He’s been away from the cage for three years, but Henry Cejudo looked like he hadn’t missed a day as he took to the stage for the UFC 288 press conference and eased straight back into his “King of Cringe” pre-fight persona.
The former Olympic wrestling champion and two-division UFC champion started out life in the UFC trying to put himself forward as a wholesome role-model athlete looking to reach the top of the world’s toughest sport. But, despite his undoubted athletic credentials – and his Olympic gold medal – the public just didn’t click with “The Messenger.”
Eventually, Cejudo started to adopt a light-hearted antagonist-type persona. But rather than aggressive, close-to-the-knuckle trash talk, Cejudo took things in a different direction. While he certainly trash-talked his opponents, he did it in a style that raised an eyebrow, rather than a temper.
That persona then went to another level as he started to introduce cheesy props to support his awkward trash talk, and “The King of Cringe” was born. Fans enjoyed and despised Cejudo’s approach in equal measure, but, unlike the Cejudo we saw ahead of his UFC 197 bout with Demetrious Johnson, the people cared now. It may make him look a little foolish at times, but Cejudo leaned fully into it, knowing that it was good for business. The thought process was similar to that of Colby Covington before he adopted his high-volume, high-rhetoric alter-ego. But Cejudo’s approach was far less divisive, and certainly not as controversial.
One of the questions leading into UFC 288 this weekend was whether we’d see a new, different Cejudo this time around. After all, the common take here is that this is Cejudo’s final run at becoming a UFC champion. Would he be all business, or would “The King of Cringe” make a return once again? Thursday’s press conference gave us the answer.
Cejudo turned up the volume as he instigated countless exchanges with reigning bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling, who at times looked as if he didn’t know whether to fire back, laugh or simply shake his head. Some of Cejudo’s rehearsed lines didn’t stick the landing – his comment about not underestimating a fighter who carries around an Academy Award got a couple of airings, and received a muted crowd response, and virtually nothing at all from Sterling – but the former champion kept up the energy throughout as he and Sterling dominated a press conference filled with fighters who were making their first appearance at a UFC pay-per-view presser.
Then, when the talking had stopped and it was time for the faceoffs, Cejudo went back to his old playbook and arrived on the stage armed with props.
Wearing a baby carrier, he proceeded to produce an inflatable baby Sterling, which he then tried, and failed, to punt into the crowd. Even UFC president Dana White laughed as he saw Cejudo attempt to kick an inflatable baby “Funkmaster” off the stage.
But, always thinking ahead, Cejudo wasn’t done. From a baby bag he’d brought on stage, he produced similar inflatable babies, this time of Sean O’Malley and featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, both of whom he’d named on his hit list as fighters he intends to face, and defeat, after he takes on Sterling on Saturday night.
Was it cringey? Yes. Was it effective? Absolutely. He may do things in the lead-up to fights that can make your skin crawl, but there’s no doubting that the UFC, and MMA, is a better, more fun place with Henry Cejudo around (even though his team could do with dialing things back on weigh-in day).
But, ultimately, how long he stays may well be determined by how he performs in the Octagon at the Prudential Center on Saturday night. Defeat could well send him back into retirement. But victory over an in-form Sterling, who looks in the shape of his life heading into fight night, would mark an incredible return to the sport for a fighter whose athletic achievements have never fully been appreciated.
Regardless of how their title fight pans out at UFC 288, I hope Cejudo sticks around. Even if he loses out to Sterling, it looks like Aljo could soon be on his way up to the featherweight division. That would give “The Messenger” the chance to still be a real factor at 135 pounds, where a matchup against Sterling’s teammate, training partner, and top bantamweight contender Merab Dvalishvili would offer a mouth-watering clash of styles.
Yes, he’s the “King of Cringe,” but he’s also one of the UFC’s most talented athletes of all time. And it’ll be great to see him back in there with another criminally underrated champion in Sterling. Both men deserve more respect than they receive. Hopefully, their matchup in Newark will show the world why.