By James Corrigan
The definition of a champion is one who has defeated or surpassed all other rivals in a particular entity, especially in a sport. We as a society treasure our great champions, from Ali to Jordan to Ruth, and even those such as Joe Namath and Eli Manning will be revered forever in large part due to their championship winning moments.
The UFC has treasured champions since Royce Gracie won the first UFC openweight tournament in 1993 at UFC 1, launching him into legendary status as the pioneer of Jiu Jitsu, and MMA itself. Fighters such as Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre, Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, Brock Lesnar, and others, have elevated themselves and their sport by grabbing UFC gold and defending it (for the most part) with honor.
Henry Cejudo came into the UFC in 2014 with absolutely nothing to prove when it comes to legendary status, for he had already won the ultimate prize in sports: Olympic gold, which he took in freestyle wrestling in 2008. But nobody told him that, as he set out to conquer the UFC flyweight division, and its top dog Demetrius “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, considered arguably the greatest UFC champion of all time, with a record 11 consecutive successful title defenses that may never be broken.
Cejudo knew just how dangerous Mighty Mouse was, as he fell in less than one round in April of 2016 in his first shot at the belt. But patience became his virtue, and this past August he finally reached the mountaintop, defeating the unbeatable Johnson via split decision and capturing the belt that had eluded him for four years. At only 31 years old with an Olympic and UFC title under his belt, Cejudo was ready to take his rightful place among the legends of the sport.
The only problem is that the UFC didn’t see him as such material. Shortly after his victory, there were rumblings that the UFC would do away with the flyweight division altogether. Now, this Saturday night in Brooklyn on the UFC’s first ever ESPN(+) card, Cejudo will defend his belt against UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw in a champion vs champion superfight, and what could be the last flyweight championship fight in history.
Would the UFC be getting rid of the division if Johnson were still champion, or even still in the promotion for that matter (he was traded to ONE Fighting Championship in Asia for welterweight contender Ben Askren)? When I asked him that very question, Cejudo took a different approach.
“As good as Demetrius was, I think he was part of the problem. I can’t even blame it on Demetrius. He was so dominant that he started making our division look like chump change.”
As for whether or not he feels disrespected as champion of a division that could be removed, Cejudo again took the high road.
“I don’t see it that way. I care about this division. I care about what it has to offer for the future of our weight class, not just me, but everybody and their mama literally.”
And ultimately, that is what Saturday’s fight is all about. Despite earning the championship the hard way, Cejudo finds himself in the position where he not only has to defend his belt, but also potentially the contracts of every other flyweight in the UFC and the hopes of other flyweights around the world who would never realize their UFC dreams if there is no division to go to. And to top it off, he must do so against a fighter who is not even in his weight class in Dillashaw, who is also a two time UFC champion and one of the most physically gifted fighters in the world today.
As unfair as this may seem to many, Cejudo sees it as an opportunity. He knows that to truly save the flyweight division, he must elevate himself, and to do so, he must win in Brooklyn on Saturday night.
As for the fight itself, it is the classic contrast in styles between the kickboxing specialist DIllashaw and the Gold Medal wrestler Cejudo. In his fight with Johnson, Cejudo was outlanded 242-160 against the quicker man, but it was his wrestling ability that allowed him to score six takedowns over the five rounds and take home the razor thin decision. Dillashaw, if he is 100% (more on that in a moment), should provide a similar challenge on the feet. But Dillashaw will likely outweigh Cejudo come fight time, and for all the speed and quickness that he possesses, he has knocked out bigger fighters than Cejudo, including former bantamweight champ Cody Garbrandt in each of his last two fights.
There is, of course, the question of how physically drained Dillashaw will be from cutting down to 125 pounds, ten fewer than his normal weight class. It is one of the most ambitious weight cuts in UFC history, but Dillashaw has looked the part thus far and is confident that he will be at full strength come fight night.
The prelims begin at 8:00 on ESPN before the main card at 10:00 on ESPN+. While this is a weird setup on the surface, it makes sense for the first ever ESPN card to showcase the UFC on the main network as well as the subscription service ESPN+, which is the main reason ESPN bought the UFC rights in the first place.
It will be as surreal as it is historic to see the UFC on ESPN, long the establishment antithesis of the counterculture based UFC.