Editorial: In the court of the Cringey King, Henry Cejudo

He’s the king of the flyweights. He’s the king of the bantamweights. Now, Henry Cejudo is the King of Cringe, and Henry Cejudo is…

By: Jordan Breen | 3 years ago
Editorial: In the court of the Cringey King, Henry Cejudo
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He’s the king of the flyweights. He’s the king of the bantamweights. Now, Henry Cejudo is the King of Cringe, and Henry Cejudo is all too happy to embrace the throne.

In case you haven’t noticed in recent months – and maybe you haven’t given the amount of trash talk and general textual garbage that gets hurled around in MMA’s social media sphere – the UFC bantamweight champion Cejudo has a rather, uh, idiosyncratic way of taking to social platforms, chiefly Twitter. If you hadn’t noticed in past months, you’ve likely noticed in recent weeks, as his war of words – or moreso emojis – with potential challenger Aljamain Sterling has become a dizzying drama that would be more at home in a middle school group chat.

Now, in an era where the UFC largely tasks its fighters, even Olympic gold medalist dual division champions (though Cejudo vacated his flyweight strap) with promoting themselves rather than throwing promotional weight behind them, it’s no surprise a guy like Cejudo would try to use social media to get his name out there. However, I won’t say he’s done the inverse and damaged his reputation, rather simply confused and, yes, even compelled hardcore MMA fans as he’s developed a style of social media posting that’s hard to really describe. Videos of him rambling incoherently while playing billiards in his trophy room, strange footage of him on planes making goofy faces from angles that accentuate the impressive size and geometry of his skull, slews of emojis more fit for a 14-year-old girl, often used to quasi-racist effect.

Every Cejudo social media post, especially on Twitter, is like a shotgun blast of awkward, with weirdo pellets flying everywhere. It’s led to him being dubbed MMA’s “King of Cringe,” which is not a compliment. But, given his modus operandi, perhaps it’s no surprise that Cejudo would fully embrace that designation and now appears to be leaning into that concept even harder.

Cejudo has always been a bit of an enigma. After he shocked onlookers in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics to take freestyle wrestling gold, many folks, myself included, though he could be the star that MMA needed to propel the flyweight division. When asked about it, Cejudo said he wanted to box instead. Wait, what? When he finally did make his MMA debut nearly five years later – an absurd amount of time to wait given how thrilled the sport would be to have him – it was marred by repeatedly missing weight, a trait he carried into the UFC, to the point where it was the defining feature of his nascent career. Really, a potential Olympic gold medal divisional savior who can’t even beat the scale?

Now, in less than two years, he’s consecutively beat the greatest flyweight ever in Demetrious Johnson, clobbered former bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw and polished off elite contender Marlon Moraes and became a simultaneous two-division UFC champion in the process. Yet, if you asked a serious MMA fan about Cejudo right now, right this second, they’d likely be more inclined to bring up his wacky social media persona. Cejudo is an enigma to say the least.

Cejudo really seems to have embraced and keyed in on the “King of Cringe” gimmick earlier this year, when he dubbed himself “Triple C,” and called out legendary featherweight Jose Aldo. Feeling overlooked, scorned bantamweight contender Aljamain Sterling sent out this tweet:

To which Cejudo replied:

Things have only devolved from there. Sterling sent Cejudo a diss that involved a taco. In turn, Cejudo called him “Aljamima,” a clever if predictably cringey reference to everyone’s favorite quasi-racist mammy stereotype mascot, Aunt Jemima. They’ve been going back and forth for weeks, and Cejudo has even drawn other bantamweight contenders into his goofy tweets, such as Petr Yan, whose Russian heritage he mocked with a simple potato emoji.

I must say, even if “Aljamain Sterling Silver” is lame, and making fun of Russians – or the Irish for that matter – using potatoes is way played out, but disdainfully calling Urijah Faber “a 41-year-old skateboarder” made me laugh out loud. I suppose even blind squirrels find nuts. But more than anything, Cejudo doubling down on the King of Cringe concept leaves me with so many competing feelings and questions.

I’ve only interviewed the man once and it was years before he developed and embraced this persona. How much of this is his genuine, silly personality manifesting in a weird brand of modern trash talking and emoji’ing? Also, as I indicated earlier and have bemoaned in past columns, this sort of behavior is indicative and informed by the UFC’s largely laissez faire style of promoting its talent, leaving them to their own devices to get their name out there, build hype for fights and develop their brand. Typically, I bemoan it for a reason, as it leads to grating, protracted wars of words on Twitter, which often take a turn for the most antisocial, racist, stupid sorts of discourse. That’s not so much what we’re getting here. Even if we get disses like “Aljamima” or “Yuk yuk, poor Russians have to eat a lot of potatoes,” I doubt anyone seriously thinks Cejudo, a Mexican-American, is harboring highly prejudicial views. No, he’s just, well, cringey.

He’s far from the first major MMA champion to be cringe-inducing, but he does it in a whole different way. Former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia may still take the cake as the cringiest notable fighter in MMA history, but Sylvia was an awkward bodied, dismissed athlete who just wanted to be loved and accepted. He played a tough guy, but it manifested in laughable ways, most famously him wearing his UFC belt everywhere in a desperate plea to be recognized. But for all the jokes surrounding him – his own manager Monte Cox called him “Polio Legs” – he never embraced the gags. Instead, he bristled and became genuinely upset.

Cejudo is the polar opposite. This sport is not averse to fun, wacky personalities in the slightest, but they’re typically earnest. Jason “Mayhem” Miller really has a screw loose, for better and worse. Angela Hill really does have a dorky side that loves cosplay. Derrick Lewis really is the droll, wise cracking behemoth he appears to be. But, in any walk of life, “cringe” is not normally a trait that someone wants to predicate their public image on, which makes it curious to what extent Cejudo was just smart enough to realize his jokes were lame and he was making headshakingly gauche video content, then simply saw it as the most viable way to keep getting retweets and keeping his name out there. Most importantly, taken holistically with the fact that this would never fly in an era where the UFC was actually concerned with how it promoted its stars and champions, I can’t decide whether I love this or hate this.

For me, the most powerful human emotion, at least in a casual social setting, has always been something I call “embarra-thy,” that is, the condition of being morbidly embarrassed on someone else’s behalf. It is intimately related to the idea of cringe. Cejudo has recently demonstrated a baffling ability to embrace and weaponize this idea.

Is it going to make him a star, draw ratings on ESPN or sell pay-per-views? Almost certainly not. Nonetheless, especially in this era of hands-off promotion, there is still an inherent value in consistently injecting yourself into fight narratives, staying active on social media and making sure the most hardcore disseminators of MMA content between fans and media are talking about you. Cejudo has found a truly one of a kind way to do this, embracing his own shortcomings as both a comedian and a tough guy, making his tweets appointment viewing, because we’re all suckers for punishment who want to see how he can make us groan and bare our teeth.

Good, bad, natural, calculated, who the hell really knows with Cejudo? He’s notoriously difficult to access in that way. It’s doubtful he ever becomes that big breakout star but he’s damn sure “The King of Cringe,” and so long as he’s content to reign on that throne, we’re all subjects in his court.

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Jordan Breen
Jordan Breen

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