One round in to the UFC 238 main event, Henry Cejudo looked as though he’d bitten off more than he could chew. “The Messenger” looked message-less, limping back to his corner with a look approaching bewilderment after spending five minutes eating murderous leg kicks and boxing combos served up by Marlon Moraes. He was being busted up at range, courtesy of the Brazilian’s three-inch reach advantage, and every time he managed to fire-off some offense of his own, “Magic” was countering with power that can only be described as scary.
But Cejudo overcame one of the most one-sided first rounds of a championship fight in recent memory, throwing out the game plan on the stool and adopting a new one on the fly. It consisted of jumping straight into the fire, loading up on his punches and applying constant pressure, taking precarious risks in the hope of disrupting the flow of Moraes and forcing him to fight off the back foot. Cejudo had the No. 1-ranked bantamweight on skates by the end of the second round after a massive flurry of knees, compelling Moraes to shoot on the Olympic gold medalist to avoid the damage he was taking on the feet. In the third stanza, Cejudo broke him.
Cejudo defied the odds for a third consecutive time, becoming a two-weight world champion and adding Moraes to an increasingly impressive list of conquests that includes Demetrious Johnson and a juiced-up T.J. Dillashaw. He’s a long way from being the greatest combat athlete of all time -- a moniker he’s dutifully been plugging in the aftermath of his victory -- but after Saturday night, the “King of Cringe” has put himself in contention for the pound-for-pound spot.
So impressive was the victory that UFC President Dana White is now talking about the flyweight division with a smile on his face, confirming at the post-fight press conference that, with a figure like Cejudo on the throne, the 125-pounders have a home for the foreseeable future.
Which is what Cejudo always wanted, right?
Remember back at the UFC on ESPN 1 pre-fight press conference, that one where Cejudo kept talking about himself in the third person? During that event, he pleaded with White and the UFC brass to throw him the “hail mary” that was the ailing 125-pound weight class, telling the assembled media:
“This is much bigger than me. This is for all the flyweights that are not big enough to make 135-pounds. I’m fighting for those guys. I’m fighting for their families. There’s a big inspiration in me. When I’m inspired, I know I can get things done. There’s no other better person Dana, UFC people, then to throw the hail mary to than me.”
Cejudo painted himself in opposition to Dillashaw, who had abandoned a half-baked attempt at forming a fighter’s association and was now gloating about being paid a “f---load of money to kill the 125-poud division.” Whereas “The Snake” was fighting only for himself, Cejudo was competing for a higher purpose, resurrecting a weight class under siege and keeping its remaining constituents from the welfare line.
Cejudo rode that narrative all the way into fight-night, where he starched Dillashaw in 32 seconds before immediately campaigning for a shot at the 135-pound title. He had options at 125-pounds if he’d wanted to stay there -- including opposite long-time rival Joseph Benavidez, who possesses a win over him from 2016 -- but ostensibly didn’t see the connection between “saving” the flyweight division and competing against other flyweights.
Over that time, the UFC continued applying the hatchet to the 125-pound ranks, cutting two-thirds of the roster since October 2018. Cejudo spoke mournfully of his compatriots who received pink slips over that time and criticized the UFC for its lack of transparency, but happily pursued, accepted and promoted a fight 10 pounds north.
Now what’s left of the flyweight division is back in business on the express condition that Cejudo ferries in between weight classes, yet the “savior” is using his platform to call out aging bantamweights and -- earlier this week -- Frankie Edgar. When asked at the post-fight press conference what his intentions were regarding the weight class in which he’s fought nine of his last 10 fights, Cejudo’s cognitive dissonance found a whole new level:
“This thing is for me is it’s saved man. I just went up and beat Marlon Moraes on a 15-fight win streak. What’s wrong with the division? Demetrious Johnson was just so dominant, y’know? It’s not up to me. I suffer making 125-pounds. Whether I stay up or I go, the division is good.”
Cejudo may make allusions towards solidarity, but it’s hard to differentiate the path he’s on from the self-seeking blueprint the now-disgraced Dillashaw laid out last November. Cejudo beat a bantamweight in his first flyweight title defence, then won the vacant bantamweight title, and is calling out bantamweights. He’s occupied by legacy and “champ-champ-champ” status and making “heavyweight money,” paying lip service to a cause he talked up to sell a fight and abandoned when it no longer had utility.
He can save the flyweight division if he wants to. But instead chooses the same old path: of the prizefighter, selling tickets, out to get his.
Can you blame him? Probably not. But it’d be nice if we could drop the pretenses.
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.