Bring On The World

The son of former illegal immigrants, 20-year-old Henry Cejudo has overcome hardship to become the youngest U.S. wrestling champion in decades. Now he wants to be the best on the planet
June 10, 2007

The long,low-slung wrestling room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in ColoradoSprings is not a welcoming space. There are no windows or air conditioning.Sweat streaks not only the mats but also the padding on the walls. During atypical two-hour practice session for the men's freestyle team, when theactivity of roughly 30 wrestlers pushes the temperature well over 80°, theatmosphere gets downright ripe. The only sounds, besides the commands ofcoaches, are the grunts of combatants, the thuds of falling bodies and theoccasional yelps of pain. It is a room in which the weak don't standa¬†chance.

In a far cornerHenry Cejudo is hard at work. The reigning national champion at 121 pounds (hewon his second straight title in Las Vegas in April) and a resident athlete atthe OTC since the fall of 2004, he has thrived in an environment that hasbroken wrestlers with sparkling résumés from some of the best college programsin the country. He punctuates every grueling practice by lifting weights orrunning a quick three or four miles around nearby Memorial Park afterward.Cejudo, who was born in Los Angeles to then illegal immigrants from Mexico Citywho met in the U.S., is the toughest wrestler in the room. He's also, by hissport's standards, just a boy--a few months past his 20th birthday--and theyoungest member of the U.S. national team. Last year he lost in the finals ofthe world team trials to 36-year-old world bronze medalist Sammie Henson, whoremains his top rival for a spot on the 2008 Olympic squad.

Cejudo (pronouncedsay-HOO-doh) is a prodigy of the sort rarely found in the U.S. freestyleprogram, which typically doesn't get its hands on wrestlers until they'vecompleted their college careers. He burst onto the international scene inNovember 2005 while still a senior in high school, winning the New YorkAthletic Club Holiday International after defeating '04 NCAA champion JasonPowell of Nebraska in the quarterfinals and dominating junior world championBesik Kudukhov of Russia in the semis. Five months later Cejudo became thefirst high schooler to win a senior national championship since USA Wrestlingbecame the sport's governing body in 1983. "He is the future ofwrestling," says U.S. freestyle head coach Kevin Jackson. "He's goingto win a lot of world and Olympic titles for us and for himself. We expect himto wrestle until 2012 or 2016 and dominate the world."

That would be finewith Cejudo, who will be the No. 1 seed in his weight class this weekend at theworld team trials in Las Vegas. Henson has missed time with a knee injury,leaving a hole in the weight division that only Cejudo seems ready to fill. At5'4", he is a compact mass of muscle and focused aggression. Since he beganwrestling in junior high, he has thought of little else but winning world andOlympic championships. Indeed, he is obsessed with those goals, driven by adesire to prove himself to the world, as well as to a father he never reallyknew.

Jorge Cejudo--whoalso used the aliases Favian Roca, and Emiliano and Javier Zaragosa--was nostranger to trouble. Throughout the 1990s he moved in and out of the Californiapenal system for a variety of offenses. His crimes cost him more than hisfreedom; they also cost him his family. In May 1991, on the eve of his releasefrom jail, Nelly Rico, the woman with whom he shared a home in South CentralL.A., moved with her six kids to Las Cruces, N.Mex. The four youngest of thosechildren (one girl and three boys) were Jorge's, including the baby,four-year-old Henry. "My mom didn't want to be around my dad because of theway he was," Henry says.

The splinteredfamily spent 2 1/2 years in New Mexico before Nelly, now 47, moved them again,to Phoenix. Often holding down two jobs, and mostly doing factory work, shestruggled to make ends meet. She and her children maintained no permanentresidence, sometimes staying in a house or apartment for only two months andsleeping four or more to a bed while sharing living space with other familiesand friends. "We were never finished packing," says Henry's oldersister Gloria. "We'd move from upstairs to downstairs in the same apartmentcomplex."

In such closequarters (another sister, Christy, arrived in 1995) tempers were often on edge,and Henry fought frequently with his brother Angel, who was older by just16 months. It was Angel who found his way to wrestling first, and Henrysoon followed, thrilled, he says, with the idea that he could "get trophiesfor fighting."By the time he reached Phoenix's Maryvale High, he and Angelwere dominating local competition. "Every time they left to go to atournament, Mom ingrained in them that the way we lived should be a motivationto them," says Gloria. "She said that how [little] we had had nothingto do with who they were. They took that onto the mat with them. They stilldo."

Angel was the starback then, graduating from Maryvale in 2004 with four state championships and acareer record of 150-0. He had scholarship offers from several college programsbut no desire to continue going to school. When Dave Bennett, the nationaldevelopmental freestyle coach for USA Wrestling, offered him a chance to jointhe resident freestyle program in Colorado Springs, he jumped at theopportunity. Bennett says that while he was arranging for Angel's arrival,somebody from Phoenix--he doesn't remember who--asked if Henry, then 17, couldcome along too. "And I thought, I like that idea," says Bennett.

Henry, who'd justwon his second straight Arizona state championship, was already on the radar inColorado Springs. He had spent several weeks early in the summer of 2004training at the OTC with Patricia Miranda, who was a couple months away fromwinning Olympic bronze at 106 pounds in Athens in women's freestyle. She hadfirst met Cejudo on a trip to Phoenix, during a training session at a localhigh school. "He kept taking me down," says Miranda. "He moved sowell from position to position. Once we found out how well he challenged me, wewanted to include him in my every-day training."

When the Cejudoboys began their residency at the OTC at the start of the school year, theywere assigned to separate dorm rooms and slept in their own beds for the firsttime in their lives. But wrestling remained at the center of their worlds.Henry couldn't get enough of the program, rising before 6 a.m. for individualworkouts with resident freestyle coach Terry Brands, then running or biking toclasses five miles away at Coronado High. After school he would return forfreestyle practice. He also found time to wrestle for Coronado, winning twoColorado state championships to go along with his pair from Arizona. Angel,despite some initial success, has not fared as well. He is still in theresidency program but has struggled with his weight (he wrestles in the132-pound class), as well as with the demands of raising a two-year-olddaughter with his girlfriend, Angela. "He's trying to balance where he's atin life," says Bennett.

Like his brother,Henry decided to forgo college in favor of training with the OTC freestyleprogram. "It was never my goal to be an NCAA champion," he says. Histalent is perfectly suited to freestyle, which rewards aggressiveness. Cejudo'sability to create scoring opportunities from almost any position--he'll oftendrop to his knees before attacking--is unmatched on the U.S. team. "His hip[flexibility] is unbelievable," says Brands, a two-time world champion andthe bronze medalist at 128 pounds at the 2000 Olympics. "He can do thingsthat most guys can't or won't because they're so difficult."

It is nocoincidence that Cejudo began trying to reunite with his father at preciselythe time he'd started making his family name one of the most prominent inAmerican wrestling. How do you like me now, Dad? Nelly had always refused tosay anything negative about Jorge, telling his four children that their fatherloved them very much. But her kids had spent nearly 20 years blaming him forall of the miseries they had endured. Last year, when Henry expressed aninterest in going to Mexico City to see his father--with whom he had spoken onthe phone only once in 15 years--his siblings talked him out of it. "We hadcalled my father's family, and his sister said he was still messed up ondrugs," says Gloria. "I wasn't going to let Henry go and see him likethat."

He will never haveanother opportunity. Jorge Cejudo died of heart failure at his mother's home onMay 9 at age 44, the result, his family says, of years of drug and alcoholabuse. Any hope Henry held out for closure, for meeting the man who never sawhim wrestle, is lost. "I should have done more," he says of his plansto visit his dad. "I just obeyed."

Cejudo is stilldrawing motivation from his father, insisting his death will not be adistraction this weekend in Las Vegas. "It's bad timing," he admits,"but I'm sure if he was at the tournament, he'd want me to win."

There is enoughanguish behind that statement to choke up the toughest man in any wrestlingroom. But Henry Cejudo--the toughest man on the U.S. team--does not cry. Hesimply says, "I've just got to win."

"Henry is the future of wrestling," saysJackson. "We expect him to wrestle until 2012 or 2016 and DOMINATE THEWORLD."

PHOTOPeter Read MillerWHIZ KID Cejudo, who won his first senior national title last year as a high schooler, beat Nick Simmons (inset) in April to repeat as champ. PHOTOLARRY SLATER[See caption above.] PHOTODUNCAN HEATHNEMESIS Gallick (left) has taken down Mike Zadick three times in a row. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERTOUGH LOVE Brands (top), an Olympic medalist, puts Cejudo through his daily predawn paces.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)