Check the story stream on the right side of the page or the links at the bottom of the article for previous installments, where I've laid out my methods and criteria for inclusion.
6) Henry Cejudo, Flyweight (5-0)
Years Pro: .75
Olympic wrestlers are a rare and precious commodity in MMA. The utter dominance of their primary skill set and more importantly their explosive athleticism all combine to make them one of the safest bets for a long and productive face-punching career. From oldies-but-goldies Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland to more recent imports such as Ben Askren, Daniel Cormier, and Yoel Romero, the track record of accomplishment is difficult to dispute. Arizona native Henry Cejudo, the gold medalist at 121 pounds in Beijing, is attempting to become the most recent crossover to transform a fantastic wrestling pedigree into MMA success. Cejudo himself is an interesting story: unlike most American Olympians, he never wrestled in college, instead moving to the Olympic Training Center as a teenager to pursue his dreams. Bloody Elbow's Mike Riordan covered Cejudo prior to his MMA debut with more depth and knowledge than I possibly can, and I strongly suggest that you read his detailed take on the highly decorated crossover.
So what does Cejudo have to offer? Well, first and foremost, his wrestling is as good as you'll find in MMA, with a complete repertoire of technical skills. Second, he also possesses a bit of an amateur boxing background, at least enough to know how to throw a punch and move a little bit on the feet. Third, he's an incredible athlete by MMA standards, and there's every reason to think that he can transition smoothly to his new sport. Still, it's important to temper one's expectations: Cejudo isn't even a year removed from his debut, and needs at least another year of intensive training before he's ready to compete against UFC-caliber competition.
Let's start with his striking first. Cejudo wasn't a total novice when he stepped into the cage: he was an Arizona Copper Gloves boxing champion, for whatever that's worth (I have no real idea), but based on the tape I've seen nobody's going to confuse him with Manny Pacquiao anytime in the near future. He has some idea of how to move laterally, his punches have solid if not perfect technique behind them, and he's begun to add in a few hard kicks at distance, especially against taller opponents. It's obvious that Cejudo is still figuring out how to adjust to the vastly different ranges at play in an MMA bout as opposed to wrestling or even boxing, and his footwork isn't yet at the point where he can consistently cut off his opponent's movement, which artificially depresses the volume of strikes he throws at distance. With all of that out of the way, it's also clear that Cejudo has real pop in his strikes, and could eventually develop into a serious power puncher once he cleans up his footwork and gains a better innate sense of the range.
We're on firmer ground with Cejudo's wrestling. He has all the skills you'd expect from a gold medalist: his shot is incredibly explosive, he can shoot off either leg, and he has a staggering variety of finishes from which to draw. Coach Mike, a vastly more knowledgable observer of high-level wrestling than I, had this to say about his style:
[I]f 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.
Cejudo's early bouts have given no reason to think that this isn't the case. The ease with which he's hit huge slams, even when it seems like he barely has his hands on his opponent, is staggering. What's even more promising is the extent to which he's integrated his strikes and takedowns: Cejudo constantly looks to throw punches, kicks, and knees as his opponent falls to the canvas or attempts to get back to his feet. His instinct for immediately following takedowns with strikes is almost reminiscent of Fedor, and while Cejudo has a long way to go, it's a propensity that bodes well for his future prospects.
Once the fight hits the ground, Cejudo's grappling game is basic, though his athleticism makes him a naturally adept scrambler. He doesn't really look to pass, but is content to remain in guard or standing over his opponent, raining down hard strikes all the while. His submission defense has been solid so far, but based largely around his athleticism and unreal strength from top position rather than any particularly clean technique. The gameplan is simple: get the takedown and punch the opponent until he goes to sleep or the fight ends. For now it's working fine since he's so much more athletic than the guys he's fighting, but eventually he'll probably need to show something more on the ground.
So where does all this leave Cejudo for the long term? Given his athleticism, wrestling pedigree, and developing striking, the sky is truly the limit, especially in a thin division like flyweight. With that said, there are real concerns about his future. All reports indicate that he has yet to settle down with an established camp, and no matter how talented he is, he's going to need real coaching to maximize his potential. There are also some red flags from his wrestling career, namely the three-year break he took after the 2008 Olympics that contributed to his failure to make the team in 2012; Coach Mike also pointed out some questionable associates in the linked post. It's also hard to tell exactly where he's at right now, given that he's fought subpar competition, but we should know a lot more after his upcoming fight for Legacy this Friday. Essentially, Cejudo looks like a pretty safe bet to become a top-10 fighter, but whether he goes any higher than that - and there's no questioning his potential - will depend entirely on the people with whom he surrounds himself and the extent to which he truly dedicates himself to growing as a fighter.
25-23: Steve Mocco, Michinori Tanaka, and Nick Newell
22-20: Max Nunes, Gleristone Santos, and Walter Gahadza
19-18: Ramazan Emeev and Rick Glenn
17-16: Georgi Karakhanyan and Jim Alers
15-14: Tyrone Spong and Marlon Moraes
13-12: Mansour Barnaoui and Islam Makhachev