Coach Eric Albarracin can pinpoint the exact moment when he knew his protégé, UFC flyweight champion Henry Cejudo, had turned the corner in his mixed martial arts career.
It was 2017, and fresh off back-to-back losses against Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez, Cejudo strode into a UFC 215 showdown against Wilson Reis as a fighter reborn. On that night, the Olympic gold medalist surprised many in the MMA world by debuting a new karate-esque style that led to a second-round massacre of Reis and the first stoppage victory of Cejudo’s Octagon career. Cejudo used that momentum to launch himself into a four-fight win streak that saw him dethrone Johnson in a rematch, then stun bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw with a 32-second knockout earlier this year at UFC Brooklyn.
As far as wins goes, upsetting Johnson and Dillashaw in back-to-back contests stands as one of the more impressive two-fight runs in recent UFC memory — and Cejudo’s evolved striking style played a major role in the outcomes of both outings. And curiously enough, according to Albarracin, the genesis of that new style didn’t even start with Cejudo. It started with Bellator featherweight champion Patricio Freire making a trip up north to shore up his wrestling acumen at the Olympic training center in Colorado.
“I have the team Pitbull Brothers — Patricio Pitbull, Patricky Pitbull, Alejandro (Pantoja) — and they had a karate coach named Mano Santana,” Albarracin explained recently on The MMA Hour. “And really, how it went down was — it’s funny, I always tell this story, is that it kinda started with wrestling. I finally got Patricio and Henry together. After years of training both of them separately, I got them together when we brought Patricio to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs.
“We all came to train there and I threw him to the wolves early, Patricio, so he’s going against Olympians and stuff in the room. So after about a couple weeks of that, his shoulders were shot, so he said, ‘Eric, my shoulders are shot, I can’t keep up.’ I said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ He said, ‘Well, let’s try kicking. I can kick. My shoulders are shot but I can kick.’ So I said, ‘Okay, let me get one of these Olympic taekwondo coaches to help you.’ It started like that.”
Albarracin said Freire’s experience with the Olympic taekwondo coaches led the twosome to be introduced to Santana once the team traveled back home to Brazil. Santana was the head of the Brazilian national karate team, Albarracin said, and so Freire started working with Santana back in Natal at the Pitbull Brothers gym. Then Freire fought former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson in mid-2016 at Bellator 160.
“That’s when Henry paid attention,” Albarracin explained. “Because he was like, ‘Man, Eric, you shouldn’t let [the fight happen]. Benson Henderson is too big for Patricio.’ And then he paid attention to Henderson’s fight, he’s like, ‘Wow, that style, I like that style. I like his attitude, how aggressive he is. I like the wide stance, his arm [extended].’
“I called him up, I said, ‘You’ve gotta come down here [to Brazil] now. Now you’ve gotta come. I want you to train this style.’ He came down and started training with Patricio, Patricky, and all of those guys, and that was where he made that change for Wilson Reis. So it’s kinda funny how, I tell the story that it was wrestling that brought karate to Patricio, and in a roundabout way all the way back to Henry.”
The combination of Cejudo’s new karate training and his already otherworldly wrestling abilities made for a formidable pairing for the Olympian — and it showed. Cejudo went on to destroy Reis, dominate Sergio Pettis, dethrone Johnson, then dismantle Dillashaw — a four-fight run that has entirely reshaped his combat sports legacy.
And he doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon. Cejudo is set to challenge for the vacant bantamweight title against Marlon Moraes on June 8 at UFC 238.
Considering that Cejudo just started training mixed martial arts in 2013 and is still only 31 years old, Albarracin knows that his pupil has plenty of growing left to do in the fight game. The Dillashaw fight was just another example of that.
“He’s definitely still learning,” Albarracin said. “Definitely. Like I said, I saw it in camp.
“We brought a guy from Holland in, coach Paul Lamoth. That was an interesting one, because we had — the Bang Muay Thai system was at our gym, Fight Ready. We had anticipated we’re going to fight that guy one day, so we actually got his system at our gym. So we walk in the gym every day and we’ve got 30 people training Bang Muay Thai. And August 4th, we beat Demetrious Johnson, Henry calls out T.J. in the press conference. On Monday morning, the gym workers try to log into the system and get cut off.
“They cut us off. So we’re like, okay. So I go, ‘Looks like we’re going to be fighting T.J.’ … But when that happened, I’d already seen the combos and everything, and one of the combos is called the Andy Souwer combo. Andy Souwer is a 22-time kickboxing world champion. So we didn’t have the system any more or the Andy Souwer [combo] — we went and got his coach, named Paul Lamoth. So we went and got Paul Lamoth from Amsterdam to come down, and we had met him actually a year ago in Amsterdam. We lived in Amsterdam for a month, went and trained all over Amsterdam, and he was one of the guys that we met. And I just remember that: Andy Souwer combo. I was like, we’re going to go get his coach. If we can’t see the system, we’ll go get the guy who taught him.”
Albarracin said he believes Cejudo could eventually become one of the faces of the UFC. Between his Olympic past, his ability to speak three languages, and his obvious desire to accept huge challenges, it’s far from an outrageous claim to make.
On the topic of challenges, Albarracin also indicated that Cejudo could one day venture all the way up to 145 pounds in pursuit of a legacy fight, although only for “a perfect matchup,” and not somebody like current featherweight champion Max Holloway, who would absolutely dwarf Cejudo in a way that Dillashaw did not.
But either way, it’s undeniable that Cejudo turned another corner in his career at UFC Brooklyn. And regardless of how the next chapter goes, Albarracin is proud of how Cejudo has responded to adversity by expanding his horizons in the combat sports space.
“You’ve gotta have an open mind,” Albarracin said. “That’s one of the biggest things, I think, of being a coach, especially from a traditional combat sport. A lot of us have closed minds, and I always say that the illiterate of the 21st century aren’t people who cannot read; it’s people that can’t learn, unlearn, and relearn. Especially in MMA. You have to unlearn the wrestling moves that are going to get you choked out. You have to unlearn the boxing that’s going to get you knocked out, or the jiu-jitsu that’s going to get you knocked out.
“So even Henry, just before he fought on Saturday, the last person he called was Patricio Pitbull because he really respects him, and Patricio told him, ‘You’re going to knock him out. Have confidence in your hands. Go to the body. You’re going to hurt him early. Hurt him early.’ And as soon as T.J. switched stances, Henry hit him to the body, then he hit him to the head. It was 30 seconds, but Henry was coming for the kill early.’”