Henry Cejudo had a high opinion of himself in 2016 as he prepared to fight Demetrious Johnson for the UFC flyweight title, and not without good reason.
He was the youngest American to win a gold medal in freestyle wrestling when he did it at 21 years old in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. He’d won his first 10 MMA fights heading into the Johnson bout, despite the fact he was learning about the sport as he went.
Johnson, though, drubbed Cejudo and stopped him at 2:49 of the first round on April 23, 2016, at UFC 197 in Las Vegas. Cejudo then dropped a split decision to Joseph Benavidez on Dec. 3, 2016, and was at a career low.
Or, at least it seemed like he was at a career low. Cejudo, though, didn’t view it that way.
“I was this undefeated kid and I was a lot like [featherweight contender] Brian Ortega and I thought I was going to conquer the world,” Cejudo said. “I was the man, or so I thought, and then all of a sudden, my world comes collapsing down around me in that fight [with Johnson]. What I learned from that loss was so valuable and has made me so much better as a fighter and as a person.
“I’ll be honest, what I learned from that loss is that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. I learned that I had some inefficiencies that kept me from being what I thought I already had become. So I traveled the world and searched for the greatest coaches, the greatest training partners, the greatest competitors, so I could build myself to where I wanted to be. For almost two-and-a-half years, it was almost like a Pokémon adventure.”
The results of that adventure were unveiled on Aug. 4 in Los Angeles, when Cejudo upset the legendary champion Johnson to finally get to where he felt he should be all along.
And that has led him to a high-profile title defense on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in the UFC’s debut on the ESPN+ streaming service against bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw.
Cejudo learned much about himself as he made his long journey back to the top. The back-to-back losses were sobering, but they reinforced lessons from Cejudo’s highly successful past of what was required to be the best.
“In reality, I’m probably one of the greatest competitors to ever step foot in sports,” Cejudo said. “I may not be the greatest wrestler of all-time. I may not be the greatest MMA fighter of all-time. But I’m probably the greatest competitor of all-time. I’m going to find a way to win no matter what.
“From being the youngest Olympic champion in U.S. history at the age of 21 to defeating the greatest mixed martial artist of all-time, that’s who Henry Cejudo is. That’s what I’m about. I became the best in the world in two very difficult and entirely different sports. Nobody can say that except for me.”
If he defeats Cejudo, Dillashaw will become the fourth fighter in just over two years to hold two UFC championships simultaneously. Conor McGregor became the first “champ-champ” in 2016 when he stopped Eddie Alvarez to win the lightweight title while also holding the featherweight belt.
In July, light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier knocked out Stipe Miocic in the first round to become heavyweight champ. And last month, women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes needed less than a minute to knock out Cris “Cyborg” Justino to add the women’s featherweight title to her collection.
But with all due respect to those three, Cejudo also considers himself a champ-champ.
“If you really think about it, I am the champ-champ,” he said. “Two of the hardest things to do in sports are being an Olympic champ and being a UFC champ. I’m the first in history to ever do that. That makes me without question a champ-champ.
“But I know there are always a lot of doubters and haters out there, so after I win this fight on Saturday, I’m going to give T.J. a rematch and I’m going to go up to 135 and snatch that belt there. I’m already at a level nobody else has reached, but imagine what doing that will do for me. People like you will be talking about and writing about Henry Cejudo long after I’m gone because of that.”
But he first has to defeat Dillashaw on Saturday, and Dillashaw’s history is proof that won’t be easy to do.
Dillashaw has two wins apiece over Cody Garbrandt and Renan Barao as well as victories over John Lineker and Raphael Assuncao, among others.
Dillashaw is a minus-200 favorite at the MGM Grand sportsbook, but that hardly fazes Cejudo. He once had a high opinion of himself as a fighter that wasn’t entirely justified.
But he went on a worldwide journey to right those wrongs, and knows how very special what he’s done really is. Now, it’s just a matter of going out and doing it.
“It’s not so much proving people wrong [that motivates me]; it’s proving myself right,” Cejudo said. “I’m not fighting just to fight T.J. to say I beat him. I’m fighting for my legacy. I’m fighting for the imprint that I want to leave on this sport and this Earth. I’m looking for the respect for all that I have accomplished in athletics for so long.
“People are going to deny me. People are going to hate on me. I get that. But you know what? It’s a motivator. It adds fuel to my fire. I know for a fact that I’m going to beat T.J. Dillashaw come Saturday night. When I do, what will they say then? What can they say? They will know. Without a doubt, they’ll know [who the best is].”
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