It is certainly a bittersweet time for Olympic wrestling champion Henry Cejudo. The Arizona resident has spent his days and nights training for some upcoming MMA fights and assisting in the production of a new play, “American Victory,” based on his life story that is running at Arizona State University School of Theatre and Film in the Herberger Institute in Phoenix this month.
But another good part of his day is spent making phone calls, sending emails and helping the wrestling and the Olympic communities in any way to get his beloved sport, the one that helped him be a symbol not of the American Dream but of the Olympic ideal, back on the program for 2020 after it was suggested to be removed by the IOC last month.
It is Cejudo’s hope that the work being done now by a coalition from around the world will help restore the dream of Olympic success that he realized and that thousands of other aspiring wrestlers may now miss out on.
“It is shocking to me, more than anything, how this could happen to American wrestlers, but to wrestlers from all over the world where it is such a huge sport,” he said this week while watching his favorite team sport, baseball, at the World Baseball Classic in Arizona. “How could the IOC make such a move, and how could we as a sport let it happen?”
The answer, Cejudo realizes, is not that simple, but he is hoping the solution will be a wake-up call for the sport on a global level. The Mexican-American son of illegal immigrants made history during the Beijing Games, becoming both the youngest American wrestler ever and America’s only athlete of Hispanic descent to win gold.
His story inspired two books, a play and thousands of young people to believe in their dreams, and brought many young Hispanic boys and girls to the sport of wrestling for the first time. It is a story that he tries to share every day with whomever he meets.
“I look back on the friends I had growing up, and some are dead, some are in jail, some are victims of the streets. Without the discipline and the lessons I learned from wrestling, that may be where I would be, too,” he said. “I can’t imagine how many other kids lose that dream by this decision. It is really beyond my comprehension that this could really happen to a core Olympic sport.”
One other sport Cejudo sees as potentially taking a body blow is mixed martial arts. He trains in the Gladiator Challenge Gym, recently competed in and won his first pro MMA bout over Michael Poe in a bantamweight bout in the co-main event of the World Fighting Federation Pascua Yaqui Fights 4 card in Tucson, Ariz., last month, and has another coming up in San Jacinto, Calif.
As in wrestling, he sees future MMA stars in places like the UFC or Bellator going elsewhere at a young age without wrestling to get them started and to an elite level.
“So many great MMA champions have come from wrestling after their careers end. Where would they get that chance if the sport is not in the Olympics?” he asked. “I have always fought and competed to inspire others, and this change by the IOC could take that away for other generations. We as a sport and as responsible athletes and people need to address that at every level, and I think we will.”
For now, Cejudo is enjoying watching the WBC and even got to throw out the first pitch before the Mexico-Italy game on Thursday (“I love baseball. Maybe if I was a little bigger it would have been my sport as well,” he kidded), and he was very sensitive to the fact that baseball and softball have been removed from the Olympics and are also fighting to get back in for 2020.
“It is a great team game, and there is nothing like competing for your country. You see how much the Mexicans are enjoying it,” he said. “Maybe there is a way for baseball and wrestling to both get back to the Olympics someday, I don’t know, but I certainly feel the pain now those athletes have had before, and I am going to do everything I can to change this decision, at least for wrestling.”
For now that plan involves fighting the decision every day with the pulpit he has…in the cage, on the stage and even on a pitcher’s mound. Henry Cejudo has rarely lost at anything, and he doesn’t intend to lose this battle for his sport, or for the thousands of kids whose stories around the world are like his and who use wrestling as a means to succeed in life, anytime soon.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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