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Greg Hardy’s return is guaranteed, unlike Henry Cejudo’s flyweight division. Huh?

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UFC Fight Night Cejudo v Dillashaw Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

This is where we are in 2019: Greg Hardy, he of the notorious background, bungled his way into a disqualification loss at Saturday night’s UFC Brooklyn event. For that, he left with a guaranteed return fight. And Henry Cejudo, who beat the hell out of a pound-for-pound great who normally fights one weight class above him, left wondering what exactly his future held.

The UFC Brooklyn card that kicked off the ESPN era may not have been explicitly designed for the purpose of killing off Cejudo’s flyweight division, but sending your bantamweight champ down to his weight class, one which you’ve publicly given a no-confidence vote to, sure seemed designed as a kiss of death. Like any good action film, the assassin ran into a little bit of trouble on his way to the hit. T.J. Dillashaw was quickly starched by Cejudo, and the flyweights should live to breathe another day.

Bull will they? UFC president Dana White rarely makes big proclamations in the afterglow of an event, and he has been unusually coy about whether the 125-pound class will continue on. It is possible he has already made up his mind, but if he hasn’t, it’s worth saying that it would be ridiculous to cut the division now, when it’s as fresh as it’s been in years.

Cejudo offers a new and charismatic standard-bearer that is worth rallying around. For the UFC, which is owned by Hollywood mega-agency William Morris Endeavor, it’s hard to believe that they can look at someone like Cejudo—an Olympic gold medalist who is fluent in three languages—and simply give up on him as a potential star. After adding a UFC belt to his achievements, he is one of the most decorated American combat sports athletes in history.

It’s not like he doesn’t have a compelling personal history beyond that, either. Born to a mother who entered the United States as an illegal immigrant and a father who was largely absent from his life, Cejudo got spades of support from the local community in Phoenix where he grew up. His high school coach Frank Saenz often went door-to-door asking for donations for Cejudo to enter tournaments. Cejudo then bypassed college scholarships to chase his wrestling dreams and did, becoming the youngest American to win an Olympic wrestling gold at age 21. Even after that, he took the time to return to school, graduating from Grand Canyon University in 2015, shortly after he started his UFC career. To this day, Cejudo regularly visits schools, attempting to send a message of perseverance and purpose.

His is an incredible American success story, one that should be an easy sell, yet one that has only been told in passing by the UFC. Until now, most of their promotion of Cejudo has centered around his gold medal history. To be sure, that’s an extraordinary achievement, but it only scratches the surface of a compelling man.

Whether the UFC goes for the ride is the next question. The argument against Cejudo (and the rest of the flyweights) is that none of them have ever become draws at the box office or on television. While that may be true, the same was said of the lightweight division until B.J. Penn caught fire. The same was said about the featherweight division until Conor McGregor showed up. The same was said about women’s MMA until Ronda Rousey shattered the glass ceiling.

Draws have never been exclusive to particular weight classes; they rely solely on star power. Cejudo has some necessary raw ingredients of it, but needs a little help from his employer. Endeavor could move him forward with a little muscle-flexing. Hopefully it’s coming, although the early returns last night were not exactly positive.

In the post-fight press conference, White went out of his way to endorse Hardy, repeatedly praising his fight skills despite the fact the controversial former NFL star landed a blatantly illegal knee to his grounded opponent Allen Crowder, leading to the DQ. To most trained eyes, Hardy looked physically talented but also wildly inexperienced, yet White quickly guaranteed him another bout in the Octagon.

Cejudo, meanwhile, looked sensational. In a 32-second fight, he knocked Dillashaw down twice en route to a TKO, yet White described the finish as a “horrible stoppage.” In truth, it was mildly controversial at best. While we’ve certainly seen some fighters get more recovery time than Dillashaw was afforded, the bantamweight champion was clearly and badly hurt at the time referee Kevin MacDonald stepped in to save him. While White is entitled to his opinion, his characterization does little to help Cejudo grow in stature.

White also wouldn’t commit to the division’s future, this despite the fact it has now produced the longest-reigning champion in major MMA history, scores of entertaining fights, and a belt holder who crushed a champ a division above him.

So that’s what we’re left with, a place and time when Hardy has more certainty than Cejudo. The flyweight king will have some kind of opportunity ahead of him but may be forced to bounce up to 135 whether he wants to or not. That would be a mistake. Let him continue what he started. Cejudo is building a legacy, one his employer would be wise to embrace.