The connection was powerfully clear, audibly humbling Henry Cejudo before he could even finish his thought.
His life first irrevocably changed in August 2008, when he won a gold medal in men’s 55 kg. freestyle wrestling at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008. He was only 21 — the youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champion in history (at the time) — and appeared shocked as he received gold on top of the medal stand.
Move ahead 10 years, to August 2018, and Cejudo is again in a big, new evolution, this time celebrating his first UFC title win. His flyweight championship came in a split decision during UFC 227, as he handed heavy favorite Demetrious Johnson his first loss since 2011.
This time Cejudo was not shocked as he received the championship belt. He knew the victory was truly his.
“This is surreal. So, so surreal…” Cejudo said, as his voice trailed off with emotion. “I feel like everything has come full circle for me. I was super young when I won in the Olympics, the youngest to win a gold medal. Now, 10 years later, like literally nearly to the day, I win my UFC title that I have been working so hard for."
“My reality is better than my dreams right now. This is where hard work and belief gets you. Yes, it does.”
Cejudo captured the country’s attention in 2008, the son of undocumented immigrants rising from poverty to become an Olympic champion.
His story since then is no less historic, as he’s now the first Olympic gold medalist to become a UFC champion, and only the third Olympic wrestling team member to make the jump to the combat sport. Cejudo sees his victory as ratification of a long-fought effort to be respected in full-contact mixed martial arts.
He has been part of the UFC organization since 2013, after retiring from wrestling. The Phoenix native said he always knew MMA was in his future, as it felt like a natural transition to use his world-leading wrestling skills.
Still, going from the technical, rule-driven world of freestyle wrestling to being kicked, punched, grappled and facing submission holds in front of a screaming crowd — while caged in an octagon — is an entirely different scene.
Cejudo’s UFC 227 championship fight was a struggle, as he stumbled in the opening round and appeared to injure his left leg. Johnson, one of the most respected champions in UFC history, was actually the organization’s lone flyweight champion, having held the title since it was created in 2012. He came into the fight on a record-setting title-defense streak of 11 — including a TKO win over Cejudo at UFC 176 in 2016.
This rematch was stressful, and Cejudo asked his corner team between rounds to give him strength to help keep his focus. One of the key members of his team, coach Eric Albarracin, has been his close friend since their wrestling days at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Cejudo looked at Albarracin for support.
“I said, ‘We are in the fight of our lives here,’” Cejudo said. “I needed one thing, I wanted them to be composed. That dude (Johnson) was dangerous, because if he makes me overreact, I am in trouble. They were amazing for four rounds, so composed and calm. In the fifth, they picked up the intensity and gave me the strength. They sent me the signals."
“Like when the Spanish conquered Mexico — do you know that story? They were dedicated 100 percent; they stormed the castle. They burned the ships. I had to be the same — it was time to burn the ships.”
Cejudo credits his determination for getting him through a challenging year. He nearly died in the devastating October 2017 Santa Rosa (California) fires. He was staying in a hotel, after a celebrity golf event, and had to flee for his life after the smoke alarms went off. The smoke and fire were everywhere, and Cejudo, clad only in a towel, jumped from the second story balcony to escape.
He survived with only minor injuries but lost his possessions, including his Olympic gold medal and Olympic ring, in the fire. But he is grateful to be alive.
He says life, the ups and downs, have given him perspective.
“You always need to keep fighting, keep pushing,” Cejudo said. “You do not quit. You have to work hard and sacrifice — and the bigger the dream, the bigger the sacrifice — to get your dreams. I have fought my whole life to achieve my dreams.
“Being the Olympic champion was amazing. But I think now being the UFC champion is an even bigger high right now, because of everything I have gone through to get here. I am super grateful for both. They are real accomplishments that I know are special.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.