Henry Cejudo looked like a new man in the cage Saturday at UFC 215.
No, seriously, he looked like a different person—like a miniature, right-handed Conor McGregor.
Cejudo certainly had some surprises cooked up for Wilson Reis in their flyweight contender fight at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The former Olympic wrestler adopted the distinctive wide-open, karate stance and pawing lead hand from McGregor's trademark offense and battered Reis en route to a second-round TKO victory.
The performance was so impressive that it single-handedly revitalized Cejudo's championship aspirations after back-to-back losses to titlist Demetrious Johnson and perennial world No. 2 Joseph Benavidez in 2016.
If Cejudo has finally harnessed his considerable athleticism and become a fully realized MMA fighter, there's no telling how high he might fly.
Ahmar Khan @AhmarSKhan
Henry Cejudo's striking has evolved immensely, he just destroyed Wilson Reis in under two rounds. Lethal. #UFC215 https://t.co/f303VYSkVB2017-9-10 03:35:26
But is it possible he could ride his dead-on Conor McGregor impression all the way to the 125-pound title?
He seems to think so.
"I know I'm the one to beat Demetrious Johnson," Cejudo said at the UFC 215 post-fight press conference. "No disrespect to these fighters, no disrespect to any of them...but I believe I have the style to eventually beat him, and I truly do believe that."
Obviously, serious discussion of anybody beating Johnson can't be taken up lightly. The longtime flyweight kingpin was on the verge of breaking Anderson Silva's record for consecutive UFC title defenses at UFC 215 before his scheduled bout against Ray Borg was scratched just before the weigh-ins.
It's probably a stretch to think that Cejudo might be ready to rematch Johnson immediately, after the champion finished him via first-round TKO at UFC 197 a bit more than a year ago. It'd probably be prudent to see if his newfound striking prowess holds up over at least one more fight.
Even Cejudo agrees he doesn't want to rush into anything. He said at the press conference:
"Emotionally, I do want to fight him right away. Technically, am I going to be ready for this guy? I don't want to just fight Demetrious; I want to beat him. He's been on my mind since he beat me. I'm a competitor, man. To get stopped in front of 20,000 people, that hurts. I think about it a lot. There's a reason why he's the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. That's who I have to beat. Not just fight—beat."
Even if it takes another fight or two to retake No. 1 contender status, however, Cejudo certainly picked an interesting time to reassert himself in the flyweight division.
The 125-pound title picture feels wide-open after the Johnson-Borg cancelation.
Mighty Mouse is trying to get that matchup rebooked for UFC 216 in Las Vegas October 7, but that's not a sure thing. Meanwhile, 24-year-old Sergio Pettis lurks as a potential future No. 1 contender and Johnson has already discussed his desire to entertain bantamweights Cody Garbrandt or TJ Dillashaw after he has Silva's title defense record in hand.
In a weight class this relatively shallow, it's almost certain that Cejudo eventually ends up getting another chance to become champion—especially if his performances continue looking so McGregor-esque.
The sudden similarities between him and the UFC's superstar lightweight champion were so noticeable, McGregor's longtime coach, John Kavanagh, couldn't resist having a little fun with it on Twitter:
Coach Kavanagh @John_Kavanagh
Something about Henry reminds me of someone's style...2017-9-10 03:29:16
Coach Kavanagh @John_Kavanagh
Keeping it flowy2017-9-10 03:33:01
The new style was undeniably successful for Cejudo against Reis. He controlled the distance well, using an obvious speed advantage to sting the 32-year-old Brazilian with right hands while using his left to swat away Reis' jab much the same way McGregor does with his right.
With just over a minute left in the first round, Cejudo stunned Reis with a high kick and a left-right punching combo. A few seconds later, he dropped Reis with a straight right and as the Brazilian scrambled back to his feet, Cejudo hit him with a thudding leg kick and a series of knees from the clinch.
Cejudo then closed out the round with a takedown, effectively diversifying his attack with a dizzying array of techniques. Reis managed to survive until the bell, but Cejudo opened the second by dropping him with another straight right and pouring on strikes until the referee called things off just 26 seconds into the stanza.
It was Cejudo's first stoppage victory in seven fights in the Octagon, and the results were no accident.
He said in advance of this fight that he went to Brazil to train with Bellator MMA fighters Patricky and Patricio Freire and told UFC color commentator Joe Rogan in the cage that he "brought back a little of that karate stuff."
As a guy who understands the promotional side of the sport, Cejudo also notes that for the 125-pound weight class to shake its low-profile position in the UFC landscape, it wouldn't hurt to have a few more stoppages.
"We need fights like this," Cejudo said after the Reis fight, via the Edmonton Sun's Robert Tychkowski. "We need knockouts in the flyweight division. I hit hard; I'm a little tank."
Of course, looking like Conor McGregor in a fight against Reis and doing it in a potential fight against Johnson are two very different tricks. After Saturday night's finish, Cejudo strode to the side of the cage to have words with reigning flyweight champ, who was sitting ringside after his own bout was called off.
"I just gave him a thumbs-up," Cejudo told Rogan, when asked what he'd said to Johnson. "I said he's the champ for a reason. It was just fun and games, man, but I do want to fight him [again] eventually someday, for sure."
Maybe we shouldn't have that fight tomorrow, but if Cejudo can continue to grow and improve in MMA, it should be one we all have circled on our calendars for the future.