As Henry Cejudo gears up to make his first defense of his UFC flyweight title, be sure not to make the mistake of underestimating his chances again.
It’s easy to disregard ‘The Messenger’ in this matchup because, on his day, UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw could well be the best – or at least the most technically impressive fighter on the planet.
The fighter who dismantled Renan Barao twice and the guy who completely shut down John Lineker at UFC 207 looked indestructible in doing so. His every movement was fluid and the manner in which he chained each aspect of his MMA arsenal together – particularly in the Lineker bout – showed the signs of a fighter well and truly reaching his peak.
Of course, the duo of showdowns with Cody Garbrandt saw TJ deal with adversity in moments. The precise movement and power that ‘No Love’ brings to the table is foiled only by his decision-making in certain moments and the signs of an increasingly suspect ability to take a punch – or at least a punch from TJ Dillashaw that is.
At times in that fight, though, Dillashaw certainly looked beatable and the aura of invincibility he displayed, the feeling that he couldn’t possibly put a foot wrong, it disappeared to a certain extent.
On Saturday night, as the bantamweight champion, TJ will attempt to enter the increasingly less-exclusive group of fighters to hold two belts in two different UFC weight-classes simultaneously.
And while for a time it seemed as though he would be setting up for a collision with the former champion Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson, one of DJ’s former conquests rose from the ashes to shock the world.
It doesn’t matter how you scored Johnson/Cejudo II. I cannot stress this enough.
On the subject of Henry Cejudo, the first thing that should be highlighted is his gold-medalist mentality.
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.
What many forget, though, is 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 first 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.
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.
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 karete-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.
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 this man’s gold-medalist mentality.
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 division from that point on and he managed to live up to and even exceed that expectation.
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.
In a matchup against TJ Dillashaw it’s easy to see ‘The Messenger’ as the underdog – and I personally do, to be honest. If you put a loaded gun to my head right now I’d pick Dillashaw without a moment of hesitation but disregarding a fighter with Cejudo’s winning mentality would be foolish.
No matter how much they try to tell you otherwise, the extra 10lbs that TJ is going to have to shave off of his frame is going to affect him on fight-night. Now, he may still win and look superb, but make no mistake – the same Dillashaw that fought Garbrandt and Cruz cannot physically be the same Dillashaw who makes the walk on Saturday night.
10lbs relative to a bantamweight’s body-weight is far more than 10lbs on a man who weighs 200lbs. Not that Dillashaw is a particularly huge 135lb-r, though, and to be honest, I expect him to make weight without issue.
Still, if you’re disregarding the chances of a fighter who has shown the talent and mentality necessary to overcome the most daunting of tasks in the past – you could well find yourself in a state of shock come Saturday.
We all know what severe weight-cuts can do to a man’s ability to take a shot and the sole TKO loss on Dillashaw’s record actually came to a two-time flyweight title-challenger, the 5’2″ powerhouse that is John Dodson – who cracked him hard on the chin in their Ultimate Fighter finale clash back in 2011.
It’s easy to think that you know what to expect with this sport and then something insane happens like Amanda Nunes’ sub-minute KO of the dominant force that was Cris Cyborg.
In moments like those, you are reminded why you tuned in in the first place.
Henry Cejudo has the skills, the fortitude, and the perfect conditions necessary to shock the world once again – and as the only gold-medalist to win a UFC belt, let’s not forget exactly how special and unique an athlete he is.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena