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MMA Fighting’s 2018 Upset of the Year: Henry Cejudo ends Demetrious Johnson’s epic reign

Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Before he ever entered the UFC, Henry Cejudo could already boast a historic athletic achievement. In 2008, he won an Olympic freestyle wrestling gold medal. Few would have blamed him if he cruised on that reputation and put athletics in his rearview mirror, but instead, Cejudo chased greatness in a second sport: Mixed martial arts.

Of course, he proved to be a natural. Bursting out of the gate as a professional, Cejudo won his first 10 pro fights before he was paired off with UFC flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson. When the two met in April 2016, Cejudo found himself outclassed for the first time in years, getting schooled and then knocked out in less than a round.

Through his championship work ethic, Cejudo returned to the gym to sharpen his game, preparing to reascend into the title picture, and after a three-fight win streak, the opportunity came.

In August 2018, Cejudo got his opportunity at UFC 227. Despite Cejudo’s clear improvements, particularly in the striking realm, the fight was largely expected to be another Johnson blowout. After 11 consecutive successful title defenses — a UFC record — Johnson seemed untouchable, a potent mixture of skills in every realm combined with fight intelligence.

When the two met up in the cage, it was not immediately obvious Cejudo had even closed the gap. Early in the first, he was belted with a series of calf kicks that seemed to compromise his legs, affecting his ability to plant. Johnson seemed to be quickly taking control.

But with experience under his belt, Cejudo drew on his poise, switching to southpaw to preserve his legs, then patiently implementing his game plan, flashing fast and crisp strikes and looking for spots to transition to wrestling. Past the midpoint of the second round, Cejudo secured an elusive takedown, capturing a round and making it clear he was a real threat to the title.

Johnson responded in the third with heavy leg kicks, and it appeared that Cejudo would need to win both of the final rounds to end Johnson’s legendary reign.

Drawing again on his background, Cejudo evened things again in the fourth on the strength of a takedown, setting up a high stakes final round. Despite Cejudo’s injured wheel, he rallied through activity and movement, narrowly out-landing Johnson in the final round while adding a final takedown in hopes of swaying the judges.

At the closing horn, uncertainty reigned, as both fighters threw their hands in the air believing they had captured a hard-earned win. But when the scores were read, Cejudo was revealed to have done the impossible.

The Olympic champion could now add UFC champion to his resume, along with earning the honor of 2018’s Upset of the Year.


2. AMANDA NUNES DEF. CRIS CYBORG — DEC. 29, UFC 232

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When Amanda Nunes agreed to move up in weight to take on the longtime world featherweight queen Cris Cyborg, many people accepted the idea that Nunes could win and end Cyborg’s 13-year unbeaten streak. After all, over the previous four years, Nunes had mostly run roughshod over the bantamweight division, smashing through a who’s who of opponents including Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. But theorizing the possibility could hardly prepare anyone for the stunning experience as it happened at UFC 232.

It wasn’t just that Nunes won; it was how she did it. Even the most confident Nunes’ backer couldn’t have expected her to thoroughly dominate the match, smashing Cyborg in just 51 seconds. The bout was mostly a firefight, with Cyborg reverting to her past berserker style rather than the more refined version seen in recent times. The shift played right into Nunes’ capable hands. She was far sharper and more precise, even with her back to the fence, dropping Cyborg with a left hook/straight right combo, then landing a series of powerful rights before punctuating the short but thrilling bout with a walkoff overhand right.

The stunning performance made Nunes a two-division UFC champion and lifted her to the top of the conversation as the best female fighter ever.

3. RAY COOPER III DEF. JAKE SHIELDS — JULY 5, PFL 3

PFL

When the PFL signed Ray Cooper III as part of its inaugural welterweight tournament field, the acquisition hardly made a blip. At the time, Cooper had fought to some renown, having defeated the colorful journeyman Charles “Felony” Bennett, but then again, he’d only won two of his most recent four fights. He might have been a prospect, but one with questionable upside.

That all changed at PFL 3. On that July night, Cooper faced the durable and dangerous veteran Jake Shields. With Shields’ history as a former Strikeforce and EliteXC champion as well as former a UFC title contender, the veteran was a sizable favorite, topping -1400 on some sportsbooks — but the number was apparently a mirage. Through power and speed, Cooper battered Shields from the outside early. With Shields struggling to mount any offense, he attempted to lure Cooper to the mat by going to his back early and often. Cooper avoided the temptation and punished Shields with heavy shots until landing a smashing left hook about two minutes into the second round. The punch sent Shields falling face-first, and Cooper followed up with hammerfists, overhands, and straight rights until Shields turtled up and the referee stepped in to save him.

Suddenly, Ray Cooper III became a name to watch.

4. ALEXANDER HERNANDEZ DEF. BENEIL DARIUSH — MARCH 3, UFC 222

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The question of whether to take a short-notice match has proven to be a confounding issue for fighters on the cusp of making it to the UFC. If you take the fight, you often do so with the knowledge that you will not be at full strength, thereby decreasing your chances of victory. If you decline the opportunity, it might never again come your way.

Alexander Hernandez was faced with this predicament in the February. Adding to the complexity, he was asked to fill in on less than two weeks’ notice against a ranked opponent, Beneil Dariush. Hernandez never hesitated.

When the two met at UFC 223, the little-known lightweight entered as a sizable underdog and left as a must-watch prospect. Showing sharp and powerful hands, Hernandez fired off a laser left down the middle that knocked Dariush unconscious just 42 seconds into the bout.

The stunning result stamped Hernandez as one to watch and reminded UFC hopefuls everywhere that gambling on yourself may be a big risk, but carries the possibilities of big rewards.

5. CLAUDIO SILVA DEF. NORDINE TALEB — MAY 27, UFC LIVERPOOL

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Liverpool: Silvia vs Taleb Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

In April 2015, Claudio Silva was set to face off with Nordine Taleb before a broken foot forced him to withdraw from the match. Months passed, and Silva remained on the shelf as his injury woes mounted, resulting in four surgeries. A year passed. Then another. And a third. When Silva was finally set to return, the calendar had turned to 2018, and Silva was 35 years old.

With the lengthy layoff, an injury history, and a rapidly advancing age, Silva did not appear to be a likely bet when he finally returned, ironically being reset into a fight with Taleb at UFC Liverpool.

Early on, Taleb scored with a thudding body kick and punches against the cage, but Silva bided his time, finally taking Taleb down with two minutes remaining in the first round. That’s exactly the position Silva wanted, and he quickly went to work, landing strong punches from the top, moving to full mount, then taking Taleb’s back before looking for a submission.

Silva patiently tried to sink in a choke. Taleb tried to keep his chin tucked, but Silva readjusted his grip and squeezed on the chin, finally forcing a tapout and setting off an emotional comeback celebration.


Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2018 Upset of the Year played out.

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