Henry Cejudo knows what he is up against at UFC 197, because his entire mixed martial arts career has been groomed for this moment. When Cejudo debuted in MMA at a small show in Tucson in the spring of 2013, Demetrious Johnson was already a UFC champion with a flyweight title defense under his belt. When Cejudo made his Octagon arrival in late 2014, Johnson was already entrenched in the conversation of best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet.
Cejudo watched those accolades rain down from a distance, biding his time, the darkhorse of a division, the kind of blue-chip athlete who rarely takes up the fighting sports, who at age 21 became the youngest American wrestler to ever win the Olympic gold medal. And now, at last, the time for waiting is over. Cejudo meets Johnson on April 23 in the co-main event of UFC 197. It is a challenge that has appeared inevitable since the second Cejudo signed under the UFC banner, and after years of preparation for this moment, Cejudo is ready to claim what he feels is his.
"The thing that people don't know about me, I actually boxed amateur for a few years," Cejudo said recently on The MMA Hour. "I competed in amateur competitions, so when people see my hands, I'm not just your [average] MMA fighter. I took my time with the sport of MMA. I wrestled, won the Olympics. I boxed for years. I won a bronze glove back in Arizona. There's no surprises, is what I'm saying. I'm 10-0, and I do believe I'm going to beat Demetrious Johnson. I do believe I have the stand-up, my defense is on point, and like I said, I'm going to fight him accordingly. Call me the mouse trap."
The concerns surrounding Cejudo for much of his UFC tenure were not whether his elite skills would translate to MMA, but whether he would get pushed into the title picture too soon, and whether he could get his weight under control.
Flyweight is a notoriously thin division, but Cejudo managed to take his time, racking up four straight wins to start his UFC career, the last three of which came against ranked fighters. After some early stumbles, he also has successfully made the flyweight limit of 125 pounds in each of those three contests, and expects to enlist the services of nutrition guru George Lockhart in advance of April 23.
All of which is a roundabout way to say that Cejudo is heading into the Johnson fight brimming with confidence, and willing to verbalize that confidence in ways not seen by past "Mighty Mouse" opponents.
"I'm treating this fight like I'm training for the Olympics," Cejudo said. "This is the Olympics of MMA and that's how I'm going to treat it. I'm in complete concentration and isolation, and that's it. I'm excited and I know what I'm capable of doing.
"I'm ready for a five-round fight, but I believe if I connect, he's going to feel it, man. It's like what Holly Holm told Ronda (Rousey). [Someone asked Holly,] ‘what's the difference between you and every other girl who she's beaten?' The simple answer was, she said, ‘I'm just a different athlete. I'm just a different girl.' And that's kind of how I feel. I'm just a different athlete. I'm a different breed, and you guys will see that. He'll feel it."
Cejudo is joined on the card by fellow Olympian Daniel Cormier, the UFC's reigning light heavyweight champion who defends his belt against the only man to defeat him, Jon Jones, in the night's main event.
Cejudo and Cormier have a relationship dating back to their early wrestling days, and both will be sizable underdogs against Jones and Johnson -- two fighters who are universally accepted as the No. 1 and No. 2 pound-for-pound fighters in the sport.
"I just hope Jon Jones can make it to April 23," Cejudo joked. "I'm a big fan of Jon Jones. If you really look at it, this is the toughest card anybody has really put together. I mean, a lot of people call Demetrious and Jon Jones [the top] pound-for-pound [fighters in MMA], and they're going up against two elite athletes. You've got Daniel Cormier, two-time Olympian, then you've obviously got myself, who is an Olympic champion. So this is almost like MMA versus the Olympics."
Cejudo understands the long odds he is facing. He compared himself to David in the story of David versus Goliath, and lauded Johnson for his mastery of distance, which Cejudo believes is the champion's best trait.
But he also remains confident that the athletic skills which propelled him to international success will be unlike anything Johnson has seen before over seven previous title defenses. And when the time comes, Cejudo hopes for just one thing from the champion.
"What I don't want: I don't want excuses," Cejudo said. "When I beat him, I don't want excuses that, ‘oh, [I was distracted by] my shirt [business], my beard, people were pulling me over here, pulling me over there.' No. You're fighting an undefeated fighter, an elite fighter, and he'll showcase it. Come on, man. This is a fight. You're not fighting (Joseph) Benavidez. You're not fighting (Kyoji) Horiguchi. You're fighting Henry Cejudo, a really strong, strong-willed human being who can put things together, and I will shine under the brightest lights.
"I'm excited because, man, this is like the Olympic trials all over again," Cejudo added. "A lot of people didn't believe in me. A lot of people, 98-percent of people didn't believe in me. Ninety-nine. But I had my coaches, I had my brother, and myself. There's only three people, really, who truly believed I could've done it, going from 31st in the world to first. So, count me out again, baby. I love it."