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Cejudo makes good on promise ... and makes history

Henry Cejudo won an Olympic gold medal at the age of 21 and a UFC title at the age of 31 (Left Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)

The first time I met Henry Cejudo I knew right away that he was something special.

He was still a teenager who was in his senior year in high school.

Like many elite young wrestlers, Cejudo had an abundance of lofty goals and dreams he wanted to achieve on the wrestling mat.

He was brash, cocky and not shy about sharing his aspirations.

But something about Cejudo, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist who won a UFC world title Saturday night, was different.

You could sense there was something very real about his high level of confidence.

He also was extremely advanced as a wrestler for someone his age.

When I sat down to interview him for the first time in the spring of 2006 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, he immediately caught my attention.

He was intelligent, charismatic, articulate and genuine. He also had a great sense of humor with an infectious laugh.

When I asked him what his goals were, he looked me straight in the eyes without hesitation and told me exactly what he believed.

"I am going to be an Olympic and world champion," he said matter-of-factly. "Those aren't goals -- that's reality. That's what I'm going to do."

It wasn't quite the way he envisioned it, but 10 years to the month after his surprising Olympic triumph Cejudo proved his doubters wrong.

Again.

Henry Cejudo with his Olympic gold medal in 2008 (Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)

After knocking off the seemingly unbeatable Demetrious Johnson to win the UFC flyweight title Saturday night in Los Angeles, Cejudo finally had reached his goal of becoming a world champion. He ended Johnson's nearly six-year reign as UFC world champion.

Cejudo was overmatched, overpowered and overwhelmed when he met Johnson for the UFC 125-pound title in April 2016. He lacked experience in the Octagon at that point and he was exposed by a highly skilled fighter.

Johnson, nicknamed "Mighty Mouse," had been ranked as the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world at that time. He was ranked No. 2 behind Daniel Cormier entering Saturday's fight.

Cejudo won a split decision over Johnson in a fight that many MMA observers felt could've gone either way.

I watched video of the entire fight again Sunday morning and Cejudo looked to me like the clear winner despite badly rolling his ankle in the early moments of the bout.

Cejudo controlled the center of the cage throughout the five rounds, and you could make a case that he won every round. He was continually coming forward and was on the offensive while Johnson kept retreating toward the edge of the cage.

Cejudo was superb with his strikes and kicks, but it was his wrestling ability that was the difference. He used his slick inside trip maneuver to take Johnson down numerous times and neutralize him.

One issue I had with Cejudo in previous bouts was that he relied too much on his boxing and not enough on his best skill, which obviously is wrestling.

Cejudo was well-prepared this time and followed his game plan to near-perfection in the rematch. Cejudo appeared to have an edge in size over Johnson and he took advantage of that with his takedowns. Keeping Johnson down on the ground for extended periods was an important strategy and a huge key to his win.

And that was no easy task because Johnson also is an excellent wrestler who is very explosive.

Watching Cejudo's wrestling technique Saturday takes me back to when he was just 21 and had become the youngest American wrestler to win an Olympic title.

Craig Sesker with Henry Cejudo in 2008
I worked very closely with Henry from 2006-08 in my role as communications manager at USA Wrestling. He won the U.S. Open just over a month before he graduated from high school in 2006. He made the world team a year later at age 20 in 2007 before landing an Olympic berth in 2008.

I was honored when Cejudo and Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke asked for my help when Plaschke wrote the book "American Victory" about Cejudo's run to Olympic gold. I connected Plaschke with people he interviewed for the book and I also served as an editor, researcher and consultant during the year-long process of completing the project.

While reading the manuscripts for the book in 2009, I discovered in the final pages that Cejudo said he was retiring from wrestling at age 21.

It was a stunning revelation that caught many of us by surprise. But I also was well aware that cutting down to the 121-pound weight class was taking a toll on him. He had tough weight cuts at the 2007 Pan American Games and at the 2008 Olympic Games.

Cejudo spent the next three years mostly away from competition before deciding to come back for the 2012 Olympic Trials in Iowa City.

He put on a heck of a show before losing to Nick Simmons in the challenge tournament finals before a sellout crowd of 15,000 fans at the Olympic Trials. You could see he still had it, but the lack of training and competition time clearly cost him against a returning world fifth-place finisher in Simmons.

Following his setback, Cejudo took off his shoes and tossed them into the stands as fans stood and cheered at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. This time he was done for good. His wrestling career was over.

Even with the time away from wrestling, he took the loss hard in 2012. I saw that first-hand when I walked him to the interview room to meet the media after his close loss to Simmons.

You could definitely see that he still had the ability to wrestle at a high level. And at that point, maybe he wondered what could have been if he would have continued to wrestle full-time through that Olympic cycle from 2009-12 and beyond.

Fortunately for him and his fans, Cejudo found another competitive outlet with his wrestling in mixed martial arts. And he's found a way to cash in financially with the high level of success he has had.

His fans can still see him compete at a high level where his wrestling skills have played an integral part in him becoming a UFC world champion.

It is not surprising to see wrestlers ruling the Ultimate Fighting Championships once again with Cejudo now on top.

Cormier, Cejudo's Olympic teammate in 2008, now holds UFC titles in the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions. Cormier was also on the pay-per-view call of the fight Saturday. He offered some great insight as to why wrestling helped Cejudo and why wrestling is such an important component to be successful in mixed martial arts.

T.J. Dillashaw, who also wrestled and was an NCAA qualifier for Cal State Fullerton, retained his bantamweight title at 135 pounds by winning the other co-main event Saturday in L.A.

Cejudo said immediately after his fight in the first co-main event that he wanted to move up a weight class to fight the winner of the bantamweight bout.

A Cejudo-Dillashaw fight would be entertaining to watch. And would no doubt provide him with a lucrative and well-deserved payday.

Cejudo likely would be the underdog again, but that would be just fine with him.

He wasn't picked to win the 2008 Olympics and he wasn't picked to win a UFC title either.

Now he's won both.

One thing I've learned is that you never doubt Henry Cejudo.

Henry Cejudo wrestling in the 2008 Olympics (Photo/Larry Slater)

He's 31 years old now, but he looks like he hasn't lost a step. He's still powerful, explosive and technically sound. And his conditioning is superb. He never slowed down during his win over Johnson.

His maturity also was evident with the way he approached the fight and with the adjustments he made tactically and technically in the rematch with Johnson.

When I interviewed Cejudo just outside the venue prior to Kyle Snyder's gold medal wrestling match at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he was just coming off his lopsided loss to Johnson.

After we finished the interview and were about to part ways, Cejudo called out to me.

"I'll be back, Craig, you can count on that," he said, flashing a smile. "Mighty Mouse better be ready for the rematch because I'm going to beat him next time. I promise you that."

Cejudo made good on his promise. And did something nobody else has ever done.

Win an Olympic gold medal and a UFC championship.

Craig Sesker has written about wrestling for more than three decades. He's covered three Olympic Games and is a two-time national wrestling writer of the year.

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