For someone about to have Marlon Moraes throwing punches and kicks at his head on Saturday night, Henry Cejudo is having the time of his life.
“I’m living my dream,” he said. “Henry Cejudo, THE Henry Cejudo, is living his dream.”
It’s easy to tell. Whether he’s wearing a crown and pulling a rubber snake out of a magic hat on media day, celebrating his #CringeJudo movement, or just generally embracing his run at the top of the sport, the 32-year-old is making the most of his time in the spotlight, and he’s certainly earned that right after a two-fight losing streak in 2016 turned into a four-fight run that culminated in back-to-back wins over Demetrious Johnson and TJ Dillashaw.
Now he’s the UFC flyweight champion and about to battle Moraes for the vacant UFC bantamweight title in the main event of UFC 238 on Saturday. It’s a far cry from where he was after losing to Johnson in their first fight a little over three years ago. But looking back, he takes that first-round stoppage loss was a blessing in disguise.
“I think the Demetrious loss is what made me,” said the 14-2 Cejudo. “It’s what put a chip on my shoulder. I wasn’t as competitive as I should have been, I could have done a little bit more, I could have been a little bit smarter. But losing that fight taught me a lesson. You’re a human being, you can get stopped too. It’s the most embarrassing thing that could ever happen to you. But that was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It woke me up. I didn’t become bitter, I became better.”
He also cleaned house and took a new approach to getting back on track and back to a title shot against “Mighty Mouse.”
“I did a lot of restructuring,” Cejudo said. “I fired a bunch of coaches, I traveled the world, I became more isolated in that sense because it was an obsession I had up here (Points to his head). I have so many years to live, I gotta accomplish my dreams. That’s just the way I see it. So I did that. I looked at myself in the mirror and I didn’t fake it until I made it; I faced it and that’s partially what brings me here today.
“As a competitor, losing hurts,” he continued. “But, at the same time, the only person I could really blame was me. Yes, a team does help you to prepare, but you are the one that’s gonna fight in the Octagon and I have to make those decisions. Who’s compatible for me? I’ve learned that it’s not about having good people; it’s about having the right people and I feel like now in this camp I have the right people. There’s no stopping me.”
Cejudo admits that he wasn’t ready for Johnson the first time around, but by the time wins over Wilson Reis and Sergio Pettis earned him a rematch, he was ready. And he delivered, winning a split decision over Johnson in August of last year.
“I studied the man, I traveled the world, I did everything in my power to make sure we got the victory,” he said. “And at UFC 227, we did it.”
The victory put a UFC championship belt next to the Olympic gold medal Cejudo won in freestyle wrestling in 2008, and it would have been understandable if finding the motivation to climb the mountain once more just five months later against bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw was going to be an issue for “The Messenger.”
But it wasn’t.
“I knew it was something big,” he said of his January bout with Dillashaw. “This is the time for me to really prove to the world who I am as a person and how I can convey it as a fighter.”
It only took Cejudo 32 seconds to prove who he was, and after knocking Dillashaw out, he was convinced that he had earned a particular place in combat sports history.
“Ask some of the greatest fighters right now who is the greatest combat athlete of all-time,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, it ain’t Mike Tyson, it ain’t Jon Jones, it ain’t Daniel Cormier, it ain’t Khabib (Nurmagomeov), it ain’t Conor McGregor. It’s the big-headed Mexican-American kid who’s 5-4, won the Olympics at the age of 21 and won the UFC title at the age of 31. That’s the greatest combat athlete of all-time. And to add the cherry on top, he’s gonna do it now with a second belt in the bantamweight division.”
That remains to be seen, as the surging Moraes will be another stiff test for Cejudo this weekend. The Arizonan knows he’s in for a fight, but he also knows better than most what a little momentum can do.
“I respect Marlon Moraes,” he said. “I believe Marlon Moraes is a much tougher, much stronger opponent than TJ Dillashaw. But that’s another reason why I want his head on a spike. That’s another reason why I want to prove him wrong. That’s another reason why I want to knock him the hell out.
“I’m legitimately fighting the best competition out there,” Cejudo continues. “Who is to deny me as the pound for pound king after this? That’s my legacy – to be the pound for pound king.”