category. And while Silva is a legend, and he boxes, he hasn't had much success in boxing and he didn't win multiple weight class titles.

So maybe Cejudo has a point, but that's an argument that never will be won.

But if he returns after three years to beat a fighter the quality of Sterling, that's a massive statement. And if he follows that with a win to claim the featherweight championship, it might be hard to deny him.

He's eager to show what he has and said a scientific approach to his training has left him better than ever.

"I try to use all of the tools I have available to me, and to me, it makes sense to base what you're doing to try to get ready on science," Cejudo said. "Once I got back into the USADA pool, I was fully back in this, but we wanted to take our time. I've been preparing for this really for a year, maybe 15 months. It's been a longer camp than usual.

"People laugh when I say this, but I haven't felt like this before I fight since I don't know when, maybe ever. I'm the strongest I've ever been and the fastest I've ever been. I'm better than I have ever been. I know my age but I also know my body and I know the work I've done. It's not impossible if you approach it the right way. People can laugh or think I'm just [fooling around], but they'll see on Saturday that I was telling the truth the whole time."

And maybe if he is telling the truth, he'll become Quadruple-C instead of just little old Triple-C.