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Opinion: The UFC flyweight division has found its Tito Ortiz in Henry Cejudo

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The legacy of MMA’s charismatic ‘bad boy’ from Huntington Beach lives on in Cejudo, the flyweight division’s valiant defender.

The UFC’s upcoming Brooklyn card is an event of milestones; their first card of 2019, their first card on ESPN, their first flyweight vs. bantamweight superfight. And, potentially, the card that will mark the unofficial end of the flyweight division.

The organization has treated the flyweights, and especially former king Demetrious Johnson, with a disregard that often borders on disdain. The world’s largest MMA platform has offered little in the way of a promotional push, and has often booked top-ranked flyweights on prelims of unimportant cards, beneath un-ranked fighters from larger divisions.

It became clear relatively early in Johnson’s historic reign that he was not the man to popularize flyweight fighting in the public eye; or, at least, the UFC didn’t care enough to give him the opportunity. No, what the flyweight division needed was a charismatic trash-talker. A showman. A man of ideals, willing to put himself at odds with the UFC’s agenda in order to bring life to his vision of a blossoming flyweight landscape, and greater development for the sport. What the flyweight division needed was another Jacob Christopher Ortiz.

Before Conor McGregor, before Muhammad Ali, there was Tito Ortiz. In a bygone era of the UFC, Ortiz was the organization’s first true breakout star; a silver-tongued behemoth on the mic, the words that maketh buyrates flowed effortlessly whenever a camera was placed on him. His every sentiment and every gesture an irresistible force for a potential audience that, to that point, had been an immovable object. Even as the disdain between Tito and UFC president Dana White reached a fever pitch, they continued to book him in high-profile fights.

Maybe the UFC despised Tito, but he was the hero they needed then.

Enter 2019. Enter a flyweight division on the verge of erasure, placed grimly in the sights of the UFC’s hand-picked assassin, bantamweight champion T.J Dillashaw. Enter Henry Cejudo.

Cejudo possesses everything that made Tito Ortiz irresistible, and more. In his own words, ‘Henry Cejudo is an Olympic gold medalist.’ His own name replete with such an undeniable charm that even as he constantly refers to himself in the third person, rather than become irritating or outright off-putting, it only serves to lend him a greater air of gravitas. Here stands a man who decisively defeated the greatest flyweight of all time, and as the division collapsed around him, he valiantly, and eloquently, committed to holding it up on his back.

”Henry Cejudo is extremely ready,” Henry Cejudo stated during the UFC’s Brooklyn press conference on Thursday, “and the thing is, guys, I’m not just... Dana, I can tell you right now, I’m not just... this is much bigger than me. This is, this is for the guys, this is for all the flyweights that can’t, that are not big enough to make 135lbs. I’m fighting for those guys, I’m fighting for their family. There’s a big burden, there’s a big, uhm, there’s a big inspiration in me. When I’m inspired, I know I can get things done. And uh, there’s no other, better person, Dana... UFC people... than to throw the hail Mary to than me. So thank you.”

Henry Cejudo, who is an Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling, wearing Henry Cejudo’s Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling

Having, personally, never quite found myself supporting Cejudo, I felt a familiar magnetism from his emboldened defense of the flyweight division. Cejudo is, obviously, his own man, but there was an undeniable resemblance to the ‘bad boy’ from Huntington Beach. The ‘bad boy’ who brought the UFC out of the dark ages and held the record for most UFC light heavyweight title defenses — prior to being overtaken by Jon Jones. The same man who stood proudly and declared, “Hillary Clinton killed my friends.”

Where Cejudo fights for the prosperity and longevity of his division, Ortiz fought for the rights of the individual, and refused to allow the UFC to tread on him. He would rather box Dana White than succumb to him, and best expressed his opinion as to the hierarchy of their relationship in t-shirt form.

What Tito Ortiz had, and what Henry Cejudo has, cannot be taught, and it cannot be learned. It is a series of unique qualities, all intersecting and resonating with the fan-base at large, to create a being of profound charismatic quality. Few individuals in the history of combat sports have displayed this combination of traits, and few ever will again.

When Tito, in the lead-up to his climactic showdown with Chael Sonnen in 2017, smashed a juice box during a televised interview, the symbolism was clear: Tito was the lion, and Chael was the jackal.

At the conclusion of the Brooklyn press conference, when Cejudo cautiously – yet expertly – handled a snake plushie before slamming it violently into the stage, the symbolism was clear, and so very reminiscent: Dillashaw was the snake, and Cejudo was the guy who swings snakes really hard into things.

But there was more to it than that. Dillashaw is the snake personally appointed by the UFC to roam the grass of the flyweight division, killing off the (mighty) mice. Cejudo decided to stand up, as their champion, to ensure the future of his compatriots. And it came – no less – after Cejudo publicly challenged Dana White himself, as Ortiz had done so many times in the past.

”With all due respect, Dana, with all due respect, you did at one point say that women’s... they would never enter the sport of MMA. Ronda Rousey became one of your biggest superstars. You know, I know there’s a place in your heart, what I’m saying is, let’s make a deal: I beat this man Saturday night, the flyweight division stays.”

I’m not sure that “Dana White is my Bitch” t-shirts come in flyweight sizes. But, in every other way, Henry Cejudo carries on the smooth-talking, anti-establishment legacy of Tito Ortiz. And that, along with being an Olympic gold medalist, is exactly what the defiant flyweight division needs in 2019.