Just a couple of days ago, before he beat the brakes off Marlon Moraes in the main event of UFC 238 on Saturday night to win the bantamweight title, Henry Cejudo showed up to a press conference wearing a robe and crown.
It was awkward and weird, but it was the sort of awkward and weird we expect from Cejudo, who is a thrilling fighter and athlete—and who is also awkward and weird. Which is to say that it was endearing and embarrassing at the same time. But then Cejudo started doing a magic show, and that's when the inevitable cringe set in.
Yes: a magic show. He pulled out the rabbit and everything. The whole nine yards. President Dana White was mortified. Moraes giggled like a five-year-old. Then Cejudo kicked the rabbit.
"I pulled out the rabbit, which was Marlon Moraes, and then I kicked it," he said. "That's my magic trick. I don't believe in magic. It's all a bunch of illusions. Show me Saturday night."
Cejudo, try as he might, is no Chael Sonnen. When Sonnen, the character—part-Superstar Billy Graham, part-xenophobic precursor to Donald Trump, American President—took the mixed martial arts world by storm nearly a decade ago, he did so with a twinkle in his eye and a look that said: You know what I'm doing, right?
The Olympian clearly wants to do the same sort of character advancement, but it just doesn't feel right. Something is off. Yet you can't blame him for doing whatever it takes to stand out because Cejudo is obviously smart enough to realize one crucial thing: that being the best, most technical, most dominant and elite flyweight fighter in the world is only good enough to get you traded to Singapore.
But it's a double-edged sword, as Cejudo may find out going forward. A ridiculous, over-the-top gimmick only works if you keep winning. If you lose, especially repeatedly, you run the risk of not being taken seriously.
For a moment on Saturday, it looked like Cejudo might face that unfortunate reality. Moraes turned in a first-round performance that made you think it would be his night. But then he hit the wall, Cejudo figured him out and, from the second half of the second round onward, Moraes was a man just hanging on for dear life. He only hung on for another round. Cejudo poured on the gas and earned a referee stoppage as the end of the third drew nigh.
Cejudo turned back Moraes on this night, but even as the talent well in the flyweight division—where he also holds a title—is depleted, Cejudo has a deep reservoir of bantamweight contenders waiting their turn. Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan both turned in stellar performances on the UFC 238 undercard. Both men are deserving of the next crack at the newly minted two-division champion.
Still, Cejudo owned the night. And after being declared the winner, he proclaimed himself the pound-for-pound king of fighting. With a UFC title draped over each shoulder and an Olympic gold medal hanging over his heart, Cejudo may have a point. He is, without question, the King of Cringe. But he may also be a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, and he's staking a claim to being one of the greatest of all time.
In addition to his excess of hardware, Cejudo's recent wins are incredibly impressive. His decision over then-pound-for-pound king Demetrious Johnson may have been cast off as a something of a fluke at the time, but that's a much more difficult argument to make after he ended fights early against elite opponents like Moraes and T.J. Dillashaw thereafter.
At 32, he likely has several high-level years left in his career and has the opportunity to keep racking up quality wins while defending multiple titles. He even not-so-subtly hinted in his post-fight interview at continuing to climb up in weight and going after a featherweight title. Whether that becomes reality, it's clear Cejudo is in a position to leave the sport down the road with a resume that has no equal.
But whatever results are to come, they will be served alongside more press conferences like the one leading up to Saturday's event. Along with legacy-defining fights, there will be a lot groaning and cringing.
Cejudo's reign over the UFC's lower weight classes is in full swing, and it is going to be a strange ride.