How the King of Cringe plans to become GOAT
Marc Raimondi, ESPN Staff WriterMay 5, 2023, 07:48 AM ET
Henry Cejudo walked on stage wearing a janky crown and a cheap-looking robe. In his hands were a top hat and plastic scepter. Cejudo, like a two-bit magician, produced from the hat in sequence: a plush mouse, a rubber snake and a white rabbit — all of which he violently tossed or swatted at with the scepter.
It was June 6, 2019, UFC 238 media day, and Cejudo had no problem acting a fool, looking like someone who had dressed himself with the plunder of a raid on Party City.
Marlon Moraes, his opponent, shook his head in disbelief. UFC president Dana White looked skyward, as if he wished he were anywhere else. Cejudo just completed the staredown with a straight face and then mean-mugged for the cameras.
“You’ll see the replay fights on ESPN,” Cejudo’s strength and conditioning coach, Matt Wiedemer, said. “… And you’re like, ‘God, he was such a cheeseball.’ He was cringey, right?”
Two days later, Cejudo would win the UFC bantamweight title, making himself only the fourth fighter in UFC history to hold two divisional titles simultaneously, as he already held the flyweight belt.
Cejudo, playing off what MMA fans said about him in social media comments, dubbed himself Triple C (two UFC championships and an Olympic championship) and then the King of Cringe in 2019. At first the latter was a reluctant acceptance, but then he leaned so far into it he almost fell over, making cracks that wouldn’t even meet the lower threshold of a dad joke and coming up with inane nicknames for divisional rivals. All the while, he was putting together one of the best fight résumés ever in the UFC.
A year later, at the height of his popularity and right at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cejudo stunningly retired from the fight game. After knocking out former champion Dominick Cruz to successfully defend his bantamweight title at UFC 249 in May 2020, Cejudo made the announcement in his postfight interview, unceremoniously, in front of an empty arena.
“Triple C is out,” Cejudo told Joe Rogan. “You guys don’t have to hear my ass no more.”
There were several reasons for Cejudo to retire, one of which was financial. Cejudo said at the time he wasn’t getting paid enough. But what Cejudo really needed was a break. He was 33 and had started wrestling at 11 years old. He won a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, and continued wrestling before transitioning into MMA in 2013.
“I was like, ‘You know what? I’m sick of this, man,'” Cejudo said. “I’m tired of competing. That’s all I’ve ever done was compete, and that’s all I’ve ever done was win.”
And on Saturday night in Newark, New Jersey, Cejudo will try to win once again. He’ll try to regain the belt he never lost in the cage, fighting against Aljamain Sterling at UFC 288 (10 p.m. ET on ESPN ) and trying to win over the fans who, even after all these years of success, have largely failed to fully acknowledge how great he has been.
CEJUDO’S COACH ERIC Albarracin met Cejudo when he was 17 years old. As long as he has known him, Albarracin said, Cejudo has had three goals: win an Olympic gold medal, become a UFC champion and start a family. With the first two already in the bag, Cejudo’s time away from the Octagon allowed him to accomplish the third. He got married in 2021, and he and Karolina had their first child, a daughter named America, on Nov. 18, 2021. Cejudo recently announced that Karolina is pregnant again and they will welcome another baby later this year.
Cejudo spent the first year away from the UFC traveling and building a relationship with his family. But for the past two years, he has been at Fight Ready in Scottsdale, Arizona, five days a week when he is in town, according to coach Eddie Cha. Cejudo did some training himself, especially over the past year, but prior to signing on for his own fight, he had become a high-profile coach in the training camps of some of the UFC’s best. He also started a YouTube channel filled with fight breakdowns that have drawn raves across the MMA world for their attention to detail.
Over the past 24 months, Cejudo has helped train the likes of current or former UFC champions Jon Jones, Zhang Weili, Deiveson Figueiredo, Jiří Procházka and Cris Cyborg. He has also developed what he calls a “great friendship” with Demetrious Johnson, his old rival, from whom Cejudo won the flyweight title in their 2018 second meeting. Johnson and his wife, Destiny, have a summer home in Arizona. Last year, he reached out to Cejudo, and the two decided they would train together. They have clicked and become inexplicably close.
“He’s a genuinely good person,” Johnson said. “I like him a lot. … I don’t think there [are] two martial artists who fought each other who actually confide in each other on how we should approach our fights and actually take that advice from one another.”
Jones returned after three years to win the UFC heavyweight title at UFC 285 in March, beating Ciryl Gane in the first round with a guillotine choke. After the fight, Cejudo’s team posted a video to his YouTube channel of Cejudo showing Jones the exact technique that Jones used to get the submission. That YouTube page is filled with fight breakdowns from what former UFC middleweight title challenger Chael Sonnen said comes from Cejudo’s “expert mind for the sport.”
“We talk about happiness and being real with emotions, and his coaching is more than just combat tactics,” Jones said about Cejudo in 2021. “He really tries to make you the best man you can be, and it really feels like he is a guy that I need to be around.”
Cejudo’s next act? A return to the Octagon in an effort to become the greatest UFC fighter of all time. With a victory Saturday, Cejudo has made it clear he would eye a challenge for the belt at featherweight next. No UFC fighter has been a champion in three weight divisions.
Having a young family was not the motivation for Cejudo to return to MMA, he said, but it is something he considers in the training room at Fight Ready as he gets ready for this big comeback bout.
“I love my wife,” Cejudo said. “I love my baby. They don’t even want me to fight. I’m not the type of guy that brings my kids to a fight. That’s just not me. I’m doing this to be the best in the world. It has nothing to do with my family. But is it an incentive? 100 percent.”
Cejudo is more serious these days. But the King of Cringe hasn’t totally been phased out. Just somewhat deemphasized. He makes no apologies about that.
“Whether you hate my persona or love it, I’m here to make history,” Cejudo said. “I don’t need a pat on the back from anybody, in reality. I just need more accolades. That’s what I’m digging for.”
Cejudo was wearing something other than the magician outfit that afternoon in Chicago at UFC 238 media day: his Olympic wrestling gold medal. In 2008, a 21-year-old Cejudo became the youngest American to ever win an Olympic championship in wrestling, one year after not scoring a point and finishing 31st at the world championships.
The King of Cringe has many layers, and if you think he’s only that, then the joke will be on you.
“You have never met anyone like Henry Cejudo,” said Daniel Cormier, a former UFC double champion and U.S. wrestling team captain. “You just haven’t.”
CORMIER REMEMBERS CEJUDO as the “annoying little kid” at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. Cejudo arrived there at 17 years old, joining a team filled with wrestlers in their mid-to-late 20s. That is where Cejudo started to realize he had his own brand of foolish humor, which was built via positive reinforcement.
“If it’s a corny joke and [his teammates] laugh, he says more corny jokes,” said Albarracin, now a longtime close confidante who was also at the Olympic Training Center then. “And then that’s kind of how he stayed corny.”
The origin of the King of Cringe character, though, can be traced to when Cejudo coached opposite Joseph Benavidez on “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show in 2016. Cejudo took the role seriously and made his best effort to be a sound mentor for his fighters. But things went sideways quickly when Cejudo’s then-teammate Brandon Moreno ended up on Benavidez’s team.
“The Ultimate Fighter 24” was unique because it involved all flyweight champions from other promotions, and unlike in most seasons of the show, the fighters were seeded. The tournament winner would get a title shot. When Cejudo selected Alexandre Pantoja with his top pick, he later learned that Pantoja was seeded No. 1 and Moreno, the No. 16 seed, would be his opponent. That sent Moreno automatically to Team Benavidez. Moreno took that somewhat personally, as he was living with Cejudo at the time and Cejudo had helped him get onto the show. Cejudo immediately became the bad guy. Or at least, that was the perception.
Albarracin said Cejudo felt so bad about what happened that he would not visit the fighter house during filming.
“He cared what everybody would think about him,” Albarracin said. “And you could see it in the show how Benavidez was intimidating him with things like that.”
Cejudo was painted as the villain in the editing of the show, also assisted by the fact that Benavidez was a longtime fan favorite. Then Cejudo lost to Benavidez via split decision in December 2016.
While things were simmering inside of him, there still wasn’t a marked change in Cejudo’s interviews or social media presence until he dethroned Johnson at UFC 227 in August 2018 to win the UFC flyweight title. Cejudo snapped Johnson’s record of 11 straight UFC title defenses by handing the all-time great his first loss in seven years.
Henry Cejudo: The perfect heel
Henry Cejudo meets all the criteria for being the UFC’s perfect heel.
According to Albarracin, Cejudo expected to finally get the credit due to him after such a historic win, especially considering that Johnson had finished him the first time the two met in 2016. That fan acceptance didn’t happen. The rematch was close, and some thought Johnson was the rightful winner. Cejudo was still seen as a bit of a rogue, and it made him feel similar to when he was criticized after he announced, following his winning of the Olympic gold medal, that he was taking a break from wrestling.
“He doesn’t sleep for two years until he fights Demetrious Johnson again,” Albarracin said. “And in his mind, when he beats Johnson, everybody’s going to love him. But what happened? Oh, it was controversial. ‘[Cejudo] lost — blah, blah, blah, blah.’ And still, he never got the love. And I think that was the breaking point. That was the stick that broke the camel’s back because that’s when he said, ‘I don’t give a s— what people think about me anymore.'”
In addition to that feeling, at the time the UFC was considering abolishing the flyweight division. Johnson was traded to One Championship for Ben Askren later in 2018, and the UFC released several top 125-pound fighters. Cejudo felt like he had to make some waves to get the weight class some buzz.
“I know everyone says that, but honestly, he is better than he was three years ago. That’s all I can say.”
His first title defense was scheduled for January 2019, a superfight against then-bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw, who would be moving down to flyweight to attempt to become a two-division champ. Borrowing from Conor McGregor’s description of Dillashaw as a “snake in the grass” on “The Ultimate Fighter” years earlier, Cejudo used that line often in his trash talk. During fight week, before a promotional faceoff with Dillashaw, Cejudo brought a huge rubber snake with him onstage and started whipping it against the ground violently, just feet from where Dillashaw was standing.
Cejudo knocked out Dillashaw in 32 seconds to retain the belt. The UFC also decided later that year to not kill off the flyweight division after all. The King of Cringe was making waves.
“And then he did get bigger,” Cejudo’s striking coach, Cha, said. “His followers went up, everything went up. Maybe because they hated him, whatever. But he literally laughs when he posts something and you’ll see 500 comments and 300 of them are all negative. He just laughs at it. I go, ‘Henry, why are you entertaining these guys and responding?’ He goes, ‘I don’t care about this stuff. I just laugh at it. … But I’m getting the comments, right? I’m getting the likes.’ So, he doesn’t mind being the bad guy.”
CORMIER FLEW TO Arizona last month to interview Cejudo in Cormier’s role as a UFC broadcaster. While there, Cejudo showed him a chart that keeps track of his training camp, down to the percentages of how hard he would work each day. Saturday, in Cejudo’s plan, is the most important one — it’s when he simulates fight day.
Cormier didn’t want to go into detail about what the chart contained, but he said he was blown away by the attention to detail. Cejudo then gave Cormier a version of the chart for Cormier’s Gilroy (California) High School wrestling team.
“It was crazy,” Cormier said. “He was like, ‘DC, I don’t just do my camp — I do my camp in this way.’ And he showed me all these things. I was like wow. This dude is not just training to get ready for a fight. He’s getting ready for a fight like not many others do. … It’s fun to see someone treat this like a real sport.”
Albarracin said Cejudo keeps a red book with him to write down tactics and information he has gleaned about his future opponents. Cejudo breaks down foes in five categories: attack, counterattack, anticipate, feel and take risk. Based on how he analyzes fighters, Cejudo will come up with a game plan and then gears his preparation to match that.
“I turn it into a card game — my five senses against their five senses,” Cejudo said. “And I start to dabble into how I’m actually going to fight the fight. Having that ability to adjust to a fighter is also key.”
Wiedemer calls Cejudo “brilliant” because of the way he’s able to analyze what isn’t working in his game and then understand the foundational steps he can take to improve those things. It’s a more complex version of working smarter, not harder. Wiedemer is a longtime strength and conditioning coach for Jones, who referred him to Cejudo. Wiedemer and his partner Stan Efferding, who also handles Cejudo’s nutrition, have been flying to Arizona on alternating weeks during this training camp from Cincinnati and Las Vegas, respectively.
“That’s the real genius of Henry,” Wiedemer said. “He understands how to dissect something. In our training, we don’t do anything that’s not measurable, progressive and transferrable. … Henry will tell you we don’t do a lot of barbell lifts, because it’s not pertinent to what Henry is doing. The exercises we have Henry doing are going to be transferable to his sport.”
The two staple exercises of Cejudo’s training camp, per Wiedemer, have been the “power Pohl” and a belt squat. The power Pohl is a workout device worn around the shoulders and torso that zeroes in on the hips, as well as the glutes, hamstrings and spinal erectors. The belt squat contains a platform Cejudo is strapped into where weight is pulling him down from the floor. Cejudo has been using up to 200 pounds of tension in the belt squat, and Wiedemer has him do his MMA drills — including sparring — while strapped into the machine.
“He’s 30% stronger in his hips and his glutes and his hamstrings [since the start of training camp],” Wiedemer said. “He’s 25% stronger in his upper back. His conditioning is through the roof. I mean, he can blow through sparring rounds. When he started, three three-minute rounds might’ve given him trouble. Now he’s blowing through five five-minute rounds no problem. He’s leaner. He’s never been this lean and big heading into a fight. His weight is right where he wants it to be, but he’s never been this muscular.”
Cha has seen similar gains in Cejudo’s MMA performance in the gym.
“Honestly, this is the best we’ve seen him,” Cha said. “It’s the lowest he has been in weight, but he’s way stronger. He’s just so twitchy fast. He understands the game. Not to give too much away, but it’s hard to describe how good he is right now. I know everyone says that, but honestly, he is better than he was three years ago. That’s all I can say.” If Cejudo was going to return the Octagon, it was never going to be halfway. He has designs on not only winning back the bantamweight title, but defending it before the end of summer against emerging star Sean O’Malley. After that, Cejudo would like to home in on the UFC featherweight title and current champion Alexander Volkanovski.
Cejudo is already the only fighter to win an Olympic gold medal and two UFC divisional titles. Now, he wants to be the first athlete to become a UFC triple champion. Albarracin said Cejudo believes doing so would make him the greatest of all time in MMA.
“As much as Henry says he’s the greatest combat athlete of all time — and he is because of what he has done in the two different sports, the hardest sports of them all, and who he beat to do it — he still doesn’t place himself on [GOAT] mountain,” Albarracin said. “… I think him coming back is the first step to him climbing GOAT mountain.”
Money is a factor in his return. Family has been an incentive. And coaching all the top-level fighters he has acted as an inspiration, Cejudo said. But more than anything, the one thing driving him to fight again is the fact that there is more legacy left to be written. “I’m in it to win it,” Cejudo said. “Persona aside — forget everything that I just said — I’m a competitor and I’m the ultimate, most competitive guy you’ll ever meet. And I take my training serious. I take everything I do serious.”
Well, almost. Just when you think the King of Cringe might be sent into hibernation, Cejudo can’t help but slip back into character during an interview before UFC 288, poking fun at Sterling’s Caribbean heritage.
“I’m just a cornball,” Cejudo said with a laugh. “I’m a cringey human being who just knows how to win. That’s it. That’s who I am.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.