Henry Cejudo will attempt to elevate his status into the pantheon of the all-time greats within the world combat sports by earning a second consecutively-held UFC title this weekend.
Olympic gold medalist.
UFC flyweight champion.
UFC bantamweight champion.
The man who ended Demetrious Johnson’s legendary winning-streak.
The fighter who took out TJ Dillashaw in under a minute.
Dissect each of those statements all you want, if Henry Cejudo can pull off the win in the UFC 238 main-event, he will validate himself to perhaps to an even greater extent than we realise.
It cannot be understated how impressive it is to see an Olympic gold-medalist swap out a top spot on the podium for a UFC title around his waist. Cejudo was the first to reach that peak after taking the top honours at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing – where he represented the US.
It’s often forgotten though that Cejudo’s big shot at the championship belt first came at UFC 197 in 2016. It was a time firmly in the middle of the Demetrious Johnson-era of the 125lb division and while Henry was no doubt a talented prospect with an elite-level skill-set, many had thought that the 29-year-old had been rushed into his maiden crack at UFC gold.
And based on what transpired in the MGM Grand that night, it’s not a stretch to say that they were bang on the money.
Mighty Mouse annihilated the relatively green Cejudo with little fuss – swarming him with a barrage of knees in the clinch before TKO’ing him just under three minutes into the first round.
It was perhaps DJ’s most destructive win to date and with that, his own air of invincibility grew.
From there, Henry knew something needed to change.
Of course, it did.
The champion of the division had run through him emphatically in the first-round in an even more impressive fashion that he had any of his former opponents.
Adopting a more karate-esque style, Cejudo dropped a very close and contentious split-decision to Joseph Benavidez before putting a striking clinic on Wilson Reis in a performance that had more than a few making comparisons to the then-lightweight champion Conor McGregor.
I actually picked Cejudo to capture the flyweight belt after I saw his TKO victory over Wilson Reis in 2017.
Admittedly, I saw him winning the title after Johnson left the division to move back up to bantamweight but still, I had Henry pegged as potentially the second-best in the weight-class from that point on and he managed to live up to and even exceed that expectation.
Beating the rising talent that his Sergio Pettis then set the rejuvenated Henry Cejudo up for a rematch with Demetrious Johnson.
Again, it doesn’t matter which way you scored that fight.
People speak of it being a ‘robbery’ like Demetrious dominated the fight and had his clear decision victory stolen away from him in some weird moment of ineptitude by the judges cage-side.
It was a razor close fight and you’re entitled to your opinion either way but that’s not the point. The point is that the man who had been absolutely steamrolled just two years previously was able to get in there and give the always-improving Johnson one of the toughest fights of his career.
That’s the only result that matters and that is concrete proof of the power of his gold-medalist mentality.
The type of mindset needed to become a gold-medalist – especially in a sport as gruelling as freestyle wrestling – is a tool that sharpened Cejudo and allowed him to rebound spectacularly.
He made the necessary improvements to go from a less-than-three-minute hammering to a competitive back-and-forth battle over the course of twenty-five minutes.
Mighty Mouse was the gold-standard in all of mixed martial arts, or, the gold-medal, if you will, and Henry Cejudo did everything he needed to go get it done.
The opportunity for a second monumental victory in the career of the former Olympian came directly afterwards as he looked to disrupt TJ Dillashaw in his quest for dual-weight champion status.
I was one of the few, perhaps even the only one, who picked Henry to knock out Dillashaw in the very first round of their fight.
That cut from bantamweight to flyweight sent alarm bells ringing in my head instantly and given his opponent’s increasing fondness for a darting karate style, I figured Dillashaw’s chin would be cracked – as it had been cracked in the past – and it would be over well before the first-round ended.
In my view, the fight would have likely played out very differently had the pair fought at bantamweight.
In fact, I would have likely sided with TJ to get the job done but now, it goes without saying that Cejudo – with those two wins – has earned his shot at history.
Marlon Moraes, to those in-the-know, came into the UFC with major levels of hype due to his destructive run as the champion of the WSOF bantamweight division.
And yes, his debut was spoiled to a certain extent by the perennial contender Raphael Assuncao (a fight I actually believe Moraes won), but in the time since, he has looked nothing less than a championship-level fighter.
He’ll have size and power over The Messenger on Saturday night. There’s no doubt about it.
Out of him, the flyweight king Demetrious Johnson, and a severely depleted TJ Dillashaw, I would argue that Cejudo will be in by far the most danger of the three when he steps in and headlines this weekend.
Gold-medalists don’t come around every day and they most certainly do not achieve championship-level ambitions if they cross over to mixed martial arts.
If Cejudo can join the exclusive group of double-champions with that gold medal around his neck, does that make him one of the greatest combat sports athletes the world has ever known?
Who knows what will happen on Saturday but if he is successful, I honestly think there’s a conversation there that is worth having.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena