Many haven’t been able to see past the “King of Cringe” persona that Henry Cejudo has portrayed over the last few years and a lot of that is Henry’s doing. He likes to play into the persona and that’s what’s prevented a lot of people from recognizing who he really is- one of the greatest athletes in combat sports history.
Think about all of the greats that have competed in our sport: Khabib Nurmagomedov, Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones, Conor McGregor, Anderson Silva, Daniel Cormier and more. None of them have accomplished what Henry Cejudo has. Not only does he belong to an elite group of fighters that has held two UFC Championships at the same time, he’s the only UFC Champion in history that’s won an Olympic Gold Medal.
Henry Cejudo is a true winner and you can see that throughout his entire athletics career. As playful as he is on one end, there’s a very serious side to Henry Cejudo on the other. He wouldn’t be able to accomplish what he has without that side.
That seriousness came from a very humbling childhood.
Raising 7 kids is no easy task for a single mother. Henry had no choice but to grow up fast.
“As a family, we didn’t eat. We’d suffer and eat maybe once a day. You know, there was never anything in the fridge. We grew up in apartments our whole childhood”.
Henry got his work ethic from his mother who worked 60 hours per week for 2 decades. She worked to support her children and encouraged them to be great.
“My mom always taught us gratitude and being thankful- and going after your dreams. This is an immigrant lady who came to the US and kept us humble”.
Though he had a loving relationship with his mother, his relationship with his father Jorge was much different. He was always in trouble with the law. When Henry was 5 years old, his father took him to a carnival in South Central LA. Young Henry was enjoying the evening until he witnessed the LAPD take his father down and arrest him at the carnival.
“They finally caught up to my father. I don’t know how they found him there and I’m not sure exactly why he was nabbed, most likely drugs and theft, but to this day, I don’t know”.
Jorge Cejudo was arrested and became a threat to his family.
After coming out of jail and threatening his family, Jorge Cejudo was arrested again for an altercation on the streets. 6 months after the arrest, Henry’s mom received a letter informing her that Jorge had been released from prison. She knew it wasn't safe staying in LA, so she took her kids and fled to Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Henry was 6 years old when his father was deported. Jorge Cejudo died when Henry was 20 years old, one year before he won an Olympic Gold Medal.
After spending a couple of years in Las Cruces, Henry’s family moved to Phoenix, Arizona. It was here that his love for wrestling began at the age of 10. Henry was a prodigy and the wrestling world quickly took notice. After winning several Wrestling Championships in high school, he decided he was going to skip competing in college and begin his international career immediately.
Cejudo went on to win several titles including a Gold Medal at the 2008 Pan American Games. Two months later, Cejudo secured his spot at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Bejing, China, after qualifying for the US Olympic Trials.
For any wrestler, there’s no bigger reward than an Olympic Gold Medal. It’s the one title that proves without a doubt you’re the best in the world. When 21-year-old Henry arrived in Bejing, he started to realize that his wrestling career would be coming to an end.
“I remember getting there and saying, this is it. This is cool but, after these next 2 weeks, this shit is done. Like all the hard work, like this is it”.
After having to cut 10 pounds in 2.5 hours, Cejudo silenced the voices in his head and became ready to compete.
“After making weight, I said this is my last time making weight and this is the last tournament I’m ever going to wrestling in. I said I’m going to wrestle like it’s my last day on earth and that’s exactly what I did”.
At the age of 21, Henry Cejudo became the youngest American in history to win an Olympic Gold Medal in wrestling after defeating Tomohiro Matsunaga in the finals.
Cejudo retired from wrestling for 3 years before being pulled back. He didn’t want to go back to wrestling but did because the opportunities were too lucrative to pass on.
“I was the golden boy. I was the kid who had wrestling shoes with Adidas. I was the All-American kid, nothing like what I am now. I was sponsored by Polo Ralph Lauren. I had the biggest commercials with Coca-Cola nationwide. There was just too much money on the table for me not to come back”.
Though the opportunities were there, Henry knew he was done with wrestling. After his final wrestling match against Nick Simmons at the 2012 Olympic Team Trials, Cejudo took off his shoes signalling the end of his wrestling career.
His desire to compete in wrestling was no more, but Henry's combat sports career wasn't done yet.
On January 30th, 2013, Cejudo announced via Twitter that he would start fighting as a mixed martial artist.
When Cejudo announced he was making his MMA debut, Demetrious Johnson was the UFC Flyweight Champion and Dominick Cruz was the UFC Bantamweight Champion. Two fighters that Henry would go on to defeat. Johnson and Cruz were the gold standard at the time and gave Cejudo a target to work towards.
“I knew I would fight these guys one day. I knew how good they were and I knew that one day I would fight both of them”.
The UFC wanted to sign Henry to a contract as soon as he got into MMA, but he wanted to take his time and get practice first.
“They wanted to sign me from the beginning but I was like nah man. Me and my agent talked about it and said let’s beat up some tomato cans first. Let’s get that experience because I didn’t want to practice inside the UFC. I wanted to practice outside and go in after”.
Henry started his pro MMA career with 4 consecutive 1st round TKO wins. He showed the same promise early in his MMA career that he showed early in his wrestling career. After going 6-0, Henry believed it was time for the big leagues. He signed with the UFC and made a successful debut by defeating Dustin Kimura in December of 2014.
The UFC matchmakers didn’t take it slow with Henry. In his second fight with the promotion, he was matched up against Chris Cariaso who had just challenged Demetrious Johnson for the Flyweight title one fight prior. Cejudo dominated Cariaso for 3 rounds and proved immediately proved he was one of the best Flyweight fighters in the world. After winning 4 consecutive fights in the UFC, the undefeated Cejudo earned a title shot against Demetrious Johnson. This is where Cejudo reached a turning point.
3 years in his professional MMA career, Cejudo lost his first professional fight by 1st round TKO in a title-fight against Demetrious Johnson. It’s always interesting to see how an undefeated fighter bounces back from their first loss. Losing wasn’t something that was new to Cejudo. He lost many times in his wrestling career and that’s what made him evolve.
Cejudo reinvented himself as a fighter and eventually earned a rematch against Johnson after defeating Wilson Reis and Sergio Pettis in back to back fights.
“Even though I got knocked down and didn’t land a punch in the first fight, I still believed I could beat Demetrious Johnson. I’ll never forget that even my coaches were nervous. They were like fuck, man, we’re going up against this dude again. They were positive I could win but they knew that at any moment I could lose. They were nervous”.
Normally it’s the coaches that try to keep their fighter composed. It was the other way around in this situation. Rematching a pound for pound great that already finished you in the 1st round is a tall order and Henry’s team felt the pressure.
You could immediately see that Henry was having a difficult time balancing on his foot. The fight seemed done in the first 20 seconds. Henry couldn’t last 1 round the first time he fought Demetrious Johnson. How was he going to win a rematch with an injured ankle?
This is when Henry Cejudo put on one of the most impressive performances of his athletic career. He bounced back in the 2nd round and went on to earn a split decision to become the UFC Flyweight Champion. Not only did he take the title, he ended Johnson’s historic title reign which had the most consecutive title defenses in UFC history at 11.
For the first time in history, there was a UFC Flyweight Champion that was not Demetrious Johnson. As soon as Cejudo won the Flyweight title, he brought a fresh coat of paint to the division. In his post-fight speech, Cejudo grabbed the mic and said he wanted to move up a division and challenge TJ Dillashaw for the Bantamweight title.
Instead of moving up to Bantamweight for a chance to win a second title, Cejudo opted to defend his Flyweight title against TJ Dillashaw in an effort to keep the division alive. Going into the fight, Dillashaw stated that he was being sent to Flyweight to kill the division. Had he defeated Cejudo, he would have taken the belt and moved back up to Bantamweight which would have resulted in the end of the Flyweight division. Instead, Cejudo finished Dillashaw by knockout in 32 seconds. Henry Cejudo was the Flyweight Champion that just knocked out the Bantamweight Champion. It seemed natural that a rematch against Dillashaw would take place next, but this time for the Bantamweight title.
A few weeks later, TJ Dillashaw was forced to relinquish his title after testing positive for EPO. A fight for the vacant Bantamweight title was made between Henry Cejudo and Marlon Moraes at UFC 238. Moraes defeated every fighter he fought in the 8 years prior to his fight against Henry Cejudo.
Henry Cejudo was an Olympic Gold Medalist and the UFC Flyweight Champion. At UFC 238, he had the chance of winning a second UFC Championship which would solidify himself as an all-time great. Like he did in his rematch against Demetrious Johnson, Cejudo faced adversity in his fight against Moraes.
“I had sprained my ankle on the Tuesday before I fought Marlon Moraes. That was the first time I went into a fight with ankle bracelets”.
As many fighters often do, Henry Cejudo stepped into the cage against Marlon Moraes injured. However, it was what happened during the fight what made this performance truly special. Moraes was winning the 1st round by attacking Cejudo’s legs. With less than 1 minute remaining in the 1st round, Cejudo blew out his left shoulder. When Cejudo went back to his corner, his coaches told him that he needed to get out of kicking range. Cejudo listened to his corner and made adjustments immediately. He closed the range and forced Moraes to brawl with him. Cejudo started to drown Moraes and finished him in the 3rd round to win the Bantamweight Championship.
In both of Cejudo’s title winning fights against Demetrious Johnson and Marlon Moraes, he had to battle back from injury and adversity in the 1st round. This is the mark of a true Champion.
Cejudo had to get surgery for his blown shoulder and was sidelined for 11 months. He made his return to action against Dominick Cruz, the fighter that held the UFC Bantamweight title when Cejudo announced he was going to compete in MMA. Henry was dialed in to perform and you can see it during their final staredown. He finished Cruz in the 2nd round, then shocked the fight game when he announced his retirement from the sport in his post fight speech.
Will he stay retired? That remains to be seen. Regardless of if he does or doesn’t, the legacy of Henry Cejudo is secured. He’s reached the mountain top in multiple sports and did it against all odds. He’s accomplished what no one else has and he did it all by the age of 33. There’s nothing cringe about that.
An Olympic Gold Medal and two UFC Championships. Henry Cejudo is one of the greatest competitors in combat sports history and we might not see anyone accomplish what he's accomplished ever again.
To be continued, hopefully…