LOS ANGELES – The dark moments, and there were many, in Henry Cejudo’s life are almost difficult to imagine. Until he was 17, he didn’t sleep on a bed. He slept on a pile of blankets thrown in a corner, with his sister and brother crowded next to him.
He was born a short ride from Staples Center, to a penniless family of immigrant parents. He went on to capture an Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling in Beijing on Aug. 21, 2008, becoming the youngest American to earn the achievement at that time.
On Saturday, a couple of weeks shy of a full decade later, Cejudo returned home to upset the legendary Demetrious Johnson to win the flyweight championship in the co-main event of UFC 227 via split decision before a sellout crowd of 17,800 fans. It included a number of A-list celebrities who were on their feet and roaring lustily for much of the bout, clearly enthralled by the performance of fighters in a division that had struggled to gain popularity and acceptance.
As the cheers filled the arena, a rarity in a flyweight bout, it felt like the division had finally come of age.
“You saw the popularity of the flyweights tonight,” UFC president Dana White said. “The place was packed with A-list celebrities. We sold out the Staples Center. The small guys did almost a $3 million gate tonight and sold out the Staples Center. The crowd was very into that fight – very into it – and it was the Fight of the Night. When you saw scrambles with these guys, the crowd reacted to them.”
It was MMA at its finest, with technical striking and grappling and blazing quick scrambles, and the difference between champion and challenger was negligible. Judge Marcos Rosales had it 48-47 for Johnson, but he was overruled by judges Ron McCarthy and Sal D’Amato, who had it 48-47 for Cejudo. All three judges gave the final two rounds to Cejudo.
Cejudo was an unlikely guy to end Johnson’s long reign, which spanned five years, 10 months and 13 days, and included a UFC-record 11 consecutive successful title defenses and 12 consecutive title fight victories.
Cejudo didn’t take his first MMA fight until March 2, 2013, five months and nine days after Johnson began his reign. He was beaten soundly by Johnson in just two minutes, 36 seconds at UFC 197 in 2016, but he never quit believing in himself.
At the post-fight news conference, he couldn’t stop professing his love for his sport, which has allowed him to live a comfortable life after his amateur wrestling career ended.
“This sport of mixed martial arts, maybe there are a lot of people who watch it and still think it’s human cockfighting,” Cejudo said, echoing Sen. John McCain’s infamous 1997 line about the sport. “But this is a sport, and it’s given me a life. I’m able to have a house and a car. As you know, a lot of Olympians, well, being No. 2 or No. 3 in the world doesn’t get you paid. A lot of those guys are living hard, but the sport of mixed martial arts does. We can make six- and seven-figure paydays at 125 pounds. This is awesome. You don’t have to be Mike Tyson. I’m doing this at 125 pounds.”
It was a hard trek to the title for Cejudo, but it wouldn’t be Cejudo were it easy. This is a guy who on the first Christmas his mother had enough money to buy presents for her children, suffered the ignominy of having his father, whom he barely knew, break into their home and steal their gifts so he would have money to buy drugs.
He persevered, with an indomitable spirit and an unmatched work ethic. He pushed himself to the brink in training camp, determined not to waste the opportunity to become a UFC champion.
“How much better is Henry Cejudo now from the first time he fought Demetrious Johnson?” White asked. “That was very impressive.”
He was talking of Cejudo, but he could have been speaking of Johnson, whose unmatched quickness and technical proficiency made him almost impossible to beat over the last six years.
Johnson had built a reputation as not only the greatest 125-pounder who ever lived, but also as the greatest fighter in UFC history by not just setting records but by winning going away.
He fought a brilliant fight on Saturday and could have won with a break, despite suffering two injuries in the bout. He said he felt he tore the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee and fears he broke his right foot from all of the kicks. He was limping noticeably.
He wasn’t limping during the fight, as he was the blazingly fast Johnson who had so dominated the division. He was glum afterward, but hardly down on himself.
He’s a winner and he knows it’s a matter of time until he is back on top, which is remarkable given his start.
“I do this because I love it and I’ve already way exceeded my expectations,” Johnson said. “I was working in a warehouse making $10.60 an hour and rushing home after work to watch Joseph Benavidez fight Dominick Cruz. My dream was never to be a world champion. My dream was to learn how to do mixed martial arts and when I did that, I became passionate and this is the path it led me on.”
Fight fans are the better for that.
Both men know when the final bell sounded, it could have gone either way. Cejudo was hopeful he’d done enough but he wasn’t certain.
“I felt it could have gone either way,” Cejudo said. “It could have gone either way, for sure. I’m a very honest and humble human being, but I’ll tell you, I was just very happy to hear, ‘And new!’”
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