There are elite, world-class wrestlers and then there's Henry Cejudo. His list of accomplishments - four-time state champion wrestler in high school, Pan Am Gold medalist, first high schooler to win U.S. Men's Nationals, U.S. World Team Trials champion and most notably, 2008 Olympic gold medalist - read like that of an experienced veteran, not a young wrestler barely in his twenties. The MMA community often notes UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre does well against wrestlers despite never having wrestled in college. Cejudo skipped the NCAA system altogether as well, except he went to the Olympics and took home the gold.
I recently caught up with Cejudo to talk about mixed martial arts and his plans for the 2012 Olympic Games. The Arizona-native was outspoken and unequivocal, showing both a love and apprehension for MMA. He argues MMA or the UFC may make wrestling more popular at the bottom level, but it's harmful to wrestling at the elite stages as top-shelf talent pursue MMA careers over wrestling endeavors.
He also says it would be nearly impossible for UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre to make the Olympic squad in wrestling. So remote is the chance, says Cejudo, that were St. Pierre to make the Canadian wrestling team Cejudo himself "would probably jump off a building".
Cejudo even goes so far as to call MMA an easier sport than wrestling.
Yet, it appears he plans to get his feet wet in the cage. First he says he wants to win another gold medal at the 2012 London games, but then his schedule is open and opportunities in MMA are plenty. Given that he's already friends with Gray Maynard and Cain Velasquez, he's got a direct pipeline into some of the best camps in MMA when he decides to take the plunge.
In this interview from MMA Nation on 106.7 The Fan, 'The American Dream' opens up about his competing feelings regarding MMA, his specific plans for involvement, which elite U.S. wrestlers have good styles for MMA and much more.
Full transcription and audio below:
Luke: Joining us now on the line is the 2008 Beijing games gold medalist, the youngest wrestler to ever do it. Super excited about this, he's here to talk about him being Coca-Cola's Ambassador of Active Living. Joining us now on the McDonald's hotline is the one and only Henry Cejudo. Henry, are you there?
Henry: Yes, sir, I'm here. In the flesh. Alive.
Luke: Did I get your last name correct?
Henry: Yup, it's right.
Luke: Ok, Henry, you ever been on a MMA radio show before?
Henry: You know what? I've been on a couple of them, but yes, I have. They're very interesting.
Luke: Are you a fan of the sport?
Henry: Oh, absolutely. I'm actually really good friends with Gray Maynard.
Luke: Is that right? How did you end up getting hooked up with Gray Maynard? How are you guys friends?
Henry: He actually used to coach me back when I was in a freshman in high school, actually eighth grade. And I actually grew up with Cain Velasquez as well. It's a whole Arizona connection out there.
Luke: Were you in Pennsylvania for the last NCAA finals because you had Bubba Jenkins and you had Anthony Robles competing? Are you an active ASU supporter?
Henry: Oh yeah, absolutely. I grew up in Arizona. I support anything that has the letter [sic] "A" in it. I didn't get a chance to go out there [the NCAA wrestling national championships], but I definitely watched.
Luke: Obviously success speaks for itself. You won the gold medal without ever having to go to college - which I can barely wrap my head around - but you did it. Do you ever regret not competing in the NCAA system? How do you feel about that now looking back on your experience?
Henry: Ah, no. My ultimate goal is to be the best in the world and if that means surpassing prom or homecoming or the NCAAs or a girlfriend, I would do it because I had this ambition to be the best in the world. That's exactly what I did. I just limited myself, isolated myself, and focused on the big goal and that's becoming the best in the world at the Olympic games.
Luke: I want to talk about your 2012 initiative with Coca-Cola in just a minute, but first let's dial back to MMA a little bit. Are you the guy who buys the pay-per-views every time they come how? How much of a fan are you? There's no right or wrong answer, I'm just curious.
Henry: I'm the guy who's good friends with the guy who buys the pay-per-view events. I keep up with it pretty regularly. I'm a huge fan.
Who knows? In the future, you guys may be seeing Henry Cejudo 'The American Dream' in the cage.
Luke: Is that right? When can we expect a potential debut of you in mixed martial arts? After the 2012 games?
Henry: After the 2012 games. Obviously I want to finish school. I'm currently or going to be a junior in college. I would definitely love to finish school. I would like to be done with it in a month and a half. That's my ultimate goal and then start [fighting MMA].
I actually started boxing for a while. I actually won the Copper Gloves in Arizona. I started competing on boxing, so I have my hands. I'm an O.K. wrestler, so why not?
Luke: You're a lot more than an O.K. wrestler. You're one of the best wrestles America has and America has a lot of very good ones. Let me ask you, do you think mixed martial arts is helping or hurting wrestling?
Henry: Well, this is a difficult one. I would say it's probably hurting, to be quite honest with you. A lot of our best guys are going into mixed martial arts. At the same time, it's sort of pushing the sport of wrestling to increase their stipends, their winnings. So, yeah, it is a bummer because the sport is losing good guys like Daniel Cormier, Mo Lawal, Ben Askren, they almost lost me for a bit. It's happening because guys are seeing MMA, I hate to say it, but it's an easier sport than wrestling. Wrestling is a sport, just like boxing, it's been around for hundreds of years. It's easy. It's flashy. Cameras, you become famous. You become rich. And you have the best base which is wrestling. 75% I think of all fighters are wrestlers or former wrestlers.
Luke: So, in otherwords, you think at the top it's bad but at the bottom, maybe at the high school-level, it encourages more people to participate?
Henry: Yeah, exactly. At the bottom level kids are curious because they see guys like Cain Velasquez, a former wrestler. I can name you a hundred of them, but no one in particular comes to mind.
Luke: For folks that may not know, what is your competition weight in wrestling?
Henry: My competition weight is 125.
Luke: Okay, so in Mixed Martial Arts that's called Flyweight. The UFC doesn't even have a Flyweight division. I'm curious, have any MMA camps ever asked you to come in and help them train wrestling? Or even for just a little bit of a camp for a special athlete? Has that ever happened?
Henry: Yeah, absolutely. I was actually training at ATT for a while. I was actually living in Miami for a good solid month and a half and I was actually thinking about fighting. And I just got pulled back to wrestling. I still loved the sport so I decided to come back. I'm pretty good at it. It's going to make history winning another gold. Two's better than one.
Luke: Two is a lot better than one and America could use you. Let me ask you about somebody like Georges St. Pierre. I really want to put you on the spot here cause it always drives me nuts when people say, listen everyone knows that MMA wrestling is a lot different than College or Freestyle wrestling, guys don't sit and guard their hips nearly as much and there's strikes involved. It's very very different. There's the cage. A whole number of things. St. Pierre, a guy, never did wrestling in high school, never went to college, and he's taking down these other guys sort of with ease. Guys who are national champions in college. Do you believe that St. Pierre, without having gone to college and without having wrestled in high school, can he make the Canadian Olympic Wrestling Team? Is he that good?
Henry: If he could, he'd be the best athlete of all time. I'd shake his hand. To answer that question, no, there's a big difference between Georges St. Pierre and scoring a point on our elite wrestlers here in the U.S., even Canada. Canada isn't as elite as the U.S. but he's years away from becoming anything Olympic level. If he did, I'd literally, I don't know what I'd do, I'd probably jump off a building.
Luke: But you would acknowledge, in terms of MMA wrestling, are you surprised at the success he's having against guys with much more prestigious wrestling backgrounds than he?
Henry: Yeah, at the same time, they aren't world class. When I think of a world class wrestler, I think of Mo Lawal. That's the only guy I really see. Cain Velasquez was good but he was an All-American, fourth place. The other guys, they were good college wrestlers but there's a big difference between world class here in the states. Light years I guess you could say because of international competition. I'll tell you what, the guy has taken every discipline and molded it into one. I would probably give him a "C" in every area but he's pretty even in boxing and wrestling. He's the only guy in MMA that uses the jab. He's tough, there's no doubt about it.
Luke: For folks who may not understand who hear a guy like Josh Koscheck, four time All-American, National Champion, certainly pretty good. How much different is the level of competition from the top guys in college to the international class guys, when you meet the guys at the Pan-Ams or the World Games or the Olympics? How much higher of a caliber is it?
Henry: It's like Apples and Oranges. You can tell the difference in the taste, the color. It's completely different. As I said, the world of MMA still hasn't grown. It's still a fetus you could say, because a lot of these elite wrestlers have not transitioned to MMA. In Cuba, you have athletes who go in there, there's just so much talent out there that they just don't know. Or Germany or the ghetto parts of Russia, it's no where near its potential. No where near. There are many wrestlers out there who are still wrestling who are world class that are extremely athletic that could transition to the sport.
Luke: Let me ask you. You mentioned Mo Lawal, you mentioned Cain Velasquez, you mentioned Ben Askren, and several other wrestlers...are there guys competing now in wrestling who you think have excellent styles for mixed martial arts?
Henry: You have Brent Metcalf, you have Tervel Dlagnev, you have Jordan Boroughs who comes to mind, NCAA champion, Bubba Jenkins. A lot of these guys are still young and are either really open minded or athletic that just have this ability to them. I don't know why no one has ever thought of this but there could be actual recruiting straight from college to MMA. You know how they have Football and Basketball recruiters? They could do the same thing if they just went to the NCAAs and recruit kids. You'd be amazed at how many talented athletes are out there.
Luke: I want to talk about your wrestling career. There's the 2012 games. You're involved with Coca Cola, we'll get to that in just a minute. But you were recently at the "Beat the Street" event on May 5th in New York, you won your match. You had mentioned though that you were kinda sorta teetering "do I want to go back to wrestling? Do I not?" Were you ever thinking after the Gold Medal that you were done with wrestling or am I misreading that?
Henry: I definitely thought about it. You're in and out everyday, six hours a day, waking up at the training center. I was tired of it. I knew that eventually I would go back but there's a time when you enjoy the good life, the fat life you could call it. It was nice sleeping in, sleeping in silk pajamas, eating at Chinese buffets, it's nice. The real world is nice. But it's inspiring to me that I can still do it. I still kept competing either in boxing or muay Thai, or jiu-jitsu. I continued to stay active with my body. I made my comeback against a Russian, I defeated the number two guy in the world. It feels good that I could still make it happen no matter with who.
Luke: Was that May 5th event a test for yourself to see if this is for real? That "I could definitely come back in 2012 and make a strong account of myself" or was it just this is practice?
Henry: No, I just knew. I made a comment that I was coming back and I'm gonna stick to it. I'm going to stick to a solid 14 months to the Olympic games and that's it. This is my last go with the sport of wrestling and then we'll see what happens next in mixed martial arts. That's what I'm leaning towards for the most part.
Luke: One more thing about this 2012 games or I guess your Olympic effort here. Are you back at the Olympic training center preparing for it? Where are you preparing for the 2012 games?
Henry: Right now, I'm in Columbus, Ohio. I'm training at the University of Ohio.
Luke: Are you going to stay there for the duration of the training period or are you going to go back to the OTC?
Henry: I'm actually going to be going back and forth. I'm gonna live in Europe and I'm going to do the training center. Just back and forth, competing against the best guys that I can find.
Luke: For those that may not know, Henry Cejudo is joining a distinguished group of Olympic and Paralympic champions and hopefuls as one of Coca Cola's "Ambassadors of Active Living". He's going to inspire people to live active and balanced lives. The high profile athletes form the Coca Cola "8 Pack" as part of the brand's London 2012 Summer Olympic Games. How did you get hooked up with Coca Cola and exactly what is it that they want you guys to do?
Henry: Well, I got hooked up with Coca Cola through, well obviously I won the 2008 Olympics. But I just bring something good, a personality. I can target the Latino community. When they say "active living" it's just to get people to not just drink a low calorie soft drink but get them to watch what they're eating. Get them to eat greens. Get them to be organic. That's what this is about. And awareness of child obesity. There's a tremendous number in America about how many obese kids you have. It's about helping the world be fit. Kids are being diagnosed with diabetes at 11 and 12 years old. It's pretty amazing. It's about trying to make a difference in that area.
Luke: Also part of the Coca Cola 2012 8 pack is you from Wrestling, Shawn Johnson from Gymnastics, David Oliver from Track and Field, Jessica Long from Paralympic Swimming, David Boudia from Diving, Marlon Esparza from Boxing, and John Isner from Tennis, as well as Alex Morgan from Soccer. You can find out more about that from the thecoca-colacompany.com and you can find out more about Henry Cejudo at www.henrycejudo.com. Henry, I gotta say, you're a credit to America, you're a credit to wrestling, you're a credit to athletes everywhere. Your story is unbelievable, we didn't even have a chance to talk about it. I want to thank you on behalf of Americans, I want to thank you for competing for us and for yourself. And I want to say thank you for being on the show man, it's been a huge honor to talk to you and I really hope you take MMA seriously. We need someone like you to help our sport grow.
Henry: Henry: Oh absolutely. Thank you guys. Thank for MMA Nation. I really appreciate it. God bless America. I am American. I'm very patriotic. I love this country. Thank you so much for having me.