The Olympic wrestling champion won a split decision over Johnson in the co-main event of UFC 227 on Saturday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, a feat that not only made him the new flyweight champion of the world, but also the first man to beat Johnson since October 2011. Cejudo’s upset win snapped a stretch of 11 consecutive successful title defenses for Johnson, a company record.
So how did he pull it off? Especially against a foe who dispatched him so swiftly in their first meeting two years ago?
Speaking at the post-fight press conference, Cejudo explained how his upbringing prepared him to not only climb the mountain one more time, but to finally knock off the man sitting atop it.
“It’s a true testimony of an underdog,” Cejudo said. “I lasted the first fight with Demetrious Johnson two minutes and 36 seconds, and I felt like it was going that way in the very first round too. Those calf kicks, really I couldn’t plant. I was forced to switch southpaw, but it actually helped me. Before all this, I said in order for me to beat Demetrious, it had to be with distance, timing, and composure. And that’s exactly how we took this fight. He got to my legs and that was okay. I wanted Demetrious to work.
“This is surreal. This is a kid who was born 10 miles away from Staples Center, the ghetto streets of South Central LA, to Mexican immigrants, to being an Olympic champion at the age of 21. My mother wasn’t able to go to the Olympics due to her citizenship status to her becoming a U.S. citizen about eight years ago, and me now, 10 years later, being an Olympic champion now carrying UFC gold — it really is a dream come true. On August 19 (2008), I became the youngest in history to ever win an Olympic gold medal (in wrestling), and on August 4, I defeated the man, the myth, the legend Demetrious Johnson. It feels super good.”
As for the specifics of Cejudo’s strategy, he realized early in the fight that he would have to be willing to take a few hits with the expectation of greater gains and to force Johnson to expend energy in scrambles. Given his upbringing, it only made sense that he would be adept at rolling with the punches.
“I had to deal with the cards that I was dealt with,” Cejudo said. “In those situations, I had to keep mixing and making it awkward for him, and I noticed even with Demetrious that the more you make him scramble, he gets tired. He gets tired, he’s human, and I said it before: He bleeds just like me. Tonight was my night.
“I think it was patience,” he continued when asked to elaborate further. “I think that was key, and timing, and not allowing a lot of his movement to disorient me. Because he moves a lot, he’s super hard to hit. He’s got a tiny head, like somehow it’s big from the back, but his face, it’s small. So when you fight Demetrious, it’s a small target.
“He’s unlike any other flyweight and I think that was the difference. Like, I’ve got to wait for my opportunity. I might have to get hit a couple of times to give a good hard blow and then transition to my wrestling.”
Cejudo credited wrestling coach Eric Albarracin for insisting that he needed to prepare for the rematch with a chip on his shoulder and to use the first defeat to fuel his passion for MMA. After experiencing nothing but success in wrestling and the early stages of his MMA career, losing to Johnson gave him a fresh challenge to work through.
That said, he refused to see Johnson as some sort of insurmountable force. Cejudo rejected the idea that his rivalry with Johnson was comparable to the biblical story of “David and Goliath,” instead saying it was more like “David vs. David.” Now that he’s evened the score with his peer, Cejudo is allowing himself a moment to relax.
“Now I feel like I can rest, I can sleep,” Cejudo said. “I had three goals in my life when I was 17 years old. I remember reading the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and I remember writing my goals down, and my number one goal in life was just to be a good husband and a good father someday. That was number one, as a 17-year-old kid.
“Number two was to be an Olympic champion, was to be the best in the world at a sport that I just love. And then number three was to be a UFC champion, and I’ve done two out of the three.”
Once Cejudo returns to action, there are at least two intriguing matchups awaiting him. The first is an obvious trilogy bout with Johnson, which makes sense not only because of how long his shadow has hung over the flyweight division, but because the rematch was so close. Cejudo won the title with a pair of 48-47 scores, with the dissenting judge going 48-47 in Johnson’s favor.
However, during his in-cage interview following the win, Cejudo called for a fight with the winner of Saturday’s main event. That turned out to be T.J. Dillashaw, the reigning bantamweight champion who before being matched up with Cody Garbrandt for a second time had been campaigning for a shot at Johnson’s 125-pound title.
Cejudo is open to a third Johnson fight, but he reiterated that he is willing to go back up to 135 pounds to challenge Dillashaw for his championship.
“They’ve always talked about T.J. and DJ superfight,” Cejudo said. “They neglected Henry Cejudo in the promos, they neglected Henry Cejudo in practically everything, and I get it, because America’s all about winners. But now that I’m the winner, I’m asking.
“I’m an Olympic champ, I’m a UFC champ, and now I’m asking to be a triple champ. Forget about the champ champ. I want to be a triple champ. Allow me to go up to 135 pounds, allow me to face T.J. Dillashaw. If he wants to come down, we can talk. I want to go up. I want to make history.”