Henry Cejudo has beaten two champions in a row. But even that almost wasn't enough.
The first win was in August, when he narrowly won a grindfest to dethrone Demetrious Johnson, the UFC flyweight champion and king of many a pound-for-pound leaderboard.
The second came Saturday night at UFC Fight Night 143, when he knocked off bantamweight beltholder TJ Dillashaw, who cut down to 125 pounds for the opportunity to be a two-division champ.
Even so, Cejudo (14-2) might have been shunted aside, dinged for a boring style and what many view as an oddball persona.
But Cejudo robbed anyone of that chance by knocking out the crowd and betting favorite in 32 seconds. According to ESPN—carrying its first-ever UFC event—it was the fastest finish for a UFC flyweight title fight and tied for fifth-fastest knockout for any title fight.
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Henry Cejudo knocks out TJ Dillashaw in 32 seconds, the fastest finish ever in a UFC flyweight title fight and tied for the fifth-fastest KO/TKO in a title fight in UFC history. It is Dillashaw's first first-round loss since December 3, 2011 against John Dodson. https://t.co/Sys7veAzzb
Part of this Cejudo narrative is easy and familiar: fighter proves doubters wrong, never stopped believing in himself, etc. And hey, that applies here. But there's more to the story for Cejudo, an Olympic gold medal wrestler who has struggled to distinguish himself in pro MMA despite his prodigious talent.
Cejudo didn't just validate or exonerate himself Saturday. He is nicknamed The Messenger, but this was about more than sending a message. It was about establishing himself, planting a flag. On Saturday, Cejudo became great.
It stood to reason that Cejudo would cede the advantage to Dillashaw on the feet. Dillashaw attacks with all points and from brilliant angles, and he doesn't fade as the fight goes on, as evidenced by the three knockouts he's notched in the fourth or fifth rounds.
Cejudo is no marksman, but the guy can crack, and this was the best his boxing has ever looked. An early right hand landed flush and dropped Dillashaw like a bag of flour. Dillashaw regained his feet but ate a big left for his troubles. Cejudo swarmed and rained punches, and the referee waved it off.
Dillashaw later protested the stoppage, telling ESPN's Brett Okamoto he wasn't that hurt, but that's boilerplate. His level of defense and his marked-up face confirmed that the stoppage was, at the very least, not unreasonable—especially if protecting fighters is the goal, which it is.
"Uncle Dana, where are you?" Cejudo said on the mic, held by broadcaster Jon Anik. "Where you hiding now? I came here, guys, this victory, I said before, was much bigger than me. This was for the flyweights."
No one on the outside knows what the UFC will do or why, but Cejudo strengthened his case with this win. The knock on Johnson, fairly or not, was that despite his greatness he was not an exciting, marketable champion. Coming into Saturday, there was evidence Cejudo was even worse in those departments.
Cejudo's highest-profile win before this was the defeat of Johnson, an extended stalemate that plenty of folks believed should have gone the other way. It was the third split decision of Cejudo's 10-fight UFC career (Saturday's knockout was his second UFC stoppage win).
And for all his talent and apparent friendliness, at times he just seemed odd. Maybe "overengineered" is the better word. His smarminess got under the skin of Benavidez while the two were coaches on The Ultimate Fighter, and Benavidez doesn't exactly have a reputation as a hothead.
Then there was that bizarre melodrama during this fight week, when Cejudo pulled a large fake snake out of a bag and whipped its head against the stage, all while wearing a gold jacket and a gold medal. The scene went viral for all the wrong reasons. Had Cejudo lost on Saturday, he would have been Fake Snake Guy for the foreseeable future.
Saturday's win doesn't erase any of that. It doesn't exonerate so much as it reveals. Whenever Cejudo previously stepped into the MMA spotlight, it was with toilet paper or an asterisk stuck to his foot. It turns out that while Cejudo was whipping snakes around he was also getting better, spinning his potential into something more kinetic. In swarming Dillashaw and putting him away so quickly—it was only the second knockout loss of Dillashaw's 20-fight career—Cejudo gave himself his first moment of unadulerated MMA glory. Dillashaw's chin my have been weaker because of his huge weight cut, but it was notable nonetheless.
Suddenly, all the previous successes and shortcomings exist in a new context.
Be happy, Henry. You're not eccentric anymore. Now you get to be colorful!
Cejudo, after the fight, said he wants a rematch with Dillashaw up at 135 pounds. Would anyone say no to that? For that matter, who would say no to another title bout in this uncertain flyweight division? A rematch with Benavidez is instant appointment television.
The great thing about being great is that you can do things your way. That's what Cejudo was doing all along. It just took a win like this to bring everyone else up to speed.
Scott Harris covers MMA for Bleacher Report.