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Near the area of 67th Street and Florence Ave., a poor boy raised by a single mother with six other children began cultivating a gift – a will to achieve anything reachable that seemed impossible.
“I embrace adversity because I grew up like that … using those obstacles, I found that grit to seek something high,” Henry Cejudo said. “And I’ll tell you what, wrestling is the hardest sport in the world for any human being, and I became the best at that.”
Beyond winning OIympic gold as a 55-kilogram freestyle wrestler in the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, Cejudo achieved the unprecedented feat of adding a UFC belt to his collection last year by ending the record title reign of flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson by decision at Staples Center.
Cejudo, 32, topped that in January by scoring a technical knockout of then-bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw at Barclays Center in New York just 32 seconds into the first round.
“I beat two of the UFC’s top pound-for-pound guys back to back,” Cejudo said.
Chatting about his past year at a lunch recently, Cejudo had just been a guest on Mike Tyson’s podcast.
“It’s all surreal. What’s special is I always believed it … I’ve had this gift since I was a little, little kid … I don’t get it, either, but this is how I was wired -- very driven -- and I’ve always seen things as reachable for me for whatever I decided to put my efforts into,” Cejudo said. “It’s all in my internal being, in my thoughts, my mind. I’m just programmed differently. I find challenge in adrenaline. I love a challenge. I embrace it. You have to.
“And now I believe I have the star power to headline things … .”
After Orange County’s Dillashaw vacated his belt this month after the revelation that he’d tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance one day before fighting Cejudo, the UFC is planning for Cejudo (14-2) to fight for Dillashaw’s vacated bantamweight belt June 8 in Chicago against the division’s top-ranked contender, Marlon Moraes.
Victory would allow Cejudo to join Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier and Amanda Nunes as the only UFC fighters in history to simultaneously wear two belts.
The pay-per-view UFC 238 card also includes a women’s flyweight title bout between champion Valentina Shevchenko and contender Jessica Eye.
At a time when the organization has been racked by negative headlines such as Dillashaw’s positive test, McGregor’s Monday night retirement tweet, a wife’s restraining order against former interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson and a post-fight attack by fighter Jorge Masvidal in England of fighter Leon Edwards, Cejudo provides a jolt of positivity.
While former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez provided some expansion of a Latino fan base for the UFC, Cejudo has potential to deeply tap into the market, given his L.A. roots and pride in making something of himself while growing up on Phoenix’s hard edges.
There, Cejudo raised money to participate in out-of-town wrestling tournaments by dressing up in a rubber chicken outfit and standing on a scalding street corner in the mid-day sun to point drivers toward a Mexican restaurant. He also lugged a 100-pound backpack of hot chocolate in the winter to cash in tips by selling it at monster truck competitions.
“Obviously, I’m American, but I’m a particular American: a Mexican,” Cejudo said. “I know our sport gives people hope and I’ve become an advocate for my community, the people who are like me. I’m really a Phoenician, but in cities like L.A., there’s so many who are like me.
“I tell them to recognize your ability. That’s the most important thing any of us can do, because we’re all created different. Everybody has a certain strength … let your abilities lead you to the vocation of where you belong.”
During the course of his discussion, Cejudo crossed paths with former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum, who, like Cejudo, has produced stunning victories.
“He’s special in his mind, it’s very strong,” Werdum said of Cejudo. “He has the body, and is trained in wrestling, but his brain is the strongest part of his body.”
After toppling Johnson and Dillashaw, Cejudo accepts the praise.
“I’m a very profound thinker. I have a mindset now where, ‘OK, I have the code, the blueprint,’” he said. “It’s reassuring being a champion, knowing that what you’re doing technically is right.”
The impression left by Conor McGregor’s retirement-via-Twitter late Monday night is that something else is going on.
And the response by UFC President Dana White, in which he digs in and says he understands why his No. 1 pay-per-view draw would leave the sport at age 30, underlines that this is likely about a financial stalemate.
While former two-division champion McGregor signed a new multi-fight extension with the UFC before his October loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov, he has previously pressed for a percentage of the company given his massive drawing power.
That hasn’t come, and now, after the UFC linked its pay-per-view programming to ESPN Plus, might there be less of a cut remaining for a draw like McGregor – of which there is only one?
McGregor referenced fight “politics,” in a talk earlier this month that was broadcast Monday with The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon, and said he was “set for life.”
But he’s also pursued a main-event assignment July 6 atop the UFC’s marquee International Fight Week card despite a non-title meeting with veteran lightweight Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone that White has said should be under a fight like a Daniel Cormier heavyweight title defense.
Beyond that, the New York Times, reporting from Dublin on Tuesday, said McGregor is under criminal investigation in Ireland after a woman in December accused him of sexual assault. The New York Times report said four people familiar with the investigation confirmed McGregor is being probed after being previously arrested in connection with the claim.
So, as they sort all that out, McGregor’s retired.
Eyes on the prizes
New Orleans-born unbeaten junior-welterweight Regis Prograis (23-0, 19 knockouts) will meet Belarus’ World Boxing Assn. champion Kiryl Relikh (23-2, 19 KOs) April 27 at the Cajun Dome in Lafayette, La., on DAZN.
The World Boxing Super Series semifinal could all at once give Prograis a world title, move him toward the final that needs to be fought by the first week of October and sharpen the attention on him as one of America’s elite boxers.
“It’s back in my home state and this fight is real big for me,” said Prograis. “What I signed up for is the best fighting the best. It has been everything I’ve expected. It’s why I’ve been adamant to remain in this tournament: the belts, and to be determined the best 140-pounder in the world.”
Despite a near withdrawal from the tournament by International Boxing Federation champion Ivan Baranchyk over slow payments, Prograis said the WBSS has been fine with him. “Me, I was paid on time from the get-go. I’m straight,” he said.
Baranchyk meets Josh Taylor May 18 in Glasgow, Scotland, in the other semifinal.
“In my last few fights, I’ve shown different things. I know I need to show my ‘A’ game and good technique in this fight,” Prograis said.
Veteran fight promoter Bob Arum said he has “a belief the other side realizes that these fights have to happen,” instead of “stupid insular thinking,” so he’s vowing to push for a welterweight unification between unbeaten World Boxing Organization welterweight champion Terence Crawford and unbeaten IBF champion Errol Spence Jr.
Crawford first has to defeat England’s Amir Khan April 20 on ESPN pay-per-view at Madison Square Garden.
“I don’t doubt for a minute that Spence wants the fight that Crawford wants the fight, just like I know that [heavyweights Deontay] Wilder and [Tyson] Fury want to fight,” Arum said Tuesday.
“When that it happening, the promoters have to sit down -- the promoters are secondary to the fighters – and allow the fights to happen,” Arum said.
The reasoning is sound, but odd coming from Arum, since his signing of Fury and placing him in a June 15 ESPN bout in Las Vegas against Tom Schwarz instead of making a rematch of the classic Dec. 1 draw with Wilder at Staples Center is beyond head-scratching.
Still, Arum defended it, with Wilder, who fights for Arum rival Premier Boxing Champions, set to defend his WBC belt May 18 against Southern California’s Dominic Breazeale at New York’s Barclays Center.
“Everything I’ve heard in our back-channel talks is that Fury and Wilder will each take two more fights, and then we’ll have them fight early next year after we’ve built up Fury more to the U.S. audience with the megaphone that is ESPN,” Arum said. “If we sit down now and forget the second fight, that’s up for discussion. But I like the idea of two more fights, with all the publicity, to get everyone to know Fury over here in the States.”
As for the lampooning of the Schwarz fight, Arum noted that his Top Rank matchmakers once placed George Foreman in a tough bout against another German prospect, Axel Schulz, who closely lost by majority decision.
“Schwarz is a decent fighter, 24 fights without a loss, a competent enough fighter who will fight his ... off against Tyson Fury,” Arum said. “We know what we’re doing. This will be a competitive fight.”
Fury – the verb, not the fighter – rose in Arum as he spoke, and he turned to criticism directed at him by a prominent boxing writer who said the only reason Arum was mentioning Spence for Crawford was out of “desperation” that the Nebraskan has no other logical welterweight to fight in the Top Rank stable.
“How is it desperation? We’re trying to make a fight everyone agrees is the best fight in the division,” Arum roared. “I know the fighters want it. They had a row, and I was part of that. I saw it in their eyes. So that fight should be made.”
Until next time