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After being ‘humbled’ in first Demetrious Johnson fight, an evolved Henry Cejudo vows to ‘dethrone the mouse’

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Henry Cejudo
Henry Cejudo challenges UFC champ Demetrious Johnson at UFC 227.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Henry Cejudo was little more than three years into his mixed martial arts career when he challenged Demetrious Johnson for the flyweight title at UFC 197.

At the time, Cejudo was one of the top up-and-comers in the sport, a blue-chip 10-0 prospect with the credentials of an Olympic gold medalist wrestler, but he was also still very much a work in progress, and matched against one of the greatest fighters to ever live, that inexperience reared its head in an inauspicious way. Cejudo ate a flurry of blows from the clinch and lost to Johnson in less than three minutes.

Over two years have passed since that fateful night, and now Cejudo will get his second chance. With a two-fight win streak in his back pocket, the revitalized 31-year-old is slated to meet Johnson in a rematch for the flyweight title on August 4 in the co-main event of UFC 227. And after dedicating the past few years of his life to addressing the holes in his game, Cejudo is thrilled to have the opportunity to get another crack at the flyweight G.O.A.T. this weekend in Los Angeles.

“It’s the challenge, man, more than anything,” Cejudo told MMA Fighting. “Because quite frankly, I thought I was going to beat Demetrious Johnson in that first fight. I’m a confident human being and I really did believe I was going to do that, and what happened is he humbled me. It’s like, ‘Hey, man, you’re not ready yet. You’re still green. You’ve got potential, but you’re not ready yet. Not now.’ And to be able to swallow that big pill was humbling to me. Being humbled is a good thing.”

Cejudo has taken full advantage of the time since his first meeting with Johnson, as evidenced by the great leaps he’s shown in his overall game. After narrowly losing a controversial decision to Joseph Benavidez in late 2016, Cejudo rebounded with the best year of his martial arts career in 2017; he showcased a vastly refined striking style in a second-round destruction of former title challenger Wilson Reis, then overwhelmed No. 2-ranked contender Sergio Pettis in a one-sided rout at UFC 218.

But Cejudo believes the biggest difference between the 2016 and 2018 versions of himself can be boiled down to one adjective.

“Smarter,” Cejudo said.

“I‘m just a more intelligent human being. Hungrier. The fact that I have a chip on my shoulder. Not necessarily a chip on my shoulder, but losing to Demetrious, the challenge is different, the respect level is different. I acknowledge that he’s the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, and man, I thrive off of challenges. That’s just how I am. That motivates me to do things better and do things right, and putting the right team together [is what I’ve done]. So what’s different about Henry is just being smart, and I had to find the right people. Not good people, but the right people.”

Cejudo has indeed changed up his surroundings since his loss to Johnson — a loss which Cejudo says woke him up to the virtues of abandoning his comfort zone. Over the past two years, the Olympian has traveled the world in search of different training partners and regimens, learning new disciplines and exposing himself to a host of new ideas. Those experiences have resulted in a completely transformed fighter compared to the newbie who challenged “Mighty Mouse” at UFC 197, and Johnson would be wise not to underestimate Cejudo despite the swift result of their first meeting.

“If he does [underestimate me], then that’s on him, and the results will show. But I don’t think [he will],” Cejudo said. “He’s a smart guy. He’s the pound-for-pound best fighter probably in human history, man. Well-rounded in every area. Anderson Silva, yeah, he was more flamboyant, crazy knockouts, but put him against a good wrestler and Anderson Silva was a different fighter. Demetrious Johnson, put him up against a gold medalist, and he stopped him. What I’m saying is, there’s a challenge up in front of me and I’m eating it up, man. I’m excited to challenge myself.

“There’s really no mind games here with him. I respect him, man. Like, I know what he’s capable of doing and there’s a bit of an admiration, what he’s done so far in sport of MMA, but also it’s my chance. It’s my chance to display my talent. It’s my chance to knock him out. It’s my chance to submit him. It’s my chance to stop him.

“I know Demetrious switches stances, I know he’s a smart fighter,” Cejudo added. “We know all of that. There’s so much video tape that if he did a thousand things, it wouldn’t surprise me. So we’re expecting everything from him, and some. But this is why I’ve traveled the world. I’ve been to Natal with the Pitbull brothers, spending months at a time out there. Going out to Holland, working with [a decorated] karate world champ. Going and working out with Andy Souwer. I’ve been going out and getting out of my comfort zone, developing those bases, so every stone is turned.”

Henry Cejudo
Henry Cejudo crushes Wilson Reis.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Like Cejudo, Johnson has only improved in the years since the two first met.

An all-around MMA savant, “Mighty Mouse” broke the all-time record for most consecutive title defenses in UFC history (11) with his latest performance, a master class over Ray Borg that earned Johnson ‘Submission of the Year’ honors for his stunning suplex-to-armbar finish over the JacksonWink product.

Because of his winning ways, Johnson continues to be the only champion in the history of the UFC flyweight division, a six-year reign that has seen “Mighty Mouse” effectively clean out a division of potential challengers. But while greatness is always appreciated in the fight game, many fighters believe the lack of parity in the flyweight ranks has hurt the division as a whole, and Cejudo is confident the weight class is due for the type of shakeup that could breathe new life into 125 pounds.

“Long overdue,” Cejudo said. “I feel like I could be that. I feel like I could be that [person who shakes things up]. And Demetrious Johnson has been a great champion, man, I can’t take anything away from that. But the reason why I need to go in and beat this guy is because we need another storyline. This is how legends are born. This is how weight classes will be appreciated, seeing the pound-for-pound guy go down. And eventually some day, it may happen to me, but it’s, a torch is passing.

“The torch has not passed for so long. The general public, they get bored. There’s no interest because they think or they know Demetrious Johnson will always win. And I’ve always said, even after that loss to Demetrious Johnson, even after he beat me, I said I felt him a little bit. I still believe I can beat him, even after being knocked down the first round. That’s just how I still feel. Even despite the way I went out, I still feel like that.”

Even bigger opportunities could be on the horizon for Cejudo if he beats the odds and dethrones Johnson at UFC 227. The main event of the card is a bantamweight title fight between T.J. Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt, and Johnson has long been linked to a potential superfight against the 135-pound champion. The timing could work out nicely with both division’s titleholders landing on the same schedule after UFC 227, and if victorious, Cejudo wouldn’t turn down the chance to do what Johnson wouldn’t and move up a weight class to challenge for the 135-pound title.

“Olympic champ, UFC champ. You would call me the champ champ champ,” Cejudo said, laughing. “Absolutely, and this is something that I could call out the UFC and Dana White and everybody in the sports world to let them know, ‘Hey, I just beat the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. Give me the next guy. Give me the next best thing. Let me go up a weight class.’ I’m all about the challenge. I’m all about it, man. I wouldn’t be in this game if it wasn’t challenging.

“But at the end of the day, I’m not even thinking about going up because I have a big task at hand, and that’s Demetrious Johnson. We’re here to dethrone the mouse.”