When Henry Cejudo was just 21 years old he traveled to Beijing, China to wrestle in the freestyle competition representing the United States of America at 55-kilograms in the 2008 Olympics. The fact that he made it to the games was shocking enough, but then he went out and pulled off upset after upset all the way through to the gold medal match where he defeated Tomohiro Matsunaga from Japan to win the competition.
Cejudo was celebrated as an American hero and when he returned home he was appearing on talk shows, and saw stories about him in every major newspaper and magazine across the country. Now six years later, Cejudo is getting ready to make another unlikely journey where he’s going to be counted as an underdog on day one.
The former Olympic gold medalist will debut in the UFC on Saturday night where he will face Scott Jorgensen at UFC 177 in only his seventh professional fight. While wrestlers have made MMA their home for decades, Cejudo becomes only the third American gold medalist to fight in the UFC and the first since Kevin Jackson fought there all the way back in 1998 at UFC 16.
As excited as everyone seems to be to welcome Cejudo to the UFC and hail him as an Olympic gold medalist, he prefers to look at things in a much different way. Cejudo is a 6-0 fighter with no Octagon experience and a relative novice in a new sport making his first appearance in the biggest fight promotion in the world while taking on a former title contender who is ranked No. 15 among the best fighters at 125-pounds.
I became the best six years ago. It’s a whole new ball game. I was an Olympic champion in 2008. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always be a champion, but I’ve also learned that I’ve got to put that aside
— Henry Cejudo
Cejudo will always be proud of the gold medal he won in 2008, but that day is past and he’s moved onto a new sport. A sport where he’s the new guy on the block once again.
"A lot of people look at ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya, Muhammad Ali, people that have had that prestige of representing the U.S. and winning a gold medal. But that was in 2008 (when I won). I became the best six years ago. It’s a whole new ball game," Cejudo told FOX Sports on Thursday. "There’s guys who are hungry who have been training just as long. I was an Olympic champion in 2008. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always be a champion, but I’ve also learned that I’ve got to put that aside."
The way Cejudo succeeds in MMA is using the same method he did in wrestling for all those years leading to the 2008 Olympic games. If he always believes he has to fight for every inch, every takedown and every position he gains while the odds say he shouldn’t be there in the first place, Cejudo just always seems to find a way to win.
"I always put myself second because I strive to be first. That’s all it is," Cejudo said. "I appreciate the attention, the media, the cameras, I appreciate all of it for my first fight. It’s just a little brighter limelight but I have to make sure I perform. If I do things right, it’s going to be very hard to beat me."
The spotlight in the UFC is definitely bright, but it’s not that much different of an animal than his biggest days in wrestling. In both cases, losing comes with a certain kind of physical domination, it’s one on one, and the spotlight is warm and comforting after a win but just as cold and bitter when it shines on a defeat.
Throughout his career, Cejudo has elevated his game on the biggest stages whether that was wrestling a native on his home soil or performing in front of the world as part of the Olympics. The UFC has a different name and it’s certainly a different sport, but the feeling is very much the same.
"I know the wrestling community’s very anxious for me to fight, it’s happened for the last few years. I’ve learned to embrace pressure. I’ve learned that anything that makes my heart beat is a challenge and me, I’m a competitor. I love the heart beats, I love the challenge. That’s actually when I do my best, when I’m pressured, when I’m challenged," Cejudo said.
"I’ve learned to embrace it. This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve had the chance to wrestle in Iran in front of 50,000 people, in Times Square, in the Olympic games, the list goes on. This is wrestling plus punches plus knees plus submissions, but I’ve worked at those skills for a very long time now so I feel very confident."
It doesn’t take Cejudo long to draw parallels between this first fight in the UFC to one of his most famous wrestling matches over a decade ago. He was a senior in high school and Cejudo took part in an international tournament where he was matched up with wrestlers from all over the country including an NCAA champion with years of size, power and experience on him.
The only thing I can promise you is my best. I’m not going to promise you a knockout. I’m not going to promise you ‘Fight of the Night’. But I’m going to give you my best and that much I promise
— Henry Cejudo
On paper, Cejudo should have been happy just to survive for three periods, but instead he went out and dominated the match. With more than a few jaws on the floor and eyes gaped open, Cejudo knew he had a solid future ahead of him in wrestling.
He’s starting to get the same feeling when looking at MMA.
"I remember the first time I was in high school and I wrestled in the open tournament, it was actually the Sunkist tournament, men’s division, and I had the returning NCAA champion in my first match. Nobody gave me a shot. People were like ‘it’s so courageous for him to wrestle’. Nobody thought I was going to beat him. I beat the returning NCAA champion and I major decisioned him like 6-0. That’s when I started to slowly make headlines," Cejudo revealed.
"I believed since I was at a very young age that I was very mature, very strong for my age. Now at the age of 27, I have probably hit my peak. I’ve never felt this strong in my life. So it’s a little scary the potential that could develop."
His first fight in the UFC won’t be easy and while he’s a slight favorite to win, he’s not a lock by any means. Cejudo knows to climb to the top of the mountain in the UFC it’s going to require the same kind of hard work that earned him an Olympic gold medal in 2008. It’s part of the reason why he’s only willing to give one guarantee about his upcoming fight against Scott Jorgensen.
"The only thing I can promise you is my best," Cejudo said. "I’m not going to promise you a knockout. I’m not going to promise you ‘Fight of the Night’. But I’m going to give you my best and that much I promise."