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UFC 249 Aftermath: If this is really it for Henry Cejudo, ‘Triple C’ is going out on top

On Saturday evening at UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Fla., Henry Cejudo became only the second person in history to successfully defend titles in two different UFC weight classes when he stopped Dominick Cruz with strikes in the second round of their co-main event fight. After the bout, the man known as “Triple C” then surprised everyone by retiring from MMA during his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan.

“I’m happy with my career. I’ve done enough in the sport,” Cejudo said. “I want to walk away, I want to enjoy myself. I’m 33 years old. I have a girl now who is watching back home. Eventually I want to start a family. Since I was 11 years old I sacrificed my whole life to get where I am today. I’m not going to let anybody take that from me, so I’m retiring tonight...

“Triple C’s out. You guys don’t have to hear my ass anymore.”

Though Cejudo’s announcement caught most by surprise, in the aftermath it appears to not have been a spur of the moment decision. Several people backstage and close to Cejudo noted that the champion has spoken about retirement recently and as Dana White often says, “when you start talking about retirement, it’s time to retire.” And of course, Cejudo has done this once before. After winning a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, Cejudo retired from wrestling at just 21 years old. He decided that going out on top was better than hanging around past his expiration date and apparently, Triple C has come to the same conclusion here.

MMA is a sport noticeably devoid of happy endings. Most fighters hang around far too long, competing well past their prime, usually to disastrous results. Anderson Silva shattered his leg and then his reputation, failing multiple drug tests; B.J. Penn has lost seven in a row, not including the guy who knocked him out in a bar; and Chuck Liddell came out of retirement at 49 to get knocked out by Tito Ortiz of all people.

Georges St-Pierre, just announced to be joining the UFC Hall of Fame, got out of the sport at the right time – twice, in fact. But besides him, it’s hard to even identify what the second-best MMA retirement is. Chris Lytle, maybe? If Cejudo’s retirement sticks, it instantly vaults him to right alongside GSP as one of the best swan songs in UFC history, perhaps even above St-Pierre.

And frankly, it’s a perfect time for Cejudo to hang up the gloves. For the last few months, the bantamweight champion has made it pretty clear that he’s not interested in defending his title against the true top contenders in the division. After accomplishing all that one can in combat sports, Cejudo was looking for paydays and marquee matchups, and as good as Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling, and Cory Sandhagen may be, they’re all short on cache. That dichotomy created an untenable situation. Bantamweight is one of the best divisions in the sport and deserves a fighting champion, Cejudo is one of the best champions in the sport and deserves big fights, and as with all things in MMA, the sport seemingly won out.

Unless, of course, it doesn’t. Though all signs seem to point to this being a genuine retirement for Cejudo, there still exists the very real possibility that this is all a negotiation tactic to angle for more money. The bantamweight champion has been open about wanting a pay raise following his title winning victory of Marlon Moraes, but he has reportedly not received much of one. Conor McGregor famously used a false retirement as leverage against the UFC, and Cejudo may well be doing something similar here. If that’s the case, though, Cejudo picked a bad time to play that card, as the financial imperatives caused by the coronavirus strongly suggest that pay raises won’t be a top priority for the UFC in the near future. Try as he might, Cejudo could not speak his star power into existence, and thus, is limited in how far he can push the UFC in demanding more money.

And that’s a shame because for all his cringe-worthy nonsense on the mic, Cejudo remains one of the very best fighters in the world when he steps inside the cage. An Olympic gold medal pedigree in wrestling, powerful boxing, and elite athleticism make him a tough stylistic matchup for anyone in two weight classes and now we will all lose out on the chance to see Cejudo take on the best the 135-pound division has to offer. Then again, that’s the champion’s prerogative and there have been few champions in sports history more accomplished than Henry Cejudo.

UFC 249 Quotes

“I’ll wait for the real one.” - Justin Gaethje after tossing the interim title aside before his post-fight interview.

“Tony took a lot of damage tonight. Not only did he take a lot of damage, he took damage from a guy who f*cking hits like a truck, a guy who hits very hard, and usually knocks people unconscious when he hits people. So I actually think the stoppage was great, and I think it could have been stopped sooner.” - Dana White on the main event stoppage.

“The guy smelled like alcohol and cigarettes so who knows what he was doing.” - Dominick Cruz on referee Keith Peterson’s stoppage.

“My mind is a cheat code.” - Daniel Cormier on fighters saying they heard his commentary and adjusted to it.

Stock report

Stock up

Justin Gaethje: His best performance ever. Given the circumstances and the opponent, Gaethje was near-flawless, and as a result, he has a golden ticket to a title shot.

Henry Cejudo: If he really is retiring, Cejudo walks away on top of the sport. There are very few good retirements in MMA — it’s basically just Georges St-Pierre — so good for him.

Francis Ngannou: Ngannou has knocked out his last four opponents — all top heavyweight contenders — in a combined two minutes and 42 seconds. What he’s doing is unprecedented. We legitimately don’t even know how good he might be because he’s just bazooka-ing everyone down instantly.

Calvin Kattar: Jeremy Stephens is a good fighter who has settled nicely into a role as gatekeeper to the stars, and Kattar walked through that gate with aplomb, flooring the durable veteran with a monstrous elbow. The shot opened up a cut on Stephens’ head that immediately joins the pantheon of cringe-inducing MMA gashes.

Bryce Mitchell: Mitchell absolutely hustled a respected BJJ black belt on the floor, nearly tapping him multiple times with a Twister, proving the one he landed in his last bout was not just a fluke. Mitchell is for real and a real problem in the division.

Stock down

Tony Ferguson: It’s tempting to put Ferguson in the stock up column for taking a short-notice fight against a tough stylistic matchup and showing truly incredibly heart and durability. Ferguson walked through a number of shots that would’ve felled a lesser man. But Ferguson also took what could be a career-altering beating. That was some Robbie Lawler-style brutalization from Gaethje, and at 36, Ferguson may never be the same.

Jairzinho Rozenstruik: He talked a big game, and 20 seconds later, “Bigi Boi” may not be talking for a few weeks.

Yorgan De Castro: To be fair to De Castro, it’s not like he had a ton of stock coming into this event. But despite appearing to be the better technical striker, De Castro channeled his inner Yoel Romero and just refused to do anything for long stretch of the fight, allowing Hardy to win a tepid and lackluster decision. I would not be surprised if De Castro was not invited back to the UFC after that performance.

Fabricio Werdum: Werdum returned after a mandatory two-year layoff due to a failed USADA test and looked to be a shell of his former self. In what should’ve been a stylistically good matchup, he looked out of shape and unprepared.

Official matters

First off, the stoppages in the main and co-main event were questionable, with both losers being upset by the decisions of Herb Dean and Keith Peterson, respectively. The stoppage in the main event was less impactful, as either way, Gaethje would have won the bout. But in the co-main, Cruz was just starting to get his rhythm when the knee put him down.

There were also a number of questionable decisions, with Aleksei Oleinik taking a split decision over Werdum and Carla Esparza taking a split decision over Michelle Waterson in a pair of fights that were close, but seemed to favor the losers. The Esparza-Waterson decision was especially egregious, as it featured the rare dueling 30-27 scorecards, and there’s just no real way to give Esparza all three rounds, unless you’re Howard Reichbach, apparently.

Then, of course, there’s the entirety of the event, which was the first UFC card of the coronavirus era and featured a number of protocols and restrictions put in place for the health and safety of all involved. The key factor that affected the fights though was something many fighters pointed out afterwards: in an empty arena, they could hear Daniel Cormier’s commentary and several fighters used the advice he was telling fellow commentators Joe Rogan and Jon Anik to adjust their game plans. It will be interesting to see if the UFC does anything to curb that going forward.

Fights to make

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje: Gaethje is probably the toughest stylistic matchup for Khabib and after his performance on Saturday, may just be the best lightweight in the world.

Tony Ferguson vs. Conor McGregor: I was tempted to put Tony vs. Max Holloway in a battle of angel wings, but Ferguson is 36 and just took what could be a career-altering beating. Any other top lightweight (Dustin Poirier, Dan Hooker) would be fun but let “El Cucuy” get his payday. Plus a win gets a fight with Khabib right back on track.

Petr Yan vs. Aljamain Sterling: This is a first, two fighters who weren’t on the card being featured here. But assuming Cejudo really is packing it up, these two should be fighting for the vacant belt, post-haste.

Dominick Cruz vs. Jose Also: Frankie Edgar would also be an excellent opponent for Cruz. Basically, give that man a legend fight.

Francis Ngannou vs. the winner of Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier III: There is nothing else this man can do. Honestly, he probably deserves a title shot even more than Cormier deserves a trilogy fight.

Calvin Kattar vs. Yair Rodriguez: It would be a tremendous fight and the winner would be right in the thick of the title conversation.

Anthony Pettis vs. Charles Oliveira: It’s been almost three years since their first fight and both men are much different. This makes a ton of sense.

Aleksei Oleinik vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik: Let’s have a good old-fashioned striker vs. grappler matchup whenever Jairzinho regains consciousness. It may take awhile.

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