The magic of a American gold medal in Olympic wrestling is both undeniable and irresistible. I've been a thrall to its spell since 1996 when I happened to watch a teary eyed Kurt Angle's narrow triumph over Abbas Jaddidi.
No other sporting achievement has ever moved me on such an emotional level. It still does. I get tears in my eyes whenever I rewatch any American win gold since then, from Rulon Gardner to Jordan Burroughs. I even feel a little choked up watching a montage of the perpetually staid Cael Sanderson's run to gold to the backing of R. Kelly (and why not a link to a highlight clip of his collegiate career, while we're at it).
Of all the Olympic wrestling gold medal moments in my experience, Henry Cejudo's might be the most moving. After all, Henry was a kid who came from the humblest of beginnings. The sport of wrestling had given him focus and purpose, and he was able to claim an Olympic berth at a mere 21 years of age. He managed this without the benefit (some would say detriment) of a collegiate wrestling career, and he had to defeat a returning Olympic silver medalist simply to make the team.
This alone was enough for a great story, but the best part in my mind, was that Cejudo's performance in Beijing salvaged an entire Olympic games for our freestyle wrestling team. The other six members of the team finished out of the medals. The hopes and dreams of USA Wrestling rested on the shoulders of Henry Cejudo- a young man just out of his teens and coming off a disappointing world championships where he finished in 31st place. Henry had had his impressive moments in the lead up to the games, but even so, there was plenty of reason to doubt his ability to play the hero.
Gloriously, Cejudo showed that any doubt was misplaced. Henry wrestled brilliantly and it was clear that he was absolutely convinced he was the best wrestler on the mats that day in China. With his defeat of Japan's Tomohiro Matsunaga in the finals, the gold medal magic was instantly released. The Beijing Olympics was immediately transformed from the worst American freestyle wrestling performance in the modern era into a quasi-success. One performance and one gold medal did all that and now the U.S.A. had its very own wrestling prodigy and, as it appeared at the time, a cornerstone to build its program around heading into the future.
Now, perhaps, Henry Cejudo can bring some of this magic with him into the world of MMA where he will be the only Oympic gold medalist in wrestling in competition and the first to compete in the United States in this century.
How Henry Cejudo Projects as a Fighter
There is no reliable way to predict how much success an elite wrestler will enjoy as a mixed martial artist. However, there has been a pretty solid track record for MMA success with Olympic wrestlers involved. The three members of the 2008 men's Olympic freestyle wrestling team who have become prize fighters are all currently undefeated. Daniel Cormier is a heavyweight contender and could possibly be a world champion some day. Ben Askren is the welterweight champion in Bellator and seems to finally be getting a little bit of power in his hands to go along with his smothering top control. Steve Mocco only has one professional fight, but I don't see him losing until he makes it to a major promotion.
I believe that a healthy, motivated, properly trained Henry Cejudo should accomplish far more in mixed martial arts than any of his Olympic teammates. Here are six reasons why.
Age- While I believe that the time spent in a collegiate or world-class international wrestling room is vital to the formation of a fighter, a potential MMA competitor is still better off if he or she enters training in the other fighting discipline at a relatively young age. At 25, Cejudo has left himself enough time to refine his striking and grappling enough to become well rounded in his athletic prime.
Style/Mentality- I am uncertain how much weight to place on this factor, but if there were a wrestling style and mentality paradigmatically suited for MMA, it would be Cejudo's. Cejudo's wrestling style was dynamic and aggressive, it featured a variety of crisp leg attacks along with dramatic throws.
Henry, when attacking legs to the right, often used a very effective knee-pull single which left his head inside his opponent's leg. When attacking to the left he showed he was very comfortable finishing shots with his head on the outside of the hip, often converting takedowns explosively and authoritatively, as seen below in his Olympic finals match. This bodes well for his potential as a fighter for two reasons- first, most leg attacks in MMA seem to result in the head on the outside, and high amplitude finish more often result in the attacking wrestler landing in side control without the need to work past his opponent's guard.
I should also point out that Henry would shoot effectively off of both feet. This speaks to his superior athleticism which I will address later.
Henry's wrestling mentality was perhaps his greatest asset. Even at his young age, I would describe Cejudo as supremely confident in his abilities as well as being absolutely fearless. He never came close to giving up, even when he had to come from behind to win in the Olympic semifinals, and he never went halfway with moves, anything he attempted on a wrestling mat, he committed to with the utmost conviction. See below Henry's explosive lateral drop off a stopped inside trip on Matt Azevedo.
Evidence of Growth- When a wrestler doesn't develop during their post-high school years, this shows a lack of adaptability, and it bodes poorly for his potential as a mixed martial artist. Between the ages of 18 and 21, Henry Cejudo went from the talented kid who forewent college to live at the Olympic Training Center to a full fledged Olympic gold medalist. If a dedicated Cejudo can grow so much in skill as a wrestler, than great growth can be anticipated as a mixed martial arts fighter.
Experience in Other Martial Arts- Look at current UFC Lightweight champion Ben Henderson. Combining a background in a striking discipline with a strong wrestling background can be devastating. During his time away from wrestling, Cejudo fought in some amateur boxing competitions. I can't speak to Cejudo's boxing skill level in the grand scheme of things, but this experience can't hurt, especially when placed atop his previous wrestling experience.
Level of Achievement- My logic is that if someone can rise to the absolute top in one combat discipline, then it is more likely that he or she is, at least, more likely to rise to the top in mixed martial arts. Cejudo has earned the highest possible decoration in all of wrestling- an Olympic gold medal.
Athleticism- This, whether you like it or not, is far and away the most important criterion to use when attempting to evaluate a wrestler's potential as a mixed martial artist. Athleticism is, and will always be, the great equalizer.
My means evaluating of athleticism is as unscientific as conceivably possible, but it is all I have. I watch the way someone wrestles, and then close my eyes and imagine how they would perform at an NFL combine relative to similarly sized men. I believe that Henry would have excellent combine numbers, so according to this horribly flawed metric, he is extremely athletic.
Of course, a crude eyeball test conducted on Cejudo while wrestling can reveal much about his pure athletic prowess. Henry is strong, delicately agile, and really really quick. Observe the low single below from last year's Beat the Streets gala.
Henry is the complete package; he really has it all. He had the talent and the opportunity to be the greatest American wrestler ever and one of the world's all time greats. If he gets his ducks in a row, the sky is the limit in MMA. However, this may be a big if...
Reasons to Worry About Henry Cejudo's Future as a Fighter
Before I express my concerns about Henry, let me first say that I am a huge fan of Henry and of wrestling in general; I would want nothing more than to see Henry kick ass in MMA and become the most dominant flyweight of all time. The objective observer in me, however, can not help but notice that there are some choices Henry has made in the past few years which cause me to raise an eyebrow or two.
At the very least, Henry's preparations for the 2012 Olympic Trials did not appear to be the best for someone who intends to be the world's best combat sports athlete.
Between the 2008 Olympics and the 2012 trials, Cejudo was off the mat for almost two and a half years. He did not engage in training for a second Olympic title until February of 2011. This is an awful long time, particularly considering that all of Henry's strongest competition was spending that time competing for world championships.
When Henry first came back to training he announced his intent to train at the regional training center (RTC) at The University of Iowa with Coach Terry Brands.
Terry Brands is a distinguished figure in the wrestling world. Brands has won world championships, an Olympic bronze medal, and as an Olympic Training Center resident coach he was largely responsible for molding Henry Cejudo into an Olympic champion. Terry and Henry had grown close during Cejudo's gold medal run and a number of publications describe Brands as a father figure to Henry.
When considering a athlete/coach relationship woven so tightly, it was particularly alarming to hear reports in July of 2011 that Cejudo left the Iowa RTC due to Brands disapproval over the time Henry was spending in his commercial ventures.
To an outside observer, it did appear in the interim between 2008 and 2012, that Cejudo had a his fingers in a multitude of pies. He was party to a couple of high profile endorsement deals, wrote two books, flirted with a boxing career and seemed to pay a great deal of attention to the theatrical play about his life that was staged in Arizona.
After leaving Iowa, Cejudo briefly trained at Ohio State's RTC, but citing homesickness, Henry left to spend the bulk of his Olympic trials preparation residing in Arizona and away from any elite wrestling training sites. Almost all wrestlers serious about qualifying for an Olympic team reside at a regional training center or the Olympic Training Center in Colorado (or both). Cejudo spent his crunch time preparation for the trials working out at The Training Room, a strength and conditioning facility in Scottsdale run by Brian Davis, a former NFL defensive back. (when asked about Cejudo's preparations for the trials, Davis's response was somewhat...odd.)
Henry's unusual choices in training arrangements, when combined with the mixed results at the only three competitive wrestling events he attended before the trials, led some in the wrestling world to doubt if he would even be in attendance in Iowa City for the Olympic trials.
Once more, Henry proved his doubters wrong. He showed up at the trials on weight and looking pretty damn good. Henry was clearly in great shape, his reflexes looked sharp, and his technique surprisingly polished. He managed to register an impressive win over former world team member Obe Blanc, and suddenly it looked like he might have what it took to win a spot on an Olympic team for the second time.
This was until the semi finals when Henry's loss to Nick Simmons exposed the lack of world class coaching in his preparations. Though the match was incredibly entertaining and competitive, Henry definitely employed a tactical approach which played into the hands of the unorthodox Simmons, recklessly placing himself in too many dangerous positions, and paying for them with repeated back exposures.
Even in losing, Henry made it clear that he possessed more raw talent than any other wrestler in the field. Ultimately, poor game planning cost him a chance to go to London. One wonders if this would had been different had Cejudo decided to more consistently surround himself with the sort of high level and proven wrestling guidance that was made available to him.
Coaching and preparing Henry for the trials was former Arizona State and Team Army wrestler, Eric Albarracin. Albarracin, currently a wrestling coach for Team Nogueria, as a competitor had wrestled on the senior level Greco and Freestyle wrestling circuits, and enjoyed a respectable career. Despite this, he still lacked the elite competitive and coaching credentials in freestyle wrestling usually possessed by someone coaching a wrestler of Cejudo's caliber.
According to Cejudo's biography, Henry has been a friend and mentee of Albarracin since he was an eighteen year old in residence of the Olympic Training Center. Henry is also a patron of Albarracin's alternative training system, Champion By Design (CBD). CBD provides some sort of mental suggestion service for athletes - and it doesn't come cheap. CBD touts the ability to "help create champions in life when applied to performance enhancement, trauma, shock, PTSD, and transition". The CBD website makes claims of years of research proving the effectiveness of the CBD program, though the particulars of this research are not made available anywhere.
CBD's "high performance" development team contains an interesting potpourri of talents. Albarracin is the client activity director; a Canadian Olympic synchronized swimmer serves as a "super nutrition adviser"; Olympic champion wrestler Kevin Jackson acts as the "gold medal adviser"; the research advisers are an OBGYN and a director of an obscure, non-regionally accredited distance learning university; and the "research facillatator and international marketing adviser" is a new age priestess and director of something called the Colorado Ecosprirituality Center.
The founder and "chief applications director" of CBD is Enrique Montiel. Montiel is a former senior level Greco wrestler turned success coach. His website describes him as a historian, researcher, film maker, dream maker, and "one [of] Generation X's visionary statesmen". In Enrique's own words, his mission is "to expand the vibrational love frequency of the world, unilateral human rights, and peace on Earth in this lifetime". He is also the creator of such programs as "Achievement by Design" and "Experience by Design" while also serving as the Chief Evolutionary Officer of Life Enhancement Systems, which serves as an umbrella for a variety of additional alternative therapy services. Furthermore, Montiel claims to be a Neuro Linguistic Programmer, along the lines of Dr. Richard Bandler, John Grinder, Anthony Robbins - and apparently that Juanita lady from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash book.
In 2011, Montiel was brought to court by the Colorado Securities Exchange commissioner and accused of the "fraudulent offer and sale of unregistered securities" . According to the filings, Montiel was attempting to accrue money from investors via non-legal securities in order to purchase a property to serve as an urban retreat for his Optimum Life Institute, a subsidiary of Life Enhancement Systems. The court proceedings ended by settlement when Montiel agreed to return the tens of thousands of dollars he had acquired back to the would-be investors.
The CBD (and Life Enhancement Systems) website prominently features Cejudo and his testimonies as well as photos of Cejudo and Montiel together. Most notably, the CBD website features a video of Montiel, at some place called the "optimum life sanctuary", interviewing Cejudo the night before he departed for the 2008 Olympics. The video depicts Cejudo attesting to the value of, and using, a CBD product called EMPower Tap.
(I should also note that the CBD website also features an interview of Mo Lawal attesting to the power of CBD in an interview, as well brief plugs from Joe Rogan and Bruce Buffer cageside at what appears to be a UFC event. Daniel Cormier also provides a testimony on the CBD "Tuff Camp" brochure.)
Henry Cejudo has what it takes to be the world's best flyweight mixed martial artist and one of the UFC's biggest stars. Even at his small size, he has the skills and charisma to be a major pay-per view draw. He has shown the capability of producing magical performances in the past, and nobody more dearly hopes he recreates this magic in MMA than I do.
Unfortunately, Henry's preparation for the 2012 Olympic trials showed a decided unwillingness, or even an incapability, to make the choices necessary to maintain his status as a world championship level combat athlete. I also believe that some of his choices in association should at least raise questions.
For these reasons, I would be somewhat dubious of Henry Cejudo's long term MMA aspirations until he signs with a major organization and gets a few fights under his belt.