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After UFC 238 win, Henry Cejudo’s ‘greatest combat athlete’ claim deserves consideration

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Little more than one minute into his attempt at claiming a second UFC title, things were already trending in the wrong direction for Henry Cejudo. His legs were being consistently chopped by Marlon Moraes’ thudding kicks. He found himself continuously trapped in the no-man’s-land between them, too far to land anything and too close to avoid Moraes’ fire. When he moved forward in a bull rush, Moraes’ hands were fast and accurate, seemingly doubling up Cejudo’s output in the same time frame while finding their mark. Cejudo was target practice, and every avenue, it seemed, led him into danger.

“It was a survival round for me,” he would later say.

With options limited, Cejudo gambled on a firefight. The makeshift plan was risky; it would no longer be about technique or skill; it would be about execution and heart, the same things that have pulled Cejudo through over a decade of high-stake athletics.

We should have known it would work.

With that, a seemingly hopeless situation shifted with a quickness. Under Cejudo’s sudden and sustained storm of pressure, Moraes slowly began wilting. Punches landed, then kicks, then knees to the head. Moraes’ fast hands became heavy and ineffective, his pace slowed, he gulped in air. Meanwhile, Cejudo marched forward, unrelenting until one, final barrage of fists and elbows on the ground rendered Moraes helpless. It was a comeback worthy of gold, as Cejudo captured his second UFC belt, adding the bantamweight strap to his award collection.

Overcoming adversity has been a staple of his life as well as his championship resume. The son of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Cejudo beat the odds to become an elite wrestler. He wasn’t expected to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2008 but did. He trailed in three of his Olympic tournament matches and was expected to lose in the final but rallied to win the gold medal. He was an underdog against Demetrious Johnson last August, but outworked him for the win. He was an underdog against T.J. Dillashaw in January and knocked him out in a blink. He was an underdog again last night at UFC 238 against Moraes—and fighting four days after spraining an ankle—and stopped him, too.

This man is equal parts survivor and winner. They are both one and the same when it comes to his identity as an athlete.

Newer on the list of descriptors is his new claim, one that meets with derision from some corners but a scratch of the chin from others. After seizing his latest victory, Cejudo proclaimed himself “the greatest combat athlete of all time.”

Frankly, he has a case. Who else can boast that they reached the absolute heights of two different combat sports, and in multiple weight classes to boot? At different times in his life, Cejudo could clearly state he was the best 55-kilogram freestyle wrestler in the world, the best flyweight mixed martial artist in the world, and the best bantamweight mixed martial artist in the world. This is a singular and stunning achievement.

Surprisingly, UFC president Dana White was the one to throw cold water on the ideal. How about Jon Jones, he asked. Or Amanda Nunes? Or Khabib Nurmagomedov?

All great fighters, yes, but Cejudo’s use of “combat athlete” is all-encompassing, and none of those three can touch his overall resume. They may be more accomplished as MMA fighters—and other amazing fighters like Muhammad Ali captured an Olympic gold medal and a championship belt in the same sport—but none did what he has done in a second sport. If we’re considering the overall body of work throughout multiple disciplines, Cejudo’s achievements are remarkable, and maybe incomparable.

While this is all debatable, no one saw this coming as little as two years ago, when Cejudo was attempting to bust out of a two-match mini skid and find himself as a fighter. The fact that this is even a discussion is a testament to his drive and success.

The good thing is, Cejudo isn’t likely to waste any time in bolstering his bona fides. He is considering defending both belts. He’s willing to take on longtime bantamweight star Dominick Cruz, or even to move up to featherweight. Can you imagine Cejudo going up to face Max Holloway? Can you imagine Cejudo beating him? If you say no on either, it’s only because you’ve chosen to ignore everything he has done up until now. After Saturday night, Cejudo has again proven that he doesn’t need much more than a sliver of opportunity to beat long odds.

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