LOS ANGELES — It would have been easy for Henry Cejudo to gloat on Saturday night.
Cejudo, after all, had spent all of fight week leading up to UFC 227 as an afterthought in his UFC flyweight title fight with Demetrious Johnson. Sure, Cejudo had improved and would probably do better than he did the first time they fought, most conceded. But beyond that, Cejudo was simply considered DJ’s contender of the month, a road bump in the way of a potential bantamweight superfight, as both T.J. Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt openly talked about fighting Johnson next.
So yeah, if Cejudo wanted to put a chip on his shoulder and scowl at the press conference after doing the unthinkable and knocking “Mighty Mouse” off his throne at Staples Center on Saturday night, it would have been understandable.
But that’s just not Cejudo’s style. This is an athlete who is so driven, he became the youngest person ever to win a gold medal in Olympic freestyle wrestling at the 2008 Games. So driven, he remained undeterred after being on the wrong end of a one-sided loss to Johnson in their first encounter back at UFC 197. So determined, that after downing Johnson via split decision to claim the title with what very well may have been the finest flyweight bout in the history of the sport, he immediately set his sights on Dillashaw’s bantamweight belt.
It takes a level of humility to put in the work simply to get in position to dream as big as Cejudo, never mind actually pull it off. So, no, Cejudo wasn’t about to shower hate on his critics after the defining moment of his MMA career.
“This is surreal,” Cejudo said at the UFC 227 post-fight press conference. “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.”
Cejudo embodies the sort of ideals that MMA’s marketers once went out of their way to present as an idealized image of a fighter, in the days before trash talk overtook all else: A world championship pedigree in another sport, an inspiring back story as a child of working-class immigrants, a style that gives the fans their money’s worth every time out.
UFC 227 felt like a throwback in that regard, as both ends of the championship doubleheader lived up to their promise, with Dillashaw winning a wild one-round fight against Garbrandt in the bantamweight main event right after Cejudo’s memorable performance. While it’s not likely this show will be a blockbuster on pay-per-view, it was a hugely successful live event in the bright lights of Hollywood, with a near-$3 million gate and a sellout at the arena. A-listers were out in force and highly entertained on a night in which the much-maligned smallest weight classes did their thing.
Maybe this is a sign that what’s old is new again, and that the sport will take precedent over the spectacle?
Probably not, not in this over-the-top day and age. But as long as there is still room for competitors like Henry Cejudo to thrive in this sport, who are given a fair chance to rise up the ranks, earn their title shot based on their merit, go back to work after a major setback and slowly earn their way back to the top, and then do so with grace when you could have taken the low road, then perhaps there’s hope for this sport after all.
UFC 227 quotes
“I think he has some technical problems that he needs to fix. And I really don’t believe he’s got a chin. He plays a dangerous game. He likes to get in there and he likes to slug it.” — Dillashaw, after stopping Garbrandt a second time.
“I think I probably tore my right LCL and then my right foot might be broken. Losing happens. Every great champion loses. I’ve lost before when I fought Dom (Cruz), I lose in the gym, so I’m fine. I’m more upset about the injuries, but other than that, I’m okay.” — Johnson on injuries suffered in his loss to Cejudo.
“On August 19 (2008), I became the youngest in history to ever win an Olympic (wrestling) gold medal, and on August 4, I defeated the man, the myth, the legend Demetrious Johnson. It feels super good.” — Cejudo on his two biggest wins.
Up: T.J. Dillashaw. If one dissenting judge had scored just one round differently in Dillashaw’s split decision loss to Dominick Cruz back in 2016, Dillashaw would be on a nine-fight winning streak. Even with that blemish, it’s time to start pondering Dillashaw’s place among the sport’s greatest fighters. Not only is Dillashaw’s skill set otherworldly and his stamina among the best in the game, but he’s proven a wizard at rematches. Dillashaw beat Renan Barao worse the second time they fought than he did the night he claimed the belt for the first time; avenged a split decision loss to Raphael Assuncao with a one-sided unanimous decision win; and now defeated Garbrandt easier the second time around than the first. Dillashaw said he considers himself the greatest bantamweight of all-time, and a rematch with Cruz would give him the opportunity to really make his case.
Down: Cody Garbrandt. “No Love” knew the potential downside in accepting an immediate rematch with Dillashaw after being knocked out in the second round of their bout at UFC 217. If he lost to Dillashaw again, it was going to be one long slog back to another title shot. Saturday night, the worst-case scenario came true, as Dillashaw finished him, and did it quicker than the first time around. With Dillashaw showing no signs of ending his reign any time soon, Garbrandt now finds himself in the same position Joanna Jedrzejczyk is in after two losses to strawweight champ Rose Namajunas: Talented, with plenty of time left in their prime, and far, far away from getting another championship opportunity any time soon.
Hold: Demetrious Johnson. I mean, just how far can you really drop the now-former flyweight champion (boy, did that phrase feel weird to type) after losing his championship by the slimmest of margins? This is a man who bested Anderson Silva’s record for most consecutive UFC title defenses, topped Georges St-Pierre for the second-longest reign in UFC history, and came within shouting distance of Silva’s record 16 straight UFC wins. Even with an apparent ligament tear and broken foot suffered in the fight, he still almost won. Johnson was as calm and composed about his loss as he is about, well, just about every other subject, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if DJ bounces back, makes the trilogy fight every bit as entertaining as Saturday night’s bout, and who knows? Maybe joins the ranks of the two-time champions as well.
Up: Renato Moicano. Moicano has been flying under the radar in the featherweight division, but not anymore. The American Top Team competitor ignored the noise from the vociferous, pro-Cub Swanson Staples Center crowd and put on a surgical performance in finishing his opponent in the first round. Moicano’s only loss in the UFC happened when he got caught by Brian Ortega in a match he was otherwise winning. That loss, three fights ago, was nothing to be ashamed of, and the way he’s bounced back is an indication of just how much upside the surging Brazilian competitor has.
Up: Alex Perez. “Shorty” Torres got all the hype going into UFC 227, even getting name-checked by Johnson as a potential flyweight title challenger at Wednesday’s media day. Instead it was Perez, a Contender Series product from California, who shined. Perez was all motion in the bout, landing 104 strikes in just 3:36. He weathered a brief Torres comeback and then stepped on the gas even further to finish the bout. That’s eight wins in a row for a competitor to watch at 125 pounds.
There were eight decision at UFC 227. The only debatable one of the bunch was the flyweight match, which could have gone either way and isn’t being called a robbery by anyone sane. There were no bad calls of note by the referees, either. Andy Foster of the California State Athletic Commission runs a tight ship and that showed once again in Los Angeles.
Fight I’d like to see next: Cejudo-Johnson 3
I can’t say I blame Cejudo for immediately setting his sights on a superfight with Dillashaw. Why wouldn’t a guy with his accomplishments set his eyes on the next prize? But, Cejudo also defeated “Mighty Mouse” in a coin flip of a decision after the greatest flyweight fight in the sport’s history, against a fighter who hadn’t tasted defeat since 2011. Dillashaw hasn’t cleaned out 135 pounds by a long shot and has plenty of potential contenders. Unless Johnson’s injuries are significant enough to sideline him for a significant period of time, the trilogy fight is the correct call.