The last seven months have provided Henry Cejduo with a number of learning opportunities, and the flyweight contender believes he is a better fighter and man today as a result.
Deemed a championship threat before he ever set foot in the Octagon, the Olympic gold medalist validated a lot of those initial projections by collecting four victories in 12 months to push his record to 10-0 and climb the rankings in the UFC’s 125-pound weight class. In early February of this year, his efforts were rewarded, as Cejudo was tabbed to challenge Demetrious Johnson for the flyweight title in the co-main event of UFC 197 on April 23.
That night is where Cejudo’s seven months of learning kicked off.
In less than three minutes, Johnson dispatched the challenger, handing Cejudo his first loss as a professional in devastating fashion. While the standout wrestler did manage to get “Mighty Mouse” to the ground early in the bout, he wasn’t able to keep him there for long, and when they returned to the feet and started battling in the clinch, Johnson dominated the exchanges, hurting Cejudo with knees to the body before putting him away with strikes along the cage.
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“Honestly, it’s technical,” the 29-year-old Cejudo began, discussing what he took away from his matchup with Johnson as he readies to return to action this weekend in Las Vegas. “I think the mental side, I’ve always been strong in that area, but I think it’s just technical in the sense of becoming more experienced in certain areas, namely the clinch position. I think that’s all it was.
“There is still a lot to learn,” he continued. “I believe that hunger can take you pretty far, but DJ is just that good. He’s the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world and that’s what makes him him – he’s technical, smart, strategic and he has a high MMA IQ. The way I see it, I got exposed in a certain area and I’ve gotten better because of it.”
The major learning opportunity Cejudo experienced came over the summer, when he coached a group of eight flyweight hopefuls on Season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter.
Pitted against Joseph Benavidez, the two-time title challenger he’ll face in Saturday’s penultimate clash, “The Messenger” and his coaching staff led a squad of champions from organizations around the world who came together to vie for the opportunity to face Johnson for the flyweight title.
Although it was a pair of fighters from Team Benavidez – Tim Elliott and Hiromasa Ogikubo – who met in the final pairing of the season, the Los Angeles-born, Phoenix-based Cejudo believes his participation in the long-running reality TV competition has not only made him a better fighter, but a better man as well.
“I think what I took from the show – the most important thing – was that it was more of a relationship builder,” explained Cejudo, who was accompanied to Las Vegas this week by Nkazimulo Zulu, one of the fighters he coached during the season. “What I took from it the most was putting myself last for the first time in my life – allowing everything to fall into place.
“It was a cool experience and a hard experience – I had never coached before – but I made friends for a lifetime and I think that’s the coolest opportunity I’ve had as a human being, to get to know these eight people from different parts of the world. It’s been awesome.
A lifelong competitor, being on the other side of the athlete-coach relationship was a real eye opener for Cejudo.
“That was interesting because I’ve learned there is a relationship you need to have with your teammates and with your coach, so that your coach is on board and he knows you and everything is done according to your style.
“It definitely made me wiser,” he added. “It made me think about mixed martial arts rather than just training and seeing different opportunities through coaching.”
It also made him hungry to get back into the cage to test himself against Benavidez.
While their relationship wasn’t nearly as contentious or heated as some previous pairings, there were definitely moments where the opposing coaches and impending opponents got under each other’s skin, and the tension between the two grew.
The good thing about this season – and fighting in general – is that Saturday night, the two men currently stationed at No. 1 and No. 2 in the flyweight rankings will step into the Octagon and be given a maximum of 15 minutes to hash things out in the cage.
For Cejudo, the chance to face someone as accomplished and established as Benavidez in his first bout since challenging for the flyweight title is a dream come true and a perfect opportunity for him to show just how much learning he’s done over the last seven months.
“It’s a testament that I’m willing to put myself out there and fight someone of that caliber like Joseph,” he said of the pairing with Benavidez, which was discussed multiple times prior to coming together through this season of The Ultimate Fighter. “I’m in this game for challenges. I’m in this game to get better. I’m in this game to be the best in the world and Joseph is a stumbling block in front of me.
“I’m ready for that challenge,” he added, the excitement evident in his voice. “I’m not afraid. I’m a fearless human being. I’m here to represent and show what I have. You have to learn from your mistakes or else you might repeat them. I think I’ve capitalized on working on those areas from when I fought with DJ.
“I’m excited to scrap it out this Saturday.”