23 MMA thoughts, including how Cejudo's run almost never was

Now a two-division titleholder, Henry Cejudo has become one of the faces of the UFC. Alex Garcia for ESPN

It's Monday, time for another edition of Ariel Helwani's MMA Show, which airs live starting at 1 p.m. ET on Twitter and YouTube. After it ends, you can listen to the entire show via the ESPN podcast center.


The UFC is off this weekend, but all eyes will be on Madison Square Garden on Friday night, as "the Mecca" hosts its fifth major MMA event.

This time it's Bellator 222, and it's co-headlined by Rory MacDonald vs. Neiman Gracie for the Bellator welterweight title and Chael Sonnen vs. Lyoto Machida.

The card is quite deep with a bantamweight title fight between Kyoji Horiguchi and Darrion Caldwell, plus names like Dillon Danis, Aaron Pico, Ricky Bandejas, Heather Hardy and Mike Kimbel, among others, on the bill.

But before we get to all that, there's a lot to discuss stemming from UFC 238 on Saturday night in Chicago and the week that was in MMA. So without further ado, here are the random thoughts:

1. As Henry Cejudo was celebrating his dramatic victory Saturday night, I couldn't help but think about UFC 177. That's right, the ill-fated UFC 177 card. Now, I know what you're thinking: UFC 177? That was a cursed card that will forever be remembered as the night Joe Soto replaced Renan Barao on 24 hours' notice to fight then-bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw in Sacramento, California. Simply put, the August 2014 card was a mess. In fact, there were so many last-minute changes that it only ended up featuring eight fights.

One of those last-minute cancellations? UFC newcomer Henry Cejudo. He was slated to face Scott Jorgensen in a flyweight bout, but Cejudo withdrew from the fight hours before the weigh-ins due to complications with his weight cut. This was actually the third time in Cejudo's young career that he missed weight, sparking talk that he should consider a permanent move to bantamweight. At the time, Cejudo wanted no part of that discussion. In fact, in his mind, he was done with MMA.

Cejudo told me a couple years ago that following the mishap, he told his head coach, Eric Albarracin, that he would never fight again. It was a good six-fight run, he thought, but years of cutting weight as an amateur wrestler finally caught up with him. Cejudo retired, just no one knew it yet.

Albarracin, a former accomplished wrestler himself, told Cejudo he couldn't give up, and he wouldn't let him. Cejudo had too much potential. He believed in Cejudo the MMA fighter before most others. And, so, it was nice to see "Captain" Eric by Cejudo's side Saturday night in Chicago, jumping up and down like a little kid while celebrating Cejudo's history-making victory. That was as much of a victory for Albarracin as it was for Cejudo, in my opinion. "Triple C," as Cejudo now calls himself (for Olympic champion, flyweight champion and bantamweight champion), is lucky to have a coach like Albarracin by his side.

2. Speaking of Albarracin, I know he was hurt when he didn't win the 2018 coach of the year award. He wanted that recognition badly (in the end, I voted for Daniel Cormier's coaches, Javier Mendez and Bob Cook). But if 2019 ended right now, Albarracin would have to be considered the leading candidate for coach of the year. Amazingly, Cejudo became Albarracin's second double champion in a little over a month. Patricio Pitbull, another one of his pupils, is now the Bellator featherweight and lightweight king after he defeated Michael Chandler in late April.

3. If you didn't believe it after his win over Dillashaw in January, you most certainly have to believe the UFC has something special in Cejudo. He is charismatic, trilingual, an Olympic hero and one helluva fighter. He is quickly becoming one of the faces of the promotion.

4. Wouldn't ya know it, Cejudo may have actually saved the flyweights ... for now. That's what Dana White said at the postfight news conference Saturday night. But I'll believe it when I see it. Will Cejudo actually defend the 125-pound title or is White just saying that so they can promote him as a double champion? After a string of releases, there's now just a little over 10 flyweights left on the roster. So are they going to sign a bunch of a new 125-pounders all of a sudden? I don't see that happening. And if not, then what exactly is this division? Cejudo's win is a small victory for the little guys, but let's reserve judgment on their future before fully celebrating. More on that here.

5. At first glance, Cejudo's "greatest combat sports athlete" claim seems a little far-fetched. But when you think about everything he has accomplished, the man has a strong case. Is he, in fact, that guy? Who knows. But if he wants to run with it, I have no problem with that at all.

6. Kudos to Cejudo for not making a bigger stink about his severely injured left ankle. In case you missed it, he suffered the injury because the mats at the hotel weren't properly taped when he was training this past Tuesday. Had Cejudo been forced to pull out of the fight or lost the fight, that could have been a really sticky situation between Cejudo and his promoter. Here's hoping that never happens again. One high-profile fighter told me in Chicago that he always trains on the carpet in the hotel because he doesn't trust the mat setup. That needs to be rectified.

7. I happened to briefly run into Marlon Moraes at O'Hare Airport on Sunday morning. Want to know what kind of a guy he is? First thing he wanted to talk about was a small personal issue I was dealing with that he was aware of. When I tried to steer the conversation back to his fight against Cejudo and how he was feeling, Moraes simply smiled his "Magic" smile and said, "It's OK, brother. We'll get the next one," and walked off. I believe him. Moraes isn't done. He'll fight for UFC gold again. I have no doubt about that.

8. I do doubt whether anyone in the women's flyweight division will be able to give Valentina Shevchenko a run for her money any time soon. I don't see many candidates out there at the moment. Shevchenko is just on a whole other level. The discrepancy between her skills and the rest of the division right now reminds a little bit of Demetrious Johnson's reign at 125, but I would strongly argue the gap is even larger for Shevchenko.

9. It was scary seeing Jessica Eye on the mat for so long after that vicious knockout by Shevchenko. Those moments are always the worst, but I was glad to see Eye get up after three minutes and walk out of the cage on her own. The UFC didn't show her on television while she was unconscious, but did quickly cut to her as she sat up. A small victory. I have criticized the broadcast, which is produced by the UFC, for not showing those moments in the past, and this was a slight improvement.

10. Sure, the ending was somewhat unceremonious, but Tony Ferguson vs. Donald Cerrone most certainly lived up to the hype. Those 10 minutes were as frenetic and exciting as we all hoped they would be. I was worried for Ferguson early on because he seemed a bit out of sorts, but then I remembered he often starts that way. And I have no problem with the finish. Ferguson caused that damage. Sure, Cerrone blew his nose by mistake, but that was all as a result of Ferguson's handy work. And so with that in mind, I was annoyed (again) when the crowd showered Ferguson with boos during his postfight interview. Those two fighters didn't deserve that. I'm glad they cheered at the end, but as I've often said, nothing bugs me more than those moments.

play
2:06

Bisping: Ferguson deserves title shot, not sure he will get it

Dominick Cruz and Michael Bisping break down Tony Ferguson's win and if he deserves to a title fight. For more UFC action, sign up for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

11. I know the punch after the horn at the end of the second round was controversial, but I have a hard time blaming Ferguson for that one. I think referee Dan Miragliotta was slow to step in, and I also don't think the punch contributed to the finish all that much. I'm not a doctor, but it certainly looked like Cerrone's nose was injured before that punch, and of course, the blowing of said nose ended up being his demise. It was wild seeing him react to his eye swelling it like he did. I was watching that sequence with Dominick Cruz and he called the finish precisely when Cerrone blew his nose. It was fascinating watching Cruz react to the mistake and call the result of the mistake before the fight was called off.

12. I have no desire to see an immediate rematch between Ferguson and Cerrone right now. Ferguson needs to fight the winner of Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dustin Poirier next. That's it. And if not, Conor McGregor, just so Ferguson could (hopefully) get paid a lot. Nothing else makes sense for a guy who has won 12 in a row and hasn't lost a fight since 2012 in the UFC's deepest weight class. Enough already.

13. Ferguson really impressed me all week long in Chicago. Remember his erratic behavior and interviews prior to the Anthony Pettis fight in October? That guy was nowhere to be found last week. He seemed calm, collected and genuinely at peace. It was great to see.

14. Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling both made strong cases to be next in line for a title shot at 135 pounds. Moraes losing certainly helped Sterling, since he lost to Moraes two years ago, and Yan continues to impress each and every time he fights. I really don't know who will be next, though (there's also Cory Sandhagen out there). There isn't a clear-cut contender, and considering how banged up Cejudo was afterward, I wouldn't be surprised if Yan and Sterling have to fight at least one more time before a title shot presents itself. Maybe against each other?

15. You haven't lived until you've experienced a Tai Tuivasa walkout in person. This time, he went with Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do," which was a nice touch, especially since he said he was dedicating it to me on Monday (and no, I don't really believe he was dedicating it to me). Unfortunately for the big Australian, the fight didn't go his way. Hard-fought win for Blagoy Ivanov.

16. At first glance, Tatiana Suarez didn't make the kind of splash that she needed to cement her place as the No. 1 contender at 115 pounds, but then you find out she was dealing with a serious neck injury before and during the fight and it all makes sense. She's only 28 and just 8-0. Patience.

17. I was surprised to see White so dismissive of Michelle Waterson as the next strawweight title contender at the postfight presser. I figured after Suarez didn't wow the crowd that Waterson would definitely be next. Either he's playing coy or they will try to convince Rose Namajunas to come back. All I know is Namajunas is enjoying time off right now.

18. Nice to see Alexa Grasso pick up her first win in almost two years. Her bandwagon was once filling up fast, and then injuries (and a loss to Suarez) seemed to derail her. However, at 25, she still has a lot of time left to realize the lofty expectations we all had for her.

19. The highlight of the weekend for me? Our first Helwani Road Show Friday night. Ben Askren, Stipe Miocic, Eddie Alvarez, Stephen Thompson and Paul Felder were kind enough to join us for a trivia challenge at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, which ended up being a blast. I won't spoil the results for you, but if you missed it, you can listen to a podcast of the show wherever you usually download the Monday show. Dare I say, the winner was a surprise.

A sincere thank you to everyone who attended the event. It was an amazing experience, and I hope we get to do many more of those in the future. I've always felt a strong connection with the fans over the years, so to do this first show around the 10-year anniversary of the show, the three-year anniversary of my unbanning and the one-year anniversary of my move to ESPN was really special for me. Huge thanks to ESPN's Elizabeth Fierman, Daniel Dopp and Glenn Jacobs in particular for making it all happen. I'll never forget June 7, 2019.

20. I also had a blast doing our radio show before the event Saturday inside the United Center atrium. We've been doing these shows prior to all the pay-per-views this year and I absolutely love it. The majority of the show is dictated by listener calls, which is what I want, but we were lucky enough to be joined briefly by Chris Weidman, who stopped by on his way to the bathroom during an autograph signing outside the arena. Oh, and he was also nice enough to drop the news that he has decided to move up to light heavyweight when he returns later this year. This is something that I've been saying Weidman should do for about two years now, so I'm excited to see how it works out for him.

21. Until someone actually shows me real proof, McGregor is still the highest-paid fighter in the UFC, and by far. C'mon, now.

22. Glad to see Jimi Manuwa call it a career last week. He took too many scary blows recently, and none scarier than seeing his head bounce off the canvas last week in Stockholm. "Poster Boy" Jim was always a fun fighter to watch, and I wish him the best in this next chapter.

23. Nate Diaz proclaiming he's the lightweight and welterweight champion last week on the show still cracks me up every time I think about it. It's nice to have him back in our lives.


And with that, here's Monday's Helwani Show lineup:

1 p.m. ET: Chael Sonnen

He will join us in studio to preview his Bellator 222 fight against Lyoto Machida this weekend.

1:45 p.m.: Cris Cyborg

She will preview her UFC 240 fight against Felicia Spencer.

2:05 p.m.: Michelle Waterson

She will make her case as to why she should be next in line for a strawweight title fight.

2:25 p.m.: "King" Muhammed Lawal

Lawal will discuss his recent retirement from MMA.

2:45 p.m.: Calvin Kattar

He will look back at his win over Ricardo Lamas at UFC 238.

3:05 p.m.: Mark Henry

Henry will talk about Marlon Moraes' loss to Henry Cejudo and Frankie Edgar's upcoming title shot.

3:25 p.m.: Aljamain Sterling

He will discuss his UFC 238 win over Pedro Munhoz and where he fits in the bantamweight division.

3:45 p.m.: Katlyn Chookagian

Chookagian will talk about her win over Joanne Calderwood during the weekend and what's next for her.