The Great Divide: Is Henry Cejudo really going to call it quits?

The Great Divide: Is Henry Cejudo really going to call it quits?

The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

For the past few years, Henry Cejudo has done everything he set out to do in MMA. He’s won two UFC titles, he’s toppled legends, and now it looks like he’s planning to go out on top after defeating all-time great Dominick Cruz at UFC 249. At 33 years old and with an Olympic gold medal already in his trophy case, “Triple C” has a resume that rivals anyone who has ever competed in combat sports. His coach seems to believe that Cejudo will stick to his fight night proclamation that he is done with fighting, but could it just be a negotiating tactic to set up the next phase of Cejudo’s career?

Mike Chiappetta and Jed Meshew offer their perspective on whether we see Cejudo step into the octagon again.

HE’S DONE

Chiappetta: The skepticism surrounding Cejudo’s surprising decision to hang up his gloves at 33 is warranted. We’ve seen dozens of fighters call it quits at a much later age, at a time when their skills had already eroded, only to return anyway. Cejudo leaving at the height of his success does not follow any narrative we’re familiar with. Only Georges St-Pierre is a modern comparable. The Canadian great stepped away at age 32, but even then, he went out of his way to call it a hiatus and leave the door open to a later return.

Cejudo was a bit more definitive in his statement, saying that it wasn’t a publicity stunt.

“I do sincerely believe I am the greatest combat athlete of all time, and I do want to leave on top,” he said that night.

In explaining his thought process, Cejudo laid out the exhausting and single-minded dedication that has been necessary to excel in wrestling, where he won an Olympic gold medal, and MMA, where he was a two-division UFC champion. He’s never been married, never had children. He has had to be, in his own words, “extremely selfish.” And while he reached the level of greatness he wanted, the financial reward has not been what he hoped for.

In Cejudo’s most recent fight, a TKO win over Dominick Cruz, his disclosed pay was $350,000, according to the Florida State Boxing Commission, which oversaw the event. Despite being a two-division champion, his disclosed pay was less than that of Tony Ferguson, who made $500,000. While he might have made additional compensation including pay-per-view points, the final number apparently doesn’t meet his efforts.

Cejudo has mentioned a certain number that would make his return worthwhile. But as we have just seen with the Jon Jones-Francis Ngannou saga, the UFC is unlikely to budge, especially at a time when the coffers have taken a hit due to a lack of gate and event-day revenue. If the promotion is not going to hike paydays for a proven box-office draw like Jones, there is almost no chance they will do so for Cejudo, who generated headlines but never emerged as a major gate attraction. And if that is the case, isn’t the UFC making Cejudo’s decision for him?

Cejudo has been participating in elite competition for 15 years. He’s had surgeries to his shoulder and his foot, and has experienced injuries to his hand, knee and ankle. His path toward the top was filled with detours and diversions he successfully navigated, but it’s easy to imagine that at some point he would determine that the reward is no longer worth the effort. Remember, it was just this past December when Cejudo laid out this exact scenario.

“I’m in this game for 100 percent money,” he told MMA Fighting then. “I’m in this to make money. I’m not in this for another championship. I’ve accomplished everything I’ve ever wanted to accomplish. There’s only one thing missing: That’s a whole bunch of zeroes behind me competing and entertaining a bunch of people. That’s it. … I’m in this for strictly financial. I want to fight the best. I want to fight what they got, but if the number doesn’t equal out to what I feel like I’m gonna get paid, then I’m out. They can keep both belts.”

As we know, the UFC and its president Dana White do not like ultimatums. It took them four years to reach an agreement for St-Pierre’s comeback in 2017, and he was one of their all-time great money generators. Cejudo was the king in a division (flyweight) that the promotion cares little about, and a second (bantamweight) that is loaded with talent that can step into the championship picture with little drop-off. His leverage, therefore, is limited, and that’s why it seems a return may not be in the cards. For him to return, his resolve will have to be broken, and if there is one thing we know about champions like Cejudo and St-Pierre, they are long on that commodity.

One last note to this debate: it’s a shame that the focus here is on Cejudo and what he’s going to do rather than the UFC’s willingness to let its No. 3 pound-for-pound fighter walk away over a few bucks. Because at the end of the day, the promotion can part with the cash to make this a non-issue, but instead, they choose to prioritize profit over product. They continue to parrot out their long-held motto that they make the best fights, but that comes with an asterisk. They make the best fights because they control the best talent. But if Jones vs. Ngannou is an impossibility, if they’ll let Cejudo walk away rather than defend, are they really doing what they say? These are not run-of-the-mill fighters; these are greats that make the sport better.

But nope, they’ll rarely bend. Why would they when they can leave it to the athletes to be the bad guys? They’ll claim the fighters didn’t really want the fight, and in extreme cases like Cejudo’s, they’ll let great ones vanish. Is Cejudo really done fighting? If it turns out that he is, the UFC’s stance should be remembered for helping push him out the cage door.

HE’S NOT RETIRED

Meshew: That was an exceptionally well-reasoned argument, Mike. Unfortunately, the conclusion you’ve arrived at is incorrect. Henry Cejudo is retired in the way that Conor McGregor or Nate Diaz retired. He may not fight again in 2020. Hell, he might sit out a couple of years and relinquish his belts. But Henry Cejudo will fight again.

We both agree that the crux of this issue is money. Cejudo has been open about his current paychecks and his belief that he deserves more. That’s what spawned the “King of Cringe” and “Triple C” personas. He was doing his level best to make himself more interesting to the masses. He has even tacitly admitted that’s the reason he seems dead set on not fighting the top contenders at bantamweight, because bouts with Frankie Edgar, Jose Aldo, and Dominick Cruz bring more name value and a better likelihood of monetary recompense, both immediately and long term.

We also agree that most of the blame in this regard falls on the UFC. Love him or hate him, Henry Cejudo’s status as one of the very best fighters on the planet is unquestionable (even if you recognize that he did not deserve to win the rematch with Demetrious Johnson), and the UFC’s refusal to give him more money is frustrating to say the least. But when have the UFC’s alligator arms ever come back to bite them in the ass?

You correctly noted that Cejudo is “in this game for 100 percent money,” and unfortunately for him, there isn’t a lot of money for him outside of fighting. Cejudo has said he’s not especially interested in coaching and doesn’t think he’d made a good one anyway. So outside of that, where can he make the most money? I struggle to see “The King of Cringe” making a successful leap into Hollywood or real estate, and for a man who has spent literally his entire life focused on athletic achievement, I don’t know what other marketable skills he might have. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have them. It’s just that I’m skeptical any of those choices would make more financial sense than $350,000 plus PPV points per fight.

At the end of the day, the UFC holds the keys to the kingdom and fighters have very few ways to push leverage. Lacking a union or any kind of fighter organization, UFC “contractors” are essentially given one of two options: fight or don’t. Cejudo is currently saying he’s choosing the latter, but only the former one gets him paid. It’s simple math, get paid less than you’d like to do something you’re great at, or don’t get paid at all. Perhaps Cejudo really will stand on principle here. But if he does, he’d be among the first.

There’s another way this could play out, though. Like with the true GOAT, Demetrious Johnson, the UFC may not think “Triple C” is someone worth investing in, but there are likely other organizations that would disagree. In October of 2018, the UFC and ONE Championship produced a historic moment in MMA: The first trade between organizations. ONE got “Mighty Mouse” and the UFC got Ben Askren, and though Askren’s run in the UFC was not spectacular, both sides seem more than happy with the outcome. It may be high time for another such moment.

Cejudo can go to an organization that prioritizes him and will pay him more money to fight lesser competition, keeping his “greatest combat sports athlete of all time” proclamation relevant. Meanwhile, the UFC can move on from a champion they aren’t interested promoting and can get back to some form of meritocracy in one of the best divisions in the sport, all while picking up some interesting assets. And you know where would be a great landing spot for Cejudo? Right there in Bellator with his teammates the Pitbull Brothers.

Bellator does not currently have a bantamweight champion. Cejudo could slot in there nicely and have a number of interesting challenges in the division. In exchange, there are plenty of notable fighters on the Bellator roster the UFC would be interested in acquiring — Douglas Lima and Michael Chandler, just to name a few. It’s a win-win-win-win.

Whether a trade happens or not though, it’s impossible for me to believe Cejudo is really done. Sadly, no one in MMA ever retires, and they especially don’t stay retired by saying Dana White “knows the number” to bring them back. I won’t believe Cejudo’s retirement is real until he exits the USADA testing pool. This is just another negotiation tactic to get the UFC to stop pinching pennies. Hopefully, it will work and we’ll get to see one of the best fighters in the world compete again soon.

Poll
Has Henry Cejudo fought for the last time?

  • The money isn’t right, he’s not coming back

  • Whether it’s in the UFC, Bellator, or elsewhere, Cejudo fights again

vote
view results
  • 35%
    The money isn’t right, he’s not coming back
    (26 votes)

  • 64%
    Whether it’s in the UFC, Bellator, or elsewhere, Cejudo fights again
    (47 votes)

73 votes total

Vote Now

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