The champ has returned.
United States Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo has not stepped onto a mat in competitive fashion since becoming the youngest American wrestler to capture Olympic gold during the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. At one time it looked as if Cejudo had grappled for the final time at just 21 years of age, but in late 2010 he announced he would be making a run at a second freestyle gold medal in 2012.
Fans won’t have to wait until the London games to kick off to catch a glimpse of one of the greatest wrestlers in U.S. history, however, because Cejudo will make his return today in New York City during the 2011 Beat the Streets Gala in Duffy Square.
As part of a USA vs. Russia freestyle dual meet, Cejudo will square off against Rasul Mashezov at 121 pounds as one of seven matches for the event.
Beat the Streets is a non-profit organization that reaches out to students in New York City and creates opportunities for them to participate in after-school wrestling programs, providing them a safe haven and a way out of some of the poorest and toughest neighborhoods in the The Big Apple.
“It’s a great cause and it’s something I help out with during the year because I was an inner-city kid too,” Cejudo said. “I’m excited to be here to show kids that they have a way out and to use it as a platform to elevate kids to be better people and accomplish their dreams.”
It feels right that Cejudo, who became a national darling in both the United States and Mexico after winning the 2008 55kg Olympic gold medal, has decided to continue his competitive wrestling career. He’s just 24-years old, and was once considered the future of USA wrestling.
But his career nearly took a turn in a couple of different directions following his triumphant rise to glory.
Growing up in a Mexican community as the son of Mexican immigrants, boxing was one of the most popular sports around and one of Cejudo’s earliest passions.
“Being brought up in a Mexican community all people talked about and watched was boxing,” Cejudo said. “And to me it was always something I wanted to do but never had a real chance to attempt.”
So after his Olympic championship and the whirlwind media tour that followed, Cejudo began to dabble in the sweet science. Eventually he became just as immersed as he had been in wrestling. He slept at the boxing gym, training at least twice a day. He competed and won tournaments in his home state of Arizona and even trained with iconic trainer Freddie Roach. Cejudo was set on going back to the Olympics, but the catch was he was going to do it with gloves on.
“That was my initial goal, to go back to the Olympics for boxing,” Cejudo said. “I wanted to blow Michael Phelps out of the water.”
This wasn’t just a wacky dream being chased, either. Cejudo was getting very good, very quickly, and still feels he could have turned professional and found early success.
“I was sparring against a pro boxer and within a month I was getting the best of him,” Cejudo stated. “I was going up against some of the best guys in the country and they were surprised I was right there with these people in just a month and a half. My defense, my jab, how to move; it was all there.”
Boxing wasn’t the only sport that threatened to pull Cejudo away from the wrestling mat. Not surprisingly, mixed martial arts came calling early in 2010 when Bellator Fighting Championship showed interest in signing Cejudo for its Season Three Bantamweight Tournament. The list of wrestlers who have made a successful transition to MMA is a long and distinguished one, and it seemed a logical path for Cejudo if he wasn’t going to wrestle anymore.
But in the end, neither boxing nor MMA could pull Cejudo away from the sport that has reciprocated so much good in his life.
“I was close enough to signing with Bellator that they faxed the papers over and I was ready to sign them,” Cejudo said. “I thought about it for a day and during that time I got a call from USA wrestling about me coming back. I had a decision to make, and I think I just see myself with another gold medal and maybe doing MMA afterward.
“MMA will always be there, but wrestling is such a high-caliber sport that once you leave it you can’t come back. I think I can have a bigger impact right now by winning another Olympic gold and going down in the history books.”
Long considered the best base to have when entering mixed martial arts training, Cejudo certainly has the wrestling aspect down pat. Even though he balked at an MMA offer, that doesn’t mean he’s closed the book on a career in the cage. In fact, Cejudo will be 25 after the 2012 Olympics and has already trained in jiu-jitsu and thai boxing in addition to his standard boxing training. An MMA career is certainly a possibility for Cejudo after the next Olympics.
“My goal never was to become an MMA fighter while I was training, I just wanted to become a student of all the (disciplines),” Cejudo said. “I can always come back to MMA. It’s a new sport. It’s a baby. Nobody in the UFC or in MMA is at their full potential right now because everybody is still learning.”
For now it will be like it was for Cejudo in the not-so-old days: all wrestling, all the time. His 18-month training camp began in February and will take him all the way to the summer of 2012. He will eventually move out to Iowa City, Iowa to train with his former Olympic coach Terry Brands, who was USA Wrestling’s national freestyle coach in Colorado Springs, Colo., when Cejudo trained there. Brands is also an associate head coach for the University of Iowa wrestling team under his twin brother and head coach Tom. Cejudo will also make a trip overseas to train with the Russians, seeking out the best to eventually be the best just as he did four years ago.
When Cejudo takes on Mashezov this evening he will be squaring off against one of the best 121-pounders in the world in his first high-profile match in nearly three years. Cejudo has never faced him before.
“He’s a competitor and any top-three guy at a weight is among the best in the world,” Cejudo said. “It’s going to be extremely hard to beat him, but it’s about competing against the best and he’s one of the best. I’m not scared, I just have to be ready and I’m ready now.”
Adversity and sacrifice are nothing new to Cejudo, not to a man who battled his way out of poverty and left home as a sophomore in high school to pursue a dream most couldn’t begin to fathom at that age.
“The thing about success,” Cejudo said. “Is that sometimes you have to sacrifice family and friends.”
Those are the words of a champion that has climbed to the very top from the very bottom. For the time being, he’s back where he belongs.
Welcome back, Henry Cejudo.