Henry Cejudo and T.J. Dillashaw came home to Staples Center on Saturday night, walked out with two UFC title belts and then vowed to meet each other next in a super-fight.
Ten years to the month that Cejudo won Olympic wrestling gold, the Los Angeles native remarkably strapped on the UFC’s golden flyweight belt with an inspired split-decision victory over long-reigning champion Demetrious Johnson.
Orange County’s Dillashaw repeated his November stoppage of former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt, doing it faster this time with a first-round technical knockout.
“I am the best bantamweight of all time,” Dillashaw, a former Cal State Fullerton wrestler, said in the octagon, and when UFC host Joe Rogan informed him that Cejudo wants to fight next, Dillashaw answered, “Bring it baby, let’s do this.”
Dillashaw (16-3) was willing to meet former Sacramento stablemate Garbrandt (11-2) in the center of the ring for a toe-to-toe battle that Garbrandt got the better of early with a left that caused swelling under the champion’s right eye.
“He caught me good but there was nothing to worry about,” Dillashaw said.
Having sparred with three-division boxing champion Vasiliy Lomachenko and trained under veteran boxing cornerman Joel Diaz in Indio before this rematch, Dillashaw found openings to wobble and knock down Garbrandt.
“I expected him to counter my kicks. So I waited with my right hand. And that’s what happened,” Dillashaw said.
A hard power punch to the nose staggered Garbrandt again and Dillashaw held the challenger with his left arm while delivering nine unanswered punches. A kick then set up a finishing combination of punches as referee Herb Dean stopped the fight.
In Cejudo’s upset as a 5-1 underdog, he relied on the wrestling skill he developed as a more massive Olympic longshot who become a 21-year-old gold medalist at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Cejudo scored takedowns in each of the final four rounds and relied on his larger frame to shrug off Johnson punches and knees to cap a stirring rise he couldn’t help but pause and appreciate.
“I was born in South Central L.A. in a two-bedroom apartment 10 miles from here and I came back from being knocked out in the first round” two years ago in a loss to Johnson, he said.
Judges awarded Cejudo the split decision by scores of 48-47, 47-48, 48-47, ending Johnson’s record reign of 11 consecutive title defenses and making Cejudo (13-2) the first Olympic gold medalist and UFC champion.
“I kept kicking his legs, but he’s a big dude,” Johnson said. “I knew he’d bring his ‘A’ game. He’s big and strong.”
After enduring the effects of Johnson’s hand and foot speed early on, Cejudo answered by asserting his size advantage to toss Johnson (27-3-1) to the mat with just more than two minutes left in the fourth round.
There, Cejudo remained atop a squirming Johnson, burning the remaining seconds off the clock as Johnson failed to wiggle free.
In the deciding fifth, Cejudo recorded another takedown with 1:15 remaining and applied heavier pressure to sweep the round. It was Johnson’s first loss since a 2011 bantamweight defeat to former champion Dominick Cruz.
Unlike Johnson, who adamantly sought to remain in a division he had cleaned out before Saturday’s event, Cejudo said, “America is all about winners. Whoever wins” between Dillashaw and Garbrandt, “I want to fight that guy.”
The UFC staged a super-fight last month in which light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier added heavyweight Stipe Miocic’s belt to his collection, and the organization is also seeking a meeting of women’s featherweight champion Cris Cyborg and bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes in December.
Earlier, Renato Moicano (13-1-1) followed a knockdown jab of Palm Springs featherweight Cub Swanson (25-10) by forcing the veteran to tap out by rear naked chokehold 4:15 into the fight. It was Swanson’s third straight loss.
The fifth-ranked Swanson sought to counter Moicano’s developing stand-up game by darting in with big punches, but the 10th-ranked Brazilian took the fight to the ground and pressed to fight Harbor City’s top-ranked contender Brian Ortega, who was in attendance, for an interim title.
Champion Max Holloway is sidelined after withdrawing from a July fight against Ortega with concussion-like symptoms.