Henry Cejudo says he has learned from a disheartening title defeat two years ago and is prepared for another tough test against one of the greatest mixed martial artists ever.
But in his Saturday night rematch at Staples Center against the longest-reigning champion in UFC history, flyweight Demetrious Johnson, Cejudo returns to the neighborhood where he was born seeking to conquer the organization’s seemingly unbeatable No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter.
“You have to realize this guy has set the bar — not just for me, but for all the mixed martial artists,” top-ranked contender Cejudo (12-2) said.
“When you recognize that, you strive for that. I want to dethrone that, to be the guy named when they ask who took him out on Aug. 4, 2018. It was Henry Cejudo … that kid who came from L.A., 10 miles from the Staples Center, who lived in a two-bedroom shack and reached UFC stardom.”
Doing so in the co-main event of UFC 227 would mark another impressive accomplishment for the 2008 Olympic wrestling gold medalist.
Two years ago in Las Vegas, Johnson (27-2-1) added Cejudo to his record run of 11 consecutive title defenses by battering him with knees to the body then finishing him with punches on the canvas in the first round.
The sentiment is that Johnson has so completely cleaned out the flyweight division, he should consider meeting one of the elite bantamweights — perhaps the winner of Saturday night’s main event between champion T.J. Dillashaw and former champion Cody Garbrandt.
But Cejudo is relying on something deeper: The perseverance that guided his Mexican immigrant mother, Nelly, to lead Henry and his six siblings away from the inner-city dangers of a now-demolished two-bedroom apartment on East Martin Luther King Boulevard toward a better life in Phoenix.
“My biological father, Jorge, kept getting in trouble, hooked on every drug you can think of and eventually got deported,” Cejudo said. “He passed away when I was 20. That’s what happens when you play with fire. That comes from my bloodline. That’s reality. That’s life.”
Accepting and scrutinizing hard reality helped Cejudo, then 21, win a gold medal 10 years ago this month at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.
“It’s about experience, understanding the levels, being a competitor and setting your eyes on the prize … that whole year in 2007, I took second at the U.S. Open, went overseas and wasn’t winning anything and said, ‘Man, what’s going on?’” Cejudo said.
“Finally I went to the Olympic trials and defeated the returning Olympic silver medalist, then still had to qualify to make the Olympics. Everything seemed like it was against me.
“To become the youngest ever to win an Olympic gold medal … the way I see it, in life, you deal with the cards you’re dealt. I know I lost the first time [to Johnson], but I’m just a better mixed martial artist now.”
Cejudo rallied last year to defeat top-10 flyweights Wilson Reis and Sergio Pettis and landed the Johnson rematch after the champion suffered a shoulder injury that scrapped a July super-fight against Dillashaw.
“That’s a gold-plated belt that Demetrious wears because he is so good in every area,” Cejudo said. “But I have the power, the heart, the wrestling, the determination and I’ve had time to mature. … Time is of the essence. It’s time for me to shine. The baton has to be passed.”
Crediting a nutrition and conditioning regimen, Cejudo said he’s capable of joining former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez as the only fighters of Mexican descent to stand as UFC champions.
A loyal crowd who attended his appearance at L.A. Live on Wednesday and chanted, “Seh-Who-Doh!” are eager to deliver him a home-arena advantage.
“I’m an American, but I never forget about my Mexican descent and that’s what pumps through my blood and my mentality – being that Aztec warrior,” he told the crowd.
“Having a mother who did so much for me … she taught me how to work hard and where dedication comes from. She always taught me to work with pride and dignity. What you do, you do 100%. There’s never an excuse.”
Main Event: T.J. Dillashaw (16-3) vs. Cody Garbrandt (11-1) for Dillashaw’s bantamweight belt
Where: Staples Center
When: First fight 3:30 p.m. Pacific, pay-per-view portion begins at 7 p.m. Saturday
Television: Pay-per-view, $64.95
Tickets: $60-$350 at axs.com, Staples Center box office