While Henry Cejudo has always looked the part of an elite fighter, it was in just his three most recent fights that he truly emerged as one of the elite athletes in the UFC. Beginning in 2018, Cejudo started a three-fight stretch that includes winning the UFC flyweight championship with a controversial decision over Demetrious Johnson, an explosive destruction of T.J. Dillashaw at 125 pounds and a weight jump to win the vacant bantamweight title against Marlon Moraes.
Cejudo had established himself as a pound-for-pound elite with titles in two weight classes and seemed poised to cash in on his unique, and sometimes grating, personality in the biggest fights possible. But it soon became clear that the biggest fights for Cejudo weren't necessarily going to be the best fights.
After former longtime featherweight champion Jose Aldo made a surprising drop to bantamweight and battled to a competitive split decision loss against Moraes, he became Cejudo's target. Aldo had outperformed expectations in his loss, with most observers questioning his decision to move down in weight after having notoriously hard cuts to the 145-pound featherweight limit. But, with an 0-1 record at bantamweight, he seemed an odd call-out for the champ.
Can't get enough UFC? Subscribe to our podcast State of Combat with Brian Campbell where we break down everything you need to know in the Octagon, including a complete preview of UFC 249 with 'Suga' Rashad Evans below.
"I want to give him a clap at his last performance because a lot of people thought he won," Cejudo said in a video posted on Twitter. "I want to congratulate him because now he's part of the Henry Cejudo sweepstakes, but it's under my terms. I want to fight him in my city. Rio de Janeiro. Daddy's coming home. Dana White, let's sign that contract."
The fight was made for UFC 250 in Sao Paulo, Brazil with UFC president Dana White defending the matchmaking as critics pointed out there were more deserving contenders in line, men like Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling who had both gone on lengthy winning streaks in the division.
"Jose Aldo has been a bad motherf---er his whole career, and a guy like Cejudo wants to fight him," White said. "Instead of criticizing, you should respect that, the fact that he wants to fight Jose Aldo. Cejudo isn't a guy running around looking for easy fights. He's not like, 'Oh, I want this guy or that guy,' and coming off the fight he just fought, to win his second belt, and the way that he won it, this isn't a guy looking for easy fights."
Then came the global coronavirus pandemic and large scale travel restrictions that derailed the UFC's ability to hold the event in Brazil. In the ensuing scramble, Cejudo vs. Aldo fell and a new challenger was lined up, albeit one with an equal amount of questions and scrutiny.
Cejudo will now face former two-time bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, who will be making his first appearance inside the Octagon since 2016 where he lost his belt to Cody Garbrandt. Cruz is considered an all-time great after incredible runs in the Octagon, but injuries and inactivity make this a questionable choice after 40 months without a fight.
In terms title reigns, Cejudo's bantamweight run is getting off to an unprecedented start. While there have been a small handful of times title shots have been awarded to fighters coming off a loss, going from a planned fight with a fighter who had never won in the division to someone who has not fought in more than three years is unique to Cejudo.
The most similar start to a title reign may belong to Michael Bisping. After winning the middleweight championship by knocking out Luke Rockhold, Bisping's first title defense was against Dan Henderson in October 2016. Henderson was coming off a destructive TKO of Hector Lombard and had scored a highlight-reel knockout of Bisping in 2009. He was not the top contender in the division at the time, but a title shot could be somewhat justified.
Bisping would follow up his win over Henderson by facing Georges St-Pierre, the greatest welterweight fighter ever. St-Pierre had never fought at middleweight and was four years removed from active competition, though he was on a 12-fight winning streak. Bisping would ultimately lose, leaving behind a muddy championship legacy.
Why, then, is Cejudo targeting men who are outside the top 10 challengers in the division?
"I'm on a legacy rampage, and I feel like Dominick is one of the guys that I can remember that made a big name, that kind of paved the road for a lot of us little guys," Cejudo said during a media conference call. "That's another reason why I wanted to fight him. I want to continue to add big names to my hit list and continue this legacy rampage."
Should he manage to beat Cruz and eventually fight and beat Aldo, Cejudo would have wins over the consensus best flyweight, bantamweight and featherweight fighters in history. It would be a big mark of pride and could define his legacy when looking back at his career.
Of course, there's big risk in inviting "undeserving" challengers into the Octagon. For the good that marquee names could do for Cejudo's own legacy, the damage of losing to Cruz -- who has spent recent years in the commentary booth -- could be a stain Cejudo will never be able to remove. And Cruz is well aware that his unique style and long reach could allow him to do just that.
"When you're in there missing, you're gonna find out real quick the difference, and the amount of rounds that I've got in there over you," Cruz said during the media call. "I've got hours in there over you, little man. You're a wrestler. I'm about to prove that and expose you real quick."
With a win, Cejudo's "legacy rampage" will move to Aldo as top contenders continue to sit on the sidelines. But a loss will leave the king little more than a court jester.
Saturday night will prove if the risk was worth it.