Henry Cejudo return injects fresh life into UFC before Sterling clash

Henry Cejudo clouded his own incredible feats with the ‘King of Cringe’ persona, but the UFC is lucky to have him back… his retirement U-turn to face Aljamain Sterling gives fans a blockbuster title fight in New Jersey

  • Henry Cejudo decided to retire having become a two-weight UFC champion
  • He felt the hunger subside and also felt he was not paid enough by promotion
  • But Cejudo is back and his UFC 288 main event this weekend is fascinating

Henry Cejudo’s three-year absence from the UFC – a mini retirement – has actually seen his stock grow. 

Never given the credit most other two-weight champions enjoyed, he called it a day with the hunger for competition subsiding and his paymasters unwilling to cough up what he felt he deserved. 

In the interim, his coaching prowess and remarkable fight IQ has seen the likes of Jon Jones pick his brains – but that fighting intellect will be put to the test first hand again on Saturday.  

Retirements in MMA are almost never final. The itch comes back and Cejudo has decided to scratch it with a UFC 288 headliner against bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling. 

Smaller weight classes occasionally have issues finding the same level of casual fan support and interest as the heavier fighters. 

Henry Cejudo (pictured) is back from retirement and preparing to face Aljamain Sterling 

Aljamain Sterling defeated TJ Dillashaw (bottom) at UFC 280 to defend his bantamweight title 

Cejudo crafted a ‘King of Cringe’ persona in a bid to generate more interest before retiring

And Cejudo adopted a schtick as ‘King of Cringe’, playing along with a role to make press conferences and interviews awkward in a bid to drive up engagement. 

Chael Sonnen explained last year: ‘Henry wanted to go out, he wanted to be known, he wanted to start doing stuff. He was so bad at it at the beginning because he had no level of training or practice and the only time he got to do it is when the live cameras are rolling that it was cringy, and so he admitted it. 

‘Now this turned out to be the real brilliance. Nobody ever said out to Henry, ‘go out there and do things that make people really awkward. Go out and do things that make Dana White get a bright red face cause he’s so uncomfortable with it’, like that was never part of the plan that’s just what it transitioned to.

‘I remember there was still a moment where I saw this cringey, this ‘Triple C’, all the stuff that the people are online teasing him for. They’re waiting in droves, they are chanting his name. 

‘They love it, it’s an angle, it’s a gimmick, it’s what expect out of him, and it’s more than anybody else in that division at that time was offering.’

It was clever marketing and definitely saw interest in Cejudo rise, but detracted from his elite skills in changing perceptions of him into a caricature. 

A former Olympic gold medal winner, flyweight and then bantamweight UFC champion and slayer of Demetrious Johnson, one of the all-time greats – should have been adored or at least admired more. 

Perhaps in the three years since the 36-year-old was last in action there’s more of an appreciation for what he offered the UFC.

Cejudo (left) called it a day after beating Dominic Cruz (right) but is hungry for a legacy fight 

Demetrious Johnson (left) – an all-time great – won one and lost one against Cejudo in the UFC 

He also benefits from a worthy dance partner on Saturday. Sterling walks and talks like a champion and knows a win over Cejudo will bring real credibility to his reign. Credibility the challenger thinks it lacks. 

‘I’m not impressed, and that’s quite frank,’ Cejudo told the UFC. 

‘He won his belt via Academy Award. He barely won (the second) fight against Yan, which I rewatched and was like, ‘Man, he got gifted a decision.’ 

‘His fight with TJ (Dillashaw), TJ didn’t have a shoulder. Yeah, he has three wins, but that’s just the honest answer. 

‘I was impressed by the fact that he was able to come back and beat Yan, but other than that, I just don’t see him as a better competitor than me.’

Cejudo’s tone appears far more relaxed and genuine, an apparent move away from the persona of old. 

He explains: ‘It’s not about the cameras and all this other stuff. ‘I’m just being a businessman there with my persona. It was never about the people, and I hate saying it, but it’s the reality. 

‘I wrestled my whole life, one of the toughest sports in the world, with nobody in that damn crowd, but that excitement of you being the best in the world and feeling that, that’s what I (care about).’

Sterling’s title reign has not impressed Cejudo, who believes he will have too much  

‘I’m not a fighter; I’m a competitor,’ Cejudo said. ‘That’s just the reality. and when you start losing that competitive drive in you, even when you still know you’re growing, there was nothing more for me to prove.

‘There really wasn’t. I was happy with my career. It’s the challenge of me knowing that I could still do it. I have the mind for this. I have the brain for this. I have the IQ for this. 

‘You can’t go back (in) time. I’m 36 years young now, and I have to be able to show the world that competitive nature is still in me.’

Fighters over the age of 35 tend to struggle in lighter weight classes, with speed and reactions playing such a key role. 

So it will be fascinating to see how sharp Cejudo is against the unpredictable and flashy Sterling. 

Octagon-rust could also be a factor but there will be no lack of confidence. Cejudo has not tasted defeat since dropping a split decision to Joseph Benevidez back in 2016 and finished his last three fights by TKO before reaching the championship rounds. 

The UFC may quietly be hoping he beats Sterling this weekend to set up a compelling narrative – that of Cejudo going for a title in an unprecedented third weight class. 

Conor McGregor is expected back at the end of the year, Jon Jones’ return has been vital and Israel Adesanya is back on top at middleweight, but Cejudo injecting a shot of adrenaline into the divisions below would be welcome. 

Cejudo is coming into the fight off a long lay-off after a win against Dominick Cruz in 2020

Alexander Volkanovski is so dominant at featherweight but if Cejudo was to keep winning and step up for a shot at the 145-pound title it would be huge. 

The Australian will first need to come through Jair Rodriguez but other than yet another fight with Max Holloway, there would be little else for him in terms of fresh challenges. 

If Cejudo’s return becomes an all-conquering one, that fight would be an incredible opportunity for all parties. 

The California-born star can dream big but must must deal with the ‘Funkmaster’ problem in his immediate future first. 

If he can upset the New Jersey crowd and reclaim his old title, his comeback will be one of the stories of the year. 

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