Boxing has a hold on Cejudo
PHOENIX – There is an Olympic gold medal, a cauliflower ear to prove it wasn’t easy and a smile that says a mat is just a canvas for Henry Cejudo to express himself in another way. Another kind of fight.
Cejudo, who has been fighting in one way or another throughout his life, continues his boxing pursuit at an old gym, Central, near downtown Phoenix six months after his poignant victory in freestyle wrestling at the Beijing Games.
Cejudo’s attempted step through the ropes is no surprise, at least not in hindsight. Even in Beijing, there were hints that Cejudo, the gold-medalist at 121.5 pounds, was interested.
If he weren’t wrestling, he said then, he would be boxing. U.S. coach Kevin Jackson said Cejudo always talked about Latin boxers. They were his heroes, said Jackson, who before opening ceremonies called Cejudo “the future of wrestling.”
Only countless punches, thrown and taken, will determine whether there is a future in boxing. About the pursuit, however, there’s not much doubt.
“It’s all about boxing right now,” said Cejudo, who was conducting a wrestling clinic in a New York suburb recently before a planned trip to Gleason’s Gym for some sparring.
A sure sign of Cejudo’s intent can be seen in a photo that captured a moment not duplicated by even Michael Phelps or Usian Bolt. There’s Cejudo, the son of undocumented immigrants, racing across the mats and wrapped in the flag as if he were born in it. Born in the USA. It flies off his shoulders like the banner described in the anthem.
An artist’s rendering of that photo is now on an outside wall that faces a parking lot at Central. Cejudo is the only wrestler next to the portrayals of Arizona’s best boxers in a virtual state Hall of Fame.
Since he first walked into a traditional boxing gym where Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. have trained, Cejudo has begun to inhabit the old place, in spirit and fact.
Cejudo is a part-time resident. He has moved into a couple of rooms above the floor where there is a ring, bags, posters and the rest of boxing’s battered furniture.
He does his road work early in the mornings and then retreats to those rooms for a meal, sleep and dreams about his next career.
In late afternoon, he wakes up to an opening bell for the day’s second shift, which includes a speed bag, jump rope, a sparring partner and help from Jose Benavides, a young Phoenix trainer who runs the gym.
It’s a tireless regimen. But Cejudo, who is known for a ferocious work ethic, is nothing if not that. In part, it was his energy in the late moments of each match in Beijing that took him to the medal podium’s top pedestal for America’s lone gold medal in either of the traditional combat sports – wrestling and boxing.
“I just want to do it the right way,” said Cejudo, who was born in Los Angeles, spent a few years in New Mexico and went to high school in Phoenix and then Colorado Springs. “The two sports are similar. They can be brutal. But I know about training, cutting weight and that kind of thing.
“Right now, the big difference is learning about the jab. That’s my main thing. It’s both your offense and your defense. It’s what I’m concentrating on.”
Cejudo says he has sparred “about 100 rounds” against anybody 140 pounds and lighter. Yes, he says, he has been hit.
“Yeah, I’ve figured that out,” he said. “You are definitely going to get hit. There have been some mornings when I wake up with a headache.”
For Cejudo, there is already a precedent, a model, in unbeaten Mike Alvarado (25-0, 18 KOs), a Denver junior-welterweight. Alvarado is also a former wrestler, who had a reported prep record of 97-0 and two state titles in Colorado.
“Mike is an athlete, plain and simple,” said his manager Henry Delgado, who had watched Alvarado wrestle but never knew he could box until he walked into Delgado’s Boxing and Martial Arts Center in Arvada, Colo., about eight years ago.
Delgado recommends that Cejudo follow Alvarado’s path and undergo his first test as an amateur. Alvarado started boxing at 20. He won two Golden Gloves titles before turning pro at 23. Cejudo also plans to begin as an amateur.
“In a couple of months, either in Phoenix or in Colorado,” Cejudo said.
Alvarado’s successful transition is a source of optimism for Cejudo, especially in the tactical adjustment.
Alvarado says he has been able to use some of his wrestling moves to get out of the clinched tangle of arms and elbows. A move learned on the mat, he said, set up his fourth-round stoppage last October of Manuel Granica.
What’s more, Delgado says wrestling taught Alvarado balance and how to use his legs in the implementation of power, which is fundamental to the effective delivery of a big punch.
The power aspect is intriguing when applied to Cejudo, whose wrestling style is considered as unorthodox as it is overpowering. In Beijing, Cejudo simply overwhelmed opponents by nearly driving them off the mat with a late rush and push off his legs and feet.
“I just like to be dominating,” Cejudo said. “I like to work on my feet.”
Cejudo also wants to work for money, He believes there is more potential for profit in boxing than anywhere else. Cejudo has talked about mixed-martial arts, but he says opportunities in the United States are limited for anybody in the lighter weight classes. Cejudo looks as if he would box at between 130 and 140 pounds.
There were reports that he would make some Yen in Tokyo on New Year’s Eve against Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, a popular MMA fighter in Japan. It seemed like a natural. Cejudo won gold in Beijing with a victory over Japan’s Tomohiro Matsunaga. But the MMA showdown never happened, apparently because Yamamoto suffered a knee injury.
MMA and wrestling are still there for Cejudo if boxing doesn’t work out. There is still time for Cejudo, who turned 22 on Feb. 9. Options abound. Adidas has a new line of wrestling shoes with his signature on it. Then, a story about his life, published by Penquin’s Celebra division, is expected to be at bookstores in a couple of months.
“I’m not sure about the title yet,” Cejudo said. “Either, The American Dream or Americano Victory. It’s just about a life full of curveballs and craziness.”
The Cejudo story provides a built-in marketing edge. His poise and innate sense of humor was evident in Beijing, especially when his victory sparked an often-ugly immigration debate. Cejudo was called an “anchor baby” by those who argue for stronger immigration laws.
Cejudo’s mom, Nelly Rico, and his dad, Jorge, moved from Mexico to Los Angeles without the necessary documents. His dad died in Mexico City after time in and out of California jails. Nelly Rico took her family of six kids to New Mexico and then Phoenix, where they lived in a trailer located in a junkyard full of guard-dogs and then in the projects on the west side of the freeway.
Henry Cejudo slept in his own bed for the first time only after he moved into a dorm at United States Olympic Committee’s training center in Colorado Springs. He raised money for his mom, who now lives in Colorado Springs, to travel to Beijing. But she never got there. Cejudo said she didn’t like traveling and wanted to stay home and care for grandkids. USA Wrestling officials said she couldn’t get a passport because she was undocumented. The questions came fast and furious the night of Cejudo’s gold-medal triumph. But Cejudo was never drawn into a political give-and-take that could have become ugly.
“I’m living the American Dream,” said Cejudo, whose body language and demeanor includes a playful smile next to that cauliflower ear instead of a tired chip on a sagging shoulder. “I’m not into that whole victimhood thing.”
Mostly, he likes to have fun, which was abundantly evident a couple weeks after Beijing. Before a surprise visit on Jay Leno’s show from his mom, Cejudo cracked jokes and told a story, touching and hilarious, about working a Phoenix street corner in a chicken suit outside of a fast-food restaurant.
In trying to raise some money for a trip to a wrestling tournament, Cejudo said he tried to put in an extra move, an additional wiggle, into the chicken suit. With a national television audience watching, he stood up and broke into a few spontaneous twists, turns and dance steps.
He’s versatile, maybe versatile enough for to take that step through the ropes.
Norm Frauenheim is a free-lance writer based in Phoenix. He is the 2008 Boxing Writers Association of America recipient of the “Nat Fleischer Award,” for excellence in boxing journalism.