UFC 227 on Saturday brought two title fights to the Staples Center in Los Angeles. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
Henry Cejudo looked like a fish out of water when he first met Demetrious Johnson. Quickly outclassed and manhandled in the clinch just two years ago, it appeared as though the flyweight division’s greatest hope at moving past the “Mighty Mouse” era was more hype than substance, as he fell to a series of devastating knees to the midsection. What a difference time makes.
While adding to his embryonic life as a mixed martial artist after capturing Olympic gold in freestyle wrestling in 2008, Cejudo took the patient route. Continually training and improving while not shying away from difficult matchups is the story of his post-UFC 197 life. A tough loss to the de facto No. 2 flyweight in the world at the time, Joseph Benavidez, left another blemish on his record but proved he could be as good as his pre-Ultimate Fighting Championship hype claimed. His destruction of Wilson Reis further cemented the idea, and the growth he showed against surging contender Sergio Pettis gave us enough evidence to think “The Messenger” was ready to test himself against one of the greatest of all-time again.
Cejudo passed that test with flying colors at UFC 227. Yes, it was a close decision. Yes, it could have gone either way. Say what you will about the decision -- my personal scorecard was 49-47 in favor of Cejudo -- but the truth of the matter is that he did what virtually no one else has ever done to Johnson during his record-setting championship reign: He made him uncomfortable. While Tim Elliott and John Dodson had their moments, once Johnson settled in to the task at hand, his legendary composure took over and he found himself quickly solving the puzzles those game challengers presented. However, this time Johnson was never afforded the luxury of comfort.
To the now former champion’s credit, his composure did not waver. He stayed relaxed and did not panic, even from the tough bottom positions in which he found himself several times. Still, Johnson never found true comfort. Cejudo capitalized and did not neglect the wrestling base that paved the way for his entrance into MMA. His ability to seize every opportunity to force his will upon “Mighty Mouse” ultimately gave him his best moments, and those moments were enough to capture two of the three scorecards. Cejudo even cut a great promo in an attempt to snatch the elusive superfight that can’t seem to leave the hearts and minds of the fanbase.
The new champion shined at the post-fight press conference. Entering the room with a playful taunt to the media about everyone doubting him, his stories about humble upbringings and championship mentality and embracing his potential role as the ambassador to a much-sought-after Mexican fight fan market, Cejudo already looks at home at the top of the throne.
While UFC President Dana White was standoffish when asked about Cejudo replacing Johnson in a champion-versus-champion contest against bantamweight titleholder T.J. Dillashaw, the idea is certainly intriguing -- if Johnson’s apparent knee and foot injuries delay a well-deserved immediate rematch. To go from being dismissed as cannon fodder for the dominant Johnson to being the one to steal his thunder, his belt and his possible biggest payday is a great transition.
As a disclaimer, there’s nothing bad about Cub Swanson. The man has been nothing but a pleasure to watch and has provided we bloodthirsty creeps with countless moments of excitement and suspense. He was the recipient of some of the biggest crowd responses during the entire fight week. Even the mere sight of his picture on the big screens sent the crowd at the Staples Center into a loud frenzy.
However, it appears that a perennial contender who could never quite get over the hump to a title shot will likely be relegated to gatekeeper status. After being choked out by a previously under-the-radar threat in Renato Carneiro, Swanson looks like his best days are behind him. He has lost three fights in a row, and while it’s unlikely the UFC will cut him, his dropping consecutive fights to Carneiro, Frankie Edgar and Brian Ortega means it will take a gargantuan effort to return Swanson to full contender status. At 34, it’s an uphill battle few ever win.
Of course, not getting your hand raised against those three fighters is nothing to be ashamed of. There was talk of Swanson getting his long-desired rematch against Jose Aldo if he emerged victorious against Carneiro. That seems to be unlikely now.
It was a bad week for Cody Garbrandt. “No Love” came up short in his rematch with Dillashaw in the main event. Not only did he fail to recapture the bantamweight title and restore his beloved Team Alpha Male camp’s championship status, but he was left in virtual purgatory within the division. After being finished even faster than he was at UFC 217, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Garbrandt gets a third crack at Dillashaw anytime soon. So long as the bantamweight strap sits on the mantle of Duane Ludwig’s favorite pupil, it’s highly unlikely Garbrandt will get anywhere near it. Anything other than Dillashaw being dethroned means Garbrandt will have to try his hand at another division if he intends on wearing UFC gold again.
In addition, fight week festivities kicked off with the ugly distraction of some regrettable tweets being unearthed. While the brief controversy did not seem to derail Garbrandt’s mindset, his initial response did nothing to put out the small fire. In fact, he simply added a touch of fuel to what was otherwise a spark. Tweets from a younger, less mature Garbrandt are hardly anything worth crucifying the former champion over.
While Garbrandt’s use of the dreaded N-word was of the hip hop variety and his use of the homophobic version of the F-word was a relic of what was once commonly seen as hypermasculinity and not the hate speech that many people view it to be today, a basic apology would have sufficed. Even one that only appears to be sincere on a surface level for public relations sake would have been good enough. Imagine your favorite mainstream stick-and-ball sport star in the same position. Look no further than April, when Buffalo Bills draft pick Josh Allen had similar tweets suddenly make news. Allen immediately offered a comment acknowledging the mistakes of his youth. Sure, there were a few headlines that demanded his head on a stick, but time passed, and now, just a few short months later, it is barely talked about.
To his credit, Garbrandt did offer a bit of an explanation to MMAJunkie.com afterwards and covered most of those bases. However, the delay only prolonged the unflattering story and served as an unneeded distraction from what was undoubtedly an already emotional leadup to the Dillashaw rematch.
Moreover, a good lemons-to-lemonade moment was missed by the Ohio native. His story of redemption from a dangerous life of street crime is a huge part of his appeal to fans. Garbrandt’s use of MMA to get off the streets and channel his aggressions complemented his style and provided a big boost to his image. Tales of drug dealing, street gangs, racially charged words and hate speech being traded in for the big paydays and bright lights of headlining UFC pay-per-views is an irresistible selling point.