CHICAGO — On the night before he made history in the Octagon, Henry Cejudo went out for dinner with his team. The 2008 Olympic gold medalist and reigning UFC flyweight champion only had one rule:
No talking about fighting.
“I was like, ‘Arrrgh, enough! Please talk about something else,’” Cejudo said, chuckling, after he stopped Marlon Moraes in the third round Saturday at UFC 238 at the United Center to add the bantamweight title to his growing collection.
It was a brilliant performance by Cejudo, who sprained his ankle when he slipped on a mat on Tuesday and whose leg was systematically being torn up in the first round by Moraes’ vicious kicks.
Moraes went hard after Cejudo’s legs and seemed in total control in the first.
“A couple more of those kicks and that was going to be it for him,” UFC president Dana White said of Cejudo.
Santino DeFranco, one of his coaches, told him in the corner he had to change the distance or the fight would soon be over.
“Santino, one of my coaches, said in the corner, ‘Hey man, if you want to win this fight, you’re going to have to press him because you’re not going to survive those kicks,’” Cejudo said.
Cejudo instinctively knew that as well, and in one of those moves that separate the elite from the rest, Cejudo did exactly what he had to do.
He cut the range on Moraes in the second, eliminated the kicks as a problem and began his own offense.
All of it was enabled by Moraes, who appeared winded by the midpoint of the second. Fighting is often a game of poker and Moraes showed on his face that the pressure was getting to him.
When you’ve climbed to the heights that Cejudo has reached, you don’t miss those kinds of signs.
“The finishing touch was his demeanor,” Cejudo said. “He was showing me in his face [that he was in trouble.]”
Cejudo caught Moraes with a couple of knees that probably switched the fight in his favor for good. The crowd of 16,083 roared its approval and Cejudo’s pace quickened.
Moraes was downcast, because he believed he’d strayed from coach Mark Henry’s game plan. He said Henry urged him not to turn the fight into a brawl and that he did that.
“My mistakes cost me this fight,” he said softly, his eyes looking down. “I didn’t listen to my coaches and that cost me.”
Moraes entered the fight on a 17-1 streak, and he could easily be the bantamweight champion right now, because he had Cejudo on the verge of going out.
Cejudo, though, has been through much more, both in life and in sports. He grew up amid extreme poverty in South Central Los Angeles and had next to no relationship with his father.
He missed weight in his UFC debut and, stunned, called matchmaker Sean Shelby and told him he was retiring. He left Sacramento and flew home to Arizona, where he didn’t speak to anyone for two weeks. But he didn’t win an Olympic gold medal by being a quitter. As he thought about it, he became embarrassed at his failure and decided he wanted to prove himself.
He called Shelby and told him he wanted to fight again.
It was a process, but Cejudo slowly made his way back to the top.
In his last three fights over 10 months, he’s beaten Demetrious Johnson, who was widely regarded as the best fighter in the world, to capture the flyweight belt. Then he knocked out T.J. Dillashaw, the bantamweight champion who was moving down to go after a second belt, in 32 seconds. Dillashaw was ranked fourth pound-for-pound. And on Saturday, he took out Moraes, who is a former World Series of Fighting champion and a vicious KO artist.
It’s a run as impressive as any in UFC history over such a short span, and prompted Cejudo to label himself the greatest combat sports athlete of all time.
White rolled his eyes at that suggestion.
“Wouldn’t Jon Jones be the best combat sports athlete of all-time?” White said. “It’s tough to call yourself the greatest right now, let alone the greatest to ever live. I like his spirit, though.”
He makes it fun. Because Moraes’ nickname is “Magic,” Cejudo wore a crown and a cape and pulled items out of a hat at Thursday’s media day. He’s taken to calling himself the “King of Cringe,” and as he was leaving the postfight news conference Saturday in a wheelchair, he was yelling to media members to “embrace the cringe.”
We’ll see about embracing the cringe.
But embracing that run he’s on? Oh yeah, 100 percent. That is the kind of stuff that gets talked about for years. And that is something that is easy to embrace.
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