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Ron Swanson said it best in Season 5 of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” when he cautioned Leslie Knope, then attempting to work full-time as both a city councilor and a public servant, to “never half-ass two things. Whole ass one thing.” It’s advice Henry Cejudo should heed.
Coming into his UFC Fight Night 143 main event on Saturday in Brooklyn, New York, where the former Olympic gold medalist defended his 125-pound title opposite bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw atop the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s debut on the ESPN Plus streaming platform, “The Messenger” was sending out all kinds of mixed signals.
On the one hand, Cejudo wanted to be the Protector of the Realm, a man fighting for something greater than himself. With predecessor Demetrious Johnson having been “traded” to Singapore’s One Championship in October after he lost the 125-pound title and a cadre of flyweights having received walking papers in the aftermath, the prevailing wisdom was that a Dillashaw victory would trigger the axe hovering above the division to fall. Cejudo was therefore the last line of defense, and he enthusiastically embraced the savior mantle, repeating ad nauseam during the pre-fight media that the fight was “for the flyweights that aren’t big enough to make the jump to 135 pounds” and portraying the event as a resurrection of the weight class.
During those same interviews, however, often in the same breath, Cejudo characterized the fight as “business,” asserting that with a victory he would lobby for a rematch at bantamweight so he could become the promotion’s latest simultaneous two-division champion. He talked loquaciously about his legacy, and in the aftermath of the fight -- a 32-second shellacking that reduced an eager assassin in Dillashaw to a lip-quivering sore loser throwing a tantrum about an early stoppage -- Cejudo doubled down, demanding that their Mulligan would be 10 pounds north, with a substantial bump in his pay packet.
To again channel the venerable Mr. Swanson, he’s half-assing two things, holding himself out as the ambassador of a cause while pursuing an individualist agenda fundamentally inconsistent with it. When pressed on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show on Monday to declare which was a higher priority -- saving the flyweights or chasing a second title -- he initially attempted to deflect the question; and though he eventually proclaimed he was more committed to the former when pressed, it did little to inspire confidence that his resolve would hold up in the UFC’s boardroom on Thursday.
It’s a shame, because if Cejudo is serious about this whole Guardian of the Flyweight Galaxy bit, there’s a fairly straightforward path to securing its future -- at least in the short-term. It involves calling out Joseph Benavidez, who has won eight of his last nine fights and owns a December 2016 decision victory over Cejudo, and selling that narrative. It involves telling “Killashaw” to pound sand until he has done enough to earn a rematch and categorically rejecting any suggestion that the fight was stopped early. It includes shining a consistent spotlight on top flyweight contenders like Jussier Formiga and Deiveson Figueiredo and the challenges they present to his championship reign, all while stating loudly and clearly that the only way he entertains another superfight is if there’s a succession plan in place for his old haunt. It requires patience, perseverance and integrity.
In the current frenzied climate -- where the UFC seems bent on promoting as many “super” and “money” fights as possible while relegating divisional turnover and maintenance to bygones of the Zuffa era -- this seems like it’s a lot to ask. However, it’s worth remembering that until a few years ago Cejudo would have been expected to completely clean out his division before moving up in weight to challenge for a second strap. Putting a stamp on the weight class and allowing interest in a rematch with Dillashaw to build organically shouldn’t be seen as subversive or an especially outlandish, especially for a guy looking to build his brand as a custodian of the division.
With a wave of new casual fans having become acquainted with the 125-pound weight class and its champion courtesy of the ESPN platform, a solid lineup of deserving challengers to the title, a new wave of prospects moving up and the leverage that comes with having just starched the bantamweight champion, Cejudo has a real shot at saving the weight class and making a meaningful impact on the status quo. The only question is whether he wants to or not.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. 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.