A hush filled the Octagon as Henry Cejudo announced his retirement, speaking moments after he’d knocked out Dominick Cruz at UFC 249 on May 9. That same silence stretched over the empty bowels of the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville and made Cejudo’s declaration that he was walking away even more stunning and blunt.
He’d just defended his bantamweight belt against the division’s leader in WEC/UFC wins and as such, plenty of pundits were baffled as to why he’d quit so suddenly at the age of 33. This week, though, his manager Ali Abdelaziz said Cejudo might fight again, meaning he could perform the same U-turn on retirement as many other UFC stars.
Georges St-Pierre took a hiatus from the sport after he defended his welterweight crown a ninth time against Johny Hendricks at UFC 167 in 2013, earning a decision which most onlookers felt should have gone to the American challenger. St-Pierre, who was plagued with ACL injuries throughout his career, wanted a break and was sick of the razzmatazz that went with sitting at the top tier of fighting. In 2015, UFC president Dana White laughed off rumors of a return for “Rush.” What happened next? St-Pierre returned at middleweight in 2017, submitting Michael Bisping for the title in his 185 pounds debut.
Cejudo could also look to the story of Brock Lesnar, who waved goodbye to the sport after his humbling at the hands of Alistair Overeem at UFC 141 in 2011. Like St-Pierre, Lesnar hated fame and underwent a pair of surgeries for diverticulitis which limited his time in the cage. He moved back to professional wrestling in 2012 and, in March 2015, he signed a new deal with World Wrestling Entertainment. What happened next? Lesnar returned on short notice in 2016, stifling Mark Hunt on the mat for the judges’ nod. (He later tested positive for clomiphene, rendering the bout a no contest).
Cejudo will know, then, how difficult former champions find it to keep their promise of staying away from the Octagon. Stepping away from the discipline and routine of fighting can provide a rude awakening and we have seen the likes of Stephan Bonnar and BJ Penn fall into dark places in retirement.
Thankfully, although Cejudo was adamant at UFC 249 that he is done, he seems to want a quiet life in retirement. Daniel Cormier told Ariel Helwani that he has never seen Cejudo happier and that the “The Messenger” is focused on getting married, having children, and engrossing himself in family life. Without his UFC titles, his high will now come from watching his children develop and giving his time to others, rather than living the selfish life of a fighter.
Cejudo has already become the first man to simultaneously hold and defend two titles in separate weight classes – flyweight and bantamweight – and after winning an Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling in 2008, the Mexican-American is warranted if feels he has nothing left to achieve. That said, money talks and St-Pierre and Lesnar both earned the biggest paydays of their careers in their returns to the UFC.
St-Pierre earned $2.5 million for his comeback, more than quadrupling his prior best payout. Lesnar took home $2.25 million when he returned, bettering his previous high of $475,000. That pair may have been among the biggest names in the sport around the late 2000s and early 2010s but regardless of who they were, their tales showed that UFC will dig deep into their pockets to entice absent stars back to the cage.
The idea that Cejudo had a glint in his eye when he made his retirement speech made the moment even stranger and perhaps less believable. And guess what? Cejudo did mention at UFC 249 that if the UFC offered him the right offer, he’d fight again – hence Abdelaziz’s optimism.
If Cejudo can get his head around coming back and make sure this fits around his family life, there are big fights out there for him, particularly at bantamweight. The spindly New Yorker Aljamain Sterling has been snapping at Cejudo’s heels for some time and given his reach and fleet-footedness in the boxing exchanges, he could give the champ-champ a challenge on the feet. Petr Yan looked world-class when dominating the likes of John Dodson and Urijah Faber, while Cody Sandhagen is another contender thanks to his height, range, and box of tricks in the stand-up.
It would be a shame to see the end of Cejudo’s “King of Cringe” persona, and his social media callouts of Cruz, Cody Garbrandt and featherweight king Alexander Volkanosvki – the latter perhaps ironically – have been an amusing sideshow to his career. At flyweight, there’s also a chance to avenge his 2016 setback to Joseph Benavidez, and if there’s anything to temp an athlete back, it’s a point to prove.
That said, it’s the chasing pack at 135 pounds which could provide the greater test. Sterling, Yan, and Sandhagen will always argue that the champion took a safe option by tackling Cruz who was returning after four years out due to a litany of arm and shoulder injuries. Sterling, in particular, would make for a thrilling rivalry and the American’s jibes and trash talk might be able to lure Cejudo back if the money is there.
Cejudo’s return becomes all the more realistic when you study how GSP and Lesnar left the sport. GSP was away for four years and his frosty relationship with White didn’t prevent his comeback, while Lesnar was still signed with the WWE when he battled Hunt, yet that didn’t stop him from negotiating a leave of absence to return to MMA.
Times change, sports shift and move, and decisions can be made in the heat of the moment. In 2019, Alexander Gustafsson dropped his gloves in the Octagon, yet spoke of a comeback less than year later. Dan Hardy has been inactive since 2012 and despite his wolf-heart-syndrome, he also hasn’t ruled out one last hurrah. As such, Abdelaziz was wise to note the potential for Cejudo’s reawakening.
Alistair Hendrie is a freelance writer for The Body Lock MMA. He has previously written for Mirror.co.uk and Fighters Only. Check out his Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain, featuring interviews with Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more.