Henry Cejudo, The Attention Merchant

By Jacob Debets Jul 24, 2020
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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On Saturday night, Deiveson Figueiredo put a hellacious beating on four-time Ultimate Fighting Championship title challenger Joseph Benavidez, clinching the vacant 125-pound title in perhaps the most terrifying flyweight performance in the division’s short history. The weekend prior, 27-year old Russian Petr Yan brutally finished former long-reigning featherweight champion Jose Aldo inside four rounds, capturing the vacant bantamweight title and improving to 7-0 inside the Octagon. The vacuum left by Henry Cejudo – who briefly reigned as a two-division titleholder across both weight classes before vacating the 125-pound title in December, then abruptly retiring in May -- has finally been filled, and fans are already looking ahead to the exciting new possibilities heralded by this next generation of young champions.

The only hang-up is that Cejudo has had a hard time staying away from the UFC spotlight. Despite promising in his retirement speech at UFC 249 that “Triple C is out, you don’t have to hear my ass no more,” the former Olympic gold medallist has been tweeting prolifically at his successors and is evidently determined to remain at the centre of relevancy. He’s labelled Yan and Figueiredo “rent-a-champs,” “interim champs” and “bozos” while half-heartedly campaigning to challenge 145-pound champion Alex Volkanovski in the hopes of getting a third UFC title around his waist. He’s continued to give interviews, teased super-fights across different promotions, weight classes and sports and generally given off the impression he is very much not ready to hang up the gloves.

To be sure, fans weren’t exactly sold on Cejudo’s retirement pitch in the immediate aftermath of UFC 249. Polls conducted by various outlets showed that the overwhelming majority of fans didn’t believe his pledge to move on from MMA was sincere, with many speculating that he was leveraging his championship to extract greater compensation from the UFC. Others were incredulous towards the possibility that a fighter could leave the sport while they were still on top -- a reflection of how conditioned we are to expect legends to continue competing well past their prime.

Regardless of his original intentions, Cejudo has proven manifestly unwilling or incapable of retreating from the public eye -- even for a short period -- thus ensuring that any fan-led push to see him “un-retire” is robbed of any real momentum. To put it another way, it’s hard to miss someone who is still very much around, particularly when they keep inserting themselves into discussions about their former stomping grounds.

Clues to Cejudo’s pathological need for attention are littered throughout his storied combat sports career. In his 2011 autobiography “American Victory” (co-authored by Bill Plaschke), which documents Cejudo’s journey from abject poverty to the Bejing Olympic games where he won a gold medal in freestyle wrestling, Cejudo candidly reflects on how his upbringing, characterised by neglect and material deprivation, instilled a deep-seated need for external validation. In one passage, Cejudo reflects on being tentatively diagnosed with ADD in elementary school as a result of his raucous behavior:
“I suffered from a lack of attention, all right. But it wasn’t only my lack of attention, it was the lack of attention other people paid to me. Which is to say, none. I acted nuts and out of control because I needed that attention. I craved it. I needed that attention because I was always the new kid, without a history… I wanted people to see me as a shining light because, when I returned home each night, I was surrounded by darkness…” (pg 49)
In another, he describes his love of, and commitment to, high school wrestling as a vehicle to affirmation and acceptance:
“I was desperate for the outlet. I was desperate for attention and care. I was desperate for love… Some people don’t need that affirmation. I wasn’t one of those people. I needed a pat on the back, an arm around my shoulder, somebody to tell me I was cool and smart and worth it. All those people running around all the cramped spaces of my life, and it was like nobody ever took time to slow down and notice me.” (pg 62)
In perhaps the most revealing passage, Cejudo reflects on being subject to a long period of the “silent treatment” by his mentor and coach after being caught joyriding in his car, describing the feeling of being ignored as bordering on torturous:
“[Tracy] never said another word to us the entire trip… It was the worst thing. It was exactly how you kill me. You ignore me. You don’t talk to me. You don’t listen to me. You marginalize me and shut me out. It is exactly what [he] did, and it worked. I have never felt more sorry for hurting someone ever, never felt more soundly punished.”
Viewed against the psychological profile set out in Cejudo’s book, the present-day desperation of “Triple C” to remain at the top of the news cycle makes much more sense -- even if it ultimately undermines his ability to negotiate a lucrative comeback. Sure, one feels that Cejudo could benefit from channelling the great Georges St. Pierre, who retired as the undisputed welterweight champion back in 2013 and withdrew from the MMA spotlight for several years before moving up to challenge the 185-pound titleholder in a pay-per-view extravaganza in 2017. But given Cejudo’s track record, it’s doubtful he possesses the discipline to stay away for even a fraction of that time.

As long as his primary motivation is to attract and maintain eyeballs, it’s unlikely Cejudo finds a more accommodating environment than MMA, which continues to embrace and amplify his “King of Cringe” persona -- best-described by The Athletic’s Shaheen Al-Shatti as “the lovechild of Chael Sonnen and Tito Ortiz.” And while his MMA fame has netted him other combat-sports-adjacent opportunities, including appearances on the professional wrestling circuit, it’s hard to imagine him staying in the public eye on the strength of his personality alone, making an eventual comeback feel almost inevitable.

The real question, then, isn’t whether Cejudo stays retired; it’s when and whom he will eventually return against. If he really is about being the best, then fights against Figueiredo or Yan would do much to solidify his claim to pound-for-pound legitimacy and would be genuinely intriguing match-ups with huge hardcore appeal. If it’s just about celebrity, then “super-fights” against ageing legends -- think Urijah Faber, Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar -- are probably more likely, though it’s doubtful he’s compensated in the way he feels he deserves.

Either way, Cejudo has already made it clear he’s incapable of staying away from the spotlight. The only intrigue is how long he manages to stay there.

Jacob Debets is a lawyer and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com. Advertisement


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