Henry Cejudo proved a lot of things in his win over Marlon Moraes at UFC 238.
He showed everyone that it’s not wise to continuously doubt him against each opponent he faces. “The Messenger” exhibited excellent resolve after surviving a first-round beatdown. The win over Moraes was a statement that said “I can compete with the best of the best at 135 pounds.”
Cejudo confirmed one other thing: He is not likely to fulfill the role of flyweight savior long-term.
Henry Cejudo dethrones the flyweight king
Cejudo had an opportunity to breathe new life into a 125-pound division that was viewed as a bore by many fans. That reputation largely stemmed from a dominant champion, Demetrious Johnson, dismantling every single contender in the weight class on his way to earning the most title defenses in UFC history.
Similar to what’s going on with Jon Jones and the light heavyweight division, people grew tired getting their hopes up about a new contender only for him to be crushed by the champion.
That was until Cejudo came along.
Cejudo already had one shot at Johnson, and, much like many who came before him, he was shut down. Johnson outclassed Cejudo on the feet and finished him in the first round by TKO. Cejudo went on to lose his next fight, a close bout with perennial contender Joseph Benavidez, by split decision.
Once 10-0, Cejudo was one fight away from the dreaded third-straight loss. The number has marked the end of many UFC careers in the past.
“The Messenger” bounced back to defeat Wilson Reis at UFC 215 in an impressive performance capped by a second-round TKO. He then beat surging contender Sergio Pettis by unanimous decision. All of a sudden, Cejudo’s name was right back in the title picture.
Just 27 months after their first meeting, Cejudo and Johnson stood across from each other again. This encounter proved to be far different from the first.
After five rounds of intense back-and-forth battling, the judges made their decision. For the first time in UFC flyweight championship history, Bruce Buffer read a name other than “Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson” in his post-fight announcement.
Flyweights in jeopardy
Controversial or not, Cejudo’s split-decision win over the reigning champion opened up the flyweight division. Fighters who had previously fallen victim to Johnson’s legendary run now had new hope for a shot at the title.
Cejudo beat his fair share of contenders on the way to claiming the title, but he didn’t clean out the division. He didn’t have the extensive resume that Johnson put together over his nearly six-year run.
This win was not only good for Cejudo but the whole weight class. It brought interest to the flyweight division. Much like the case at women’s bantamweight when Ronda Rousey lost her title, volatility at the top was a real possibility at 125 pounds.
The hope for a new start wouldn’t last long.
Cejudo jumped at the opportunity to face then-bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw. Dillashaw would drop down to 125 pounds for Cejudo’s first title defense, cutting the line of contenders such as Benavidez, Deiveson Figuieredo, Dustin Ortiz and so on.
Rumblings about the UFC’s removal of the flyweights got louder in the fight’s build up. The thought was further amplified by the UFC’s “trade” with ONE Championship that sent Johnson to the Asian promotion to get Ben Askren in return.
It was at this time that Cejudo took on the role of savior. Dillashaw capturing the flyweight title would open a clear lane for UFC President Dana White to close down the division for good.
Even leading up to the fight, the UFC began cutting flyweight fighters. Young competitors such as Jose Torres, Jarred Brooks and Brandon Moreno were all released prior to Cejudo’s scheduled defense against Dillashaw at UFC Fight Night 143.
Of course, Cejudo went on to shock the MMA sphere a second time with his 32-second TKO victory over Dillashaw. In his post-fight interview with Jon Anik, he shared the sentiment that all of the flyweights who held onto their jobs wanted to hear.
“This victory — I said it before — it was much bigger than me,” Cejudo said. “This victory was for the flyweights.”
Henry Cejudo opts for a different direction
Only Cejudo knows if he truly meant what he said in that moment. In the next, he was calling for a shot at the bantamweight title in a rematch with Dillashaw.
The fight failed to materialize due to Dillashaw’s two-year suspension for EPO, but Cejudo remained committed to jumping up to 135 pounds — another bad sign for a flyweight division that barely had enough fighters to fill the 15 ranking slots. Cejudo then got his chance to move in front of the cutthroat bantamweight ranks, signing to face Moraes for the vacant belt.
Again, Cejudo’s post-fight talk spoke volumes after he earned his second belt.
“The Messenger” expressed a desire to get paid. He also let everyone know about his “hit list” that he is working to complete.
“I’m gonna call out people personally: Dominick Cruz, Cody Garbrandt, Urijah Faber,” Cejudo said to Joe Rogan. “I would eventually like to go up another weight class and solidify another belt too.”
The UFC President pumped the brakes on Cejudo’s interesting callouts, none of which were 125-pound fighters. Interestingly though, White commented on the status of flyweight, which he acknowledged that he hadn’t done in some time.
“Obviously [Cejudo] winning had a lot to do with the [flyweight] division,” White said. He then went on to confirm that the division is here to stay.
Cejudo fulfilled his role as the savior for the time being, but for how long?
As many have come to know, what White says and what he does often fail to match up. This situation appears to be one of those times.
A promotion doesn’t typically cut some of its best talent when the plan is to keep operations going. Unless the UFC is planning to do damage control and re-sign some of the fighters it let go, the division is not in the clear yet.
Can you blame Henry Cejudo?
As Cejudo said in his post-fight speech, he has big dreams. He wants to “start making heavyweight money” while adding big names to his resume.
Cejudo knows that committing his future to flyweight limits his options greatly in that regard, so he’s looking elsewhere. Honestly, it’s hard to blame him for doing so.
Flyweight has been an underappreciated division since its inception. It was only until the weight class was in real danger that support filed in. The UFC brass also made it painfully obvious how it feels about it, as evidenced by the 12 total contenders still under contract.
Cejudo is making a smart career choice by gunning for heads at 135 pounds. While some of the names he called out seem a bit ridiculous (Faber in particular), there’s no shortage of top-tier fighters at bantamweight. Defending the title against the likes of Aljamain Sterling, Petr Yan, Cory Sandhagen and others would help cement Cejudo’s case for the top pound-for-pound ranking he so desperately desires.
Unfortunately, that pursuit leaves the other fighters of the flyweight division in the same difficult place they started at.
There are currently three fights scheduled between ranked flyweights: Benavidez vs. Jussier Formiga, Alexandre Pantoja vs. Figueiredo and Rogerio Bontorin vs. Raulian Paiva. These six fighters are still competing for the No. 1 ranking, but a shot at Cejudo for whoever comes out on top feels like a pipe dream.
So for as much as White insists he has given the OK for Cejudo to defend both belts, it only feels like the UFC is continuing to delay the inevitable closure of 125 pounds.
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.