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Talk to UFC flyweight champion Henry “The Messenger” Cejudo, and within a minute he’s bound to tell you about the Olympic gold medal he won in 2008. As a matter of fact, he may just lead the conversation off with it, even announcing his own arrival as the Olympic champ.
Like a proud parent or a doting spouse, Cejudo will fondly reference his glory days on the wrestling mats in Beijing at any point of the conversation, intertwining his Olympic accolades into the fold with his accomplishments in mixed martial arts. In many ways, gold, whether it be of the Olympic variety or the UFC title he holds, has shaped his entire life, and on Saturday, June 8, Henry Cejudo is looking to add to his collection by picking up a second gold belt, this time in the bantamweight division.
It’s this accomplishment that he believes will solidify his legacy as the greatest combat athlete of all time.
“It’s the Cejudo weight division,” comments Henry just days out from his headlining bout atop the UFC 238 Pay Per View main card on ESPN+. “This is beyond the sport of mixed martial arts. I believe I’m trending things in sports. Period. Do what I’ve done. Find the greatest combat athlete of all time. I believe that’s me. And I think to fight for the second belt, I’m just gonna cement it even more.”
As the youngest American to ever win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling, Cejudo became an instant star, and eventually a highly coveted prospect in mixed martial arts. Already world-class on the mat, he slowly developed a modest striking game that took him all the way to his first UFC title shot just two-and-a-half years into his professional career.
But MMA has a steep learning curve, and although Cejudo was wrestling’s golden boy, his dreams of UFC gold were quickly crushed with one brutal knee to the solar plexus. A second-consecutive loss soon followed, but Cejudo, with his championship mettle and perseverance, climbed back up the ranks, one win at a time.
Two years after suffering his first loss inside the Octagon, Cejudo exacted his revenge, besting record-setting champion Demetrious Johnson. Finally, “The Messenger” was back in the gold.
“I love legacy … I love breaking records. I love proving people wrong,” explains Cejudo, who faces Marlon Moraes for the vacant bantamweight strap in the UFC 238 main event. “I was the underdog my whole life and I have created fans. And it’s special to me because when you’re the underdog and people don’t believe in you, you know what happens is? You become a fan of them. That happened to me.”
It’s certain that Cejudo, who finished T.J. Dillashaw in just 32 seconds earlier this year when the UFC debuted on ESPN+, now boasts a much larger fan base than when he dropped back-to-back fights in 2016. He’s a different fighter, a different person even, in almost every way, except in the wrestling department, where he’s remained aces.
One of the most noticeable differences, however, has come in his desire to elevate his name and presence in the world of mixed martial arts, beginning with his repeated emphasis on golden aspirations. Aspirations that begin with manifestations, along with golden snakeskin shoes, gold lame blazers, and props that range from crowns to regal robes and magic kits.
It’s a schtick that he’s embracing, regardless if the audience is digging it or not.
“I love gold. I’m a gold digger. Such a gold digger,” exclaims Cejudo, who’s lyrical cadence is caught somewhere between Kanye West and Austin Powers villain Goldmember. “All I have is gold. Everything I touch turns to gold.”
Aware that his gimmick isn’t necessarily the most appealing, Cejudo shows no remorse for behavior that is often referred to as “cringy” or “corny.” On the contrary, Cejudo remains unabashed and proud of the reactions he’s invoking from fans and critics. Learning to embrace the hate has become a golden rule of sorts for the flyweight king, and in his pursuit of a second belt, champ champ status, and the top spot on the UFC’s pound-for-pound list, Cejudo found a rather unlikely mentor, former UFC title challenger Chael Sonnen.
A product of the U.S. Olympic training center, Cejudo has always been surrounded by greatness. He’s loyal to his coach, Captain Eric Albarracin, who’s an accomplished wrestler in his own right. And while “The Messenger” was able to piece together a stellar team of coaches and trainers to guide his career inside the Octagon, an offbeat remark from Sonnen — to paraphrase, he explained that Cejudo’s honorable approach was in detriment to his ability to rally the fanbase — shaped this second act, the golden act, outside of competition.
Ever since, Cejudo has transformed into one of MMA’s great heels, albeit bordering on troll status. He’s become one of the UFC’s most boastful and braggadocious champions, which is surprisingly refreshing, even if it means courting WWE Diva Nikki Bella to levels bordering on pestering, salsa dancing with his belt, or even wearing a crown to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley field during fight week. It’s just Henry being Henry, and he’s okay with that, so long as there’s plenty gold around his waist to match the Olympic gold around his neck.
“Yeah, I’m a little cheesy, I’m a little cringy. At the same time, I get the job done. I’ve done things in sports that nobody in sports has done,” states Cejudo. “After this fight, I believe I am gonna be pound-for-pound king. I’m gonna be the only one with two belts, and I’m the only one with a gold medal. How about that?”
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