UFC flyweight champion Henry Cejudo defends his belt for the first time Saturday in Brooklyn, New York, against bantamweight titleholder TJ Dillashaw. Cejudo earned the opportunity by shocking the world and dethroning Demetrious Johnson in August.
Nearly 10 years prior, Cejudo experienced a similar triumph: winning a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in freestyle wrestling.
Both were accomplishments years in the making.
Ahead of his crucial superfight against Dillashaw on ESPN+, Cejudo spoke with ESPN’s Phil Murphy and described, in his own words, what it took to climb both mountains.
Winning the Olympic gold medal
It’s all about having an extraordinary mind. This belief system up here, the brain I have inside of my head. That’s key. This is why I got to where I’m at. Because of the desire, the fact that I’m able to look adversity in the eyes and roll with it.
I didn’t go through the whole NCAA season [at Grand Canyon University]. Two years out of high school, I went to the Olympics. I was already thinking big outside the box. I left my home at the age of 17 to chase my dream. Left the people at the training center — no money, no family, no nothing. Just a dream.
Every match in the Olympics, I was down. Remember, in the Olympics you have to win four matches in one day. I was down in all three matches, and once I got to the gold medal match, that was something that I’d always dreamed of. I would always daydream about it.
I remember being so scared. But when I got to the arena, all of these nerves that I had just left me. I told myself, “You’ve been here before. You know what it’s like. Now it’s time to seize the moment. Go get your prize.”
Becoming an Olympic champion at the age of 21 — the youngest in history — has truly been the moment of my life. There’s nothing like hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” You see countries like Russia, Bulgaria, Japan … some of the most dominant countries in the sport, and then see the American flag quiver up amongst them all.
Winning the UFC belt was more of a celebration. It’s like a shock. But when you win the Olympics, it’s more emotional.
Defeating Demetrious Johnson for the UFC belt
The first time I fought [Demetrious Johnson, in 2016], I didn’t respect him as much. After fighting him and getting knocked out in 2 minutes and 36 seconds, I ate a nice, little piece of humble pie.
It’s the worst to get knocked out [with knees] to the body. You’re conscious. Your eyes are open and you can see the ref on top of you. That’s horrible! But it also motivated me. Losing put a chip on my shoulder. When you put a chip on my shoulder? It’s like the size of the Grand Canyon.
But I learned how to face my problems. I didn’t fake it; I faced it. I did everything possible. I had to go out and pick up the pieces.
The first round [of the rematch], 20 seconds in, I sprained my ankle. He hit me on that peripheral nerve there. I was pretty much stumbling. I had some work to catch up. But it was a chess match against Demetrious Johnson. I believe the first round was his, the second round was mine, the third round his and the fourth and fifth were mine.
[The decision] was like a movie where the scary moment is about to happen. “It’s coming! It’s coming! What’s about to happen?” But it’s an excitement and rush to hear my name. I knew it was close. Demetrious knew it was close. If you watch the video, he was clapping. The demeanor was just different.
Everything in athletics that I set out to do, I’ve done. I’ve sacrificed. I didn’t have many friends in high school. I didn’t have much because I was so addicted to the dream. Obsessed with the dream. And look where it’s gotten me. I’m the author of two books, an Olympic champ, a UFC champ. I’ve done it all. It’s because of my determination. Because of my attitude, because of the belief that I have in me.
These are the goals that I set out since I was a little kid: to be an Olympic champion and to be a UFC champion. When people talk about being a double champ, the true definition of a champ-champ is Henry Cejudo. An Olympic gold medalist and a UFC champ. Being a champ-champ in the UFC in two divisions is a two-division world champ. I’m the champ in two different sports, and I think that’s the difference between me and my opponent this Saturday.