Henry Cejudo did everything right in becoming a champion.
To lay claim to the UFC flyweight belt in 2018, he had to dethrone the pound-for-pound king, a dynamo who was unbeaten in nearly seven years and on a UFC-record run of 11 consecutive title defenses. Among Demetrious Johnson's conquests during that streak was Cejudo, who'd taken a first-round thumping two years earlier. The 2008 Olympic wrestling gold medalist had gone home humbled and went to work. For the rematch, Cejudo showed up as a sharp, confident, well-rounded fighter. And the challenger walked out of the cage as champion.
Cejudo wasn't done making emphatic statements. When bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw came swooping down a division looking to take away his 125-pound belt in January 2019, Cejudo needed just 32 seconds to demonstrate that he could conquer a bigger man.
Five months later, Cejudo hopped up to 135 pounds to take a crack at a second strap. He was pitted against Marlon Moraes for what by then was a vacant championship, and early on Cejudo looked outmatched. But looks can be deceiving. By the end of Round 2, he was in control and on his way. Another TKO win. Another title.
Cejudo's star was on the rise as a rare double champ.
But since that moment, he has not acted like a champion.
UFC president Dana White is targeting May 9 for the promotion's next event, and Cejudo is expected to make his first bantamweight title defense on that card against former champion Dominick Cruz -- 11 months after winning the belt (Cejudo underwent shoulder surgery last summer). At a glance, that might seem like an exceptional matchup for a championship fight, as Cruz is perhaps the greatest ever at 135. But to have a clear picture in your head of what makes Cruz special, you'd have to have a long memory. Cruz has not competed since losing a unanimous decision to Cody Garbrandt on Dec. 30, 2016. He's one of the all-time greats, but at this point, after his latest in a sad succession of injury-related absences, Cruz does not fit the qualifications of a title challenger.
One might be inclined to criticize the UFC, not Cejudo, for booking this pairing in a championship matchup. But long before the fight was announced, Cejudo was campaigning for it. Moments after he defeated Moraes to become bantamweight champ last June, Cejudo stood inside the Octagon and called out a "hit list" of well-known but underperforming stars: Cruz, Garbrandt and Urijah Faber. Garbrandt, though an ex-champ, had lost three fights in a row. Faber had not fought since 2016 and had dropped two of his past three.
Throughout the rest of the summer and fall, Cejudo brazenly ignored the growing queue of legitimate bantamweight contenders. And it's not like they were out of sight. Aljamain Sterling (18-3) fought earlier on the same night that Cejudo became champ, beating top-10 fighter Pedro Munhoz for his fourth straight win. He's situated right behind Cejudo and Moraes at the top of ESPN's divisional rankings and would have been a logical next challenger.
If not Sterling, how about fourth-ranked Petr Yan (14-1), winner of nine in a row, the most recent victory coming on that Cejudo-Moraes undercard? Or No. 7 Cory Sandhagen (12-1), who has won his past seven fights? Is it too much to ask that the champ defend his belt against somebody coming off a win?
Sterling tells Cejudo to stop chasing 'clown fights'
Aljamain Sterling calls Henry Cejudo "delusional" for chasing a fight vs. Dominick Cruz instead of himself, Petr Yan or Marlon Moraes.
Instead, Cejudo's public callouts eventually zeroed in on a title defense against either Cruz or former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar. The 38-year-old Edgar is also a legend, but also on a career downslide, with losses in two straight fights, three of his past four.
Then, on Dec. 15, Cejudo suddenly started calling out a different legend -- one who had lost his second straight fight the night before. Jose Aldo once had spent 6½ years as featherweight champion. He might well be the greatest 145-pounder ever. But that reputation was built during an 18-fight winning streak that has now slipped well back into the past. The Aldo of today has lost four of six.
That didn't matter to Cejudo. He even tweeted a crass poolside video to state his case. And he got the booking he desired. Shortly after Cejudo relinquished the flyweight belt in December with the stated intention of focusing on bantamweight, the UFC announced that he would defend his belt against Aldo on May 9. However, with the Brazilian unable to travel to the United States during the coronavirus pandemic, the matchup eventually was switched to Cruz.
Cejudo was merely substituting one wrong turn for another.
This is not what a champion should do. A champion sits at the top of the mountain, looking down at the contenders all scrambling to climb up to make a challenge. A champion represents something to aspire to. A champion is the target. A champion shouldn't go chasing.
Cejudo seems to have it backward, though. He's reached the top of the sport, and rather than taking on the best who come at him, he's the one pursuing. And recent resumes be damned, all he sees are the big names -- Cruz, Aldo, Edgar, Garbrandt, Faber. "I want a legend," Cejudo told my colleague Brett Okamoto recently. "I deserve a legend."
If that were true, champions might never fight those who are rising through the ranks. Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones might not have bothered with Anthony Smith, Thiago Santos or Dominick Reyes -- qualified challengers all, but not a big name among them. Instead, Jones might have set his sights on the two former middleweight champs who've recently joined his division, Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold. Both are on losing streaks, but everyone sure has heard of them.
Cejudo's one legit callout has not been within the bantamweight division. It's fine, really, that he has spoken of stepping up another weight class to challenge 145-pound champ Alexander Volkanovski. Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier and Amanda Nunes were reigning champions when they challenged champs in heavier weight classes. No, it doesn't help the 135-pound weight class for Cejudo to be shifting his focus to featherweight, but at least he's finally calling out someone who's not on a losing streak or several years inactive.
The name of the game is prizefighting, and that first syllable is not meaningless. Like everyone else, a champion deserves to get paid, and big-name fights bring bigger paydays. But unlike other fighters, a champ should have to balance money hunger with a responsibility to defend the belt against those who earn their shot. Cejudo doesn't deserve a legend; he deserves the most qualified challengers out there. By beating them, one after another, he gives himself his best chance at becoming a legend himself.
Cormier, recognized as one of the most honorable athletes in MMA, has acknowledged that the potential for a massive payday is what brought him to the verge of what would have been the most unwarranted title defense in the sport's history. In 2018, he and the UFC flirted with matching DC up with Brock Lesnar. Though a one-time UFC champ, Lesnar had competed only once in 6½ years and was winless in his previous three bouts. But he sure would have put fannies in the seats.
Some questionable championship bookings have made it to the Octagon, though. One glaring example was last month's middleweight title defense by Israel Adesanya. His challenger, Yoel Romero, was coming off two straight losses. The UFC didn't have a whole lot of options, though. The best of them, Jared Cannonier, would have had to pull out anyway after suffering a torn pectoral muscle in training.
Then there's the case of McGregor, who as featherweight champion wanted nothing to do with that division's contenders. But at least he was in pursuit of something bigger and better -- the lightweight championship. Once McGregor captured that second belt, he ignored the contenders at 155 pounds as well, but by then he was chasing the payday to end all paydays in boxing.
Give me a champion who honors his lofty position the way Khabib Nurmagomedov has, at least in terms of matchmaking (cage-jumping antics are a different matter). The Dagestani easily could have gone along with White when the UFC president insisted, implausibly, that the rightful next defense of his lightweight title would be a rematch with McGregor. That would have been the biggest payday possible for Khabib (and, of course, the promotion). But everyone had seen what happened when he faced Conor the first time. So Nurmagomedov scoffed at a rematch, saying he would not agree to it until McGregor earned his way back into title contention.
A champion shouldn't have to take a stand like that, really. The matchmakers should be the ones guarding the integrity of the championships their fight promotion created. But sometimes a fighter like Khabib has to take things into his own hands, a champion acting like a champion.
Henry Cejudo should take note. He is always walking around with his gold medal and championship belts draped over him, so he clearly appreciates the honor attached to being called the best in the world. He also must understand that those shiny trinkets come with responsibility -- a responsibility that's bigger than himself, and if treated with respect, can enhance his legacy in monumental ways. That's why the first year of Cejudo's reign as bantamweight champ has been puzzling. He's just getting started, but at this point he is a titleholder who is refusing to defend his position of honor against challengers who've earned their shot. That is not the look of a champion.