Henry Cejudo’s motives for stepping inside the Octagon are hardly traditional.
Money, fame and his status as UFC flyweight contender are secondary to Cejudo’s place as a community leader and inspirational figure. From the time he won a gold medal in wrestling at the 2008 Olympics to his current UFC stint, Cejudo has made a point of preaching the importance of using success as a springboard. And that’s the message he takes into his bout at Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 78, where he looks to improve to his record to 10-0 against Jussier Formiga (18-3).
“I know success; I’ve done it, but success is not what everyone thinks it is,” Cejudo says. “It’s only a tool and a platform for a greater message. That’s where my nickname ‘The Messenger’ comes from. The UFC and a world title are a platform for something greater. For a bigger purpose.”
What is that bigger purpose? Cejudo says it’s spreading awareness that no circumstance is too difficult to overcome. Cejudo is Mexican-American, born in Los Angeles to undocumented immigrant parents. He grew up poor, and his father – who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction – was absent for large stretches of his life.
“Growing up without a dad and not having a father figure – I noticed a hole in my life,” Cejudo says. “For the longest time I would run away from my problems instead of confronting them. I felt empty at one point. Not depressed, but empty.”
Despite his hardships, Cejudo found an outlet on the wrestling mat. At 21, he became the youngest American athlete to ever medal in wrestling when he captured gold in Beijing. Seven years later, he’s a top contender in the UFC and could soon have the chance to become the first fighter to win an Olympic gold medal and a UFC belt. That accomplishment would be humbling, he says, but material possessions aren’t what force him into the training room every day.
“MMA, fighting, winning the Olympics – it’s only a platform for me to help others. It’s just a tool,” Cejudo says. “I have a purpose and a meaning in life, and I have to fulfill that. Being a champion is great, but more importantly than that, you get to be an inspiration and a role model to other people.
“You can accomplish anything that you dedicate yourself to. Think how many people struggle across the world, across the country,” he continues. “I know anything is possible if you set your mind, your body, your soul and your faith to it.”
Cejudo works with various charities, outreach programs and non-profit organizations, including the Special Olympics and Beat the Streets Wrestling. In 2011 Cejudo published a book, American Victory, that detailed his treacherous journey to Olympic glory. He says the response was more meaningful than any trophy or medal.
“There was a gentleman in prison who wrote to me and I could tell I’d touched him. He said, ‘I wish I’d read this book one year prior; I wouldn’t be doing 12-to-15 years in prison for attempted murder,'” Cejudo says. “You never know who you can touch. I never do it for attention or the cameras – I do it because I care. Because I was a kid that was raised without a father. I came from a good family, but I didn’t have much growing up and I see a lot of these kids, especially this generation, who have completely lost their moral values. It’s not about your net worth, but your self-worth.”
The next step in spreading his message would be claiming a UFC championship belt. The 28-year-old has thrived in MMA competition thus far, but Formiga will be his most difficult challenge to date. The Brazilian is a dangerous grappler and improving striker. He can make opponents pay dearly for the simplest of mistakes.
Cejudo says he’s prepared for the matchup, but in the grand scheme, Formiga is merely another roadblock in the way of capturing the UFC flyweight title.
With a skillset that includes Olympic-level wrestling, boxing and world-class athleticism, Cejudo is a challenger unlike any 125-pound champion Demetrious Johnson has faced. He says he has what it takes to end Johnson’s three-year title reign and earn the biggest tool for public influence the sport has to offer.
“The title is a representation,” Cejudo says. “I think somebody knows when they are a good fighter, then I think someone knows when they are the best. I’m in that situation. If I get a title shot now or whenever, it’s bound to happen, but that belt is my microphone. It will give me the ability to speak with more people.
“If I can’t love people, if I can’t inspire people, why do I live? I live for this stuff,” Cejudo says. “I live for it more than fighting. I understand that fighting will be gone some day, but I know when you become a role model, it goes to a whole new level. You can be a game-changer. Our voices are the most powerful things we have as human beings. I want to use mine for good.”