Demetrious Johnson is the only flyweight champion the UFC has ever known. From 2012, the year the UFC introduced its inaugural 125-pound title, to the present day, Johnson has stood alone atop the division as an unimpeachable figure, amassing scalps and title defenses with historic aplomb. But despite Johnson’s many accomplishments, the flyweight class has seemingly remained an afterthought in the grand scheme of the UFC, lacking in the big stars and big ratings that other divisions seem to cultivate.
That fact has not been lost on many of the UFC’s flyweights. More than a few flyweight contenders have spoken up over the years about the limitations they feel for the division under Johnson’s captaincy. And Johnson’s next challenger, Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo — who rematches “Mighty Mouse” on August 4 at UFC 227 — was blunt on a recent episode of The MMA Hour when asked if he believes promotion officials would be happy if he brought an end to Johnson’s record-breaking six-year reign.
“I think so,” Cejudo told host Luke Thomas on The MMA Hour. “Nothing against Demetrious. Nothing against Demetrious, but I think when you have a dominant champ for so many years, it’s almost like, they want a new storyline. They want a new storyline to tell, especially with somebody like me. Man, I’m bringing not just the Americans, but I’m bring all of Latin America with me. I speak Portuguese, I speak Spanish, I speak English.
“Spanish is actually my first language growing up, and I understand the culture. I understand the culture, I understand what the people want. I’m a warrior. I’m what they call a guerrero in Spanish.
“Maybe I’m not as [wild] as Conor McGregor, but I have a storyline to me, and I think there’s a lot of fights that could be made and hyped because of that.”
Cejudo, 31, will get his second chance to upend the flyweight division when he rematches Johnson at UFC 227.
It was just two years ago when Cejudo suffered the first defeat of his professional career at the hands of “Mighty Mouse” in April 2016, though it may as well have been a lifetime ago. Back then, at UFC 197, Cejudo was still a baby in the fight game. After beginning his MMA career in 2013, the wrestling Hall of Famer improbably worked his way to a UFC title fight within a mere three years — a testament to his work ethic and physical gifts, but also to the lack of depth the division still suffers from. And Johnson certainly took advantage of Cejudo’s inexperience, stopping Cejudo with a flurry of blows from the clinch in less than three minutes to notch the eighth of his eventual 11 consecutive title defenses.
Cejudo now looks back at the night as a turning point in his career, the moment he realized just how high Johnson had raised the bar and how much ground he still had left to make up.
“I credit him,” Cejudo said of Johnson’s win. “I credit his coaches, the gameplan. I should’ve never gotten into the clinch. I don’t know if we respected his clinch as much as I did after the fight — I was like, God, just precision. But a lot of it, too, was just the timing issue. Like, people don’t realize, man. From the time I had my first MMA fight to the time I fought Demetrious Johnson, I was only fighting for three years. Period. No amateur experience in MMA, nothing. Just all pro, from my debut.
“After fighting for a year-and-a-half, I signed with the UFC, and that slowly catapulted to the championship fight. So a lot of it was just time, too. A lot of it I would credit Demetrious, a lot of it I’d probably credit myself too — like, I just wasn’t ready. So when people were asking, ‘How do you beat Demetrious Johnson?’ This happened two years ago and I look back and just thought, ‘Like, dude, I just need time.’ It’s not a technical thing, it’s not a tactical thing. I take that back — it’s actually everything, and that’s why I use the word time.”
Much has changed for Cejudo since. The Olympian has downsized his team, traveled the world immersing himself in new training regimens, embraced science to an almost unheard of degree for his fight camp, and emerged out the other side as a much-evolved fighter.
His last three contests, starting with a controversial loss to Joseph Benavidez and leading into back-to-back wins over Wilson Reis and Sergio Pettis, have been unquestionably the most impressive three-fight run of his career, at least in terms of the skill sets he’s been able to showcase. And now Cejduo feels like he finally has a very real answer for the million-dollar question: ‘How can you beat Demetrious Johnson?’
“Strong mindset, composure, relax, seizing an opportunity, a lot of these things, man,” Cejudo said. “I’ve studied him a lot. I’ve actually picked up a lot of good habits from just watching film from Demetrious Johnson. It’s like they say, it’s like game recognizes game, and it’s true.
“The reason why I got into mixed martial arts is the competition, I’m a competitor. I wouldn’t be doing this for anything else but competition. I want to take out the best. I want to beat the pound-the-pound best fighter in the world. And I want to do it, ultimately, because he ticked me off the first time. I mean, you’re talking about a comeback story, from being knocked out in the first round to going out there and defeating the guy who knocked you out. The pound-for-pound king, defeating him. That’s what I have envisioned in my head.”
It’s hard to quantify what a win over a historic champion and pound-for-pound great like Johnson would do for Cejudo. Given his track record of already being the second-youngest American to ever win an Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling, he would instantly go down in history as one of the most accomplished all-around American combat sport figures to ever compete. And Cejudo is well aware of what’s at stake at UFC 227.
“It’d put me in the history books,” Cejudo said. “People will forget a two-division champ, because there’s already five so far, or six. People won’t forget an Olympic champion and a UFC champion until the next person does that, and that is one tough human being. Ultimately, I feel like it’d put me in a different category. I conquered two sports. I beat the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. Like, there’s no denying this kid’s the truth.”