Henry Cejudo, already the youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champion, can move one step closer to another unprecedented feat Saturday night.
Now an MMA flyweight, Cejudo (9-0) will fight Jussier Formiga (18-3) at UFC Fight Night 78 in Monterrey, Mexico.
It’s a matchup of two of the UFC’s top five challengers to title holder Demetrious Johnson, meaning the winner could be in line for a shot at the flyweight belt.
Cejudo, who won Beijing 2008 freestyle gold at age 21, is the third Olympic champion to compete in the Octagon, but neither of the previous two (wrestlers Kevin Jackson and Mark Schultz) became a UFC champion.
“Anything less than becoming the best is failure,” Cejudo said in a phone interview last week, while in a chiropractor’s office.
Cejudo said he couldn’t truly pick between an Olympic gold medal or a UFC belt until he knows the feeling of the latter, but the work put into his wrestling career is incomparable.
“The only reason why I say that is because the sport of wrestling, it’s over 3,000 years old and been there forever,” said Cejudo, who trains out of Scottsdale, Ariz. “You have different countries. You have the best of the best who collide. It’s not who has the biggest mouth who can get a title shot. It’s the toughest sport in the world.”
That’s not to say Cejudo breezed through MMA since his March 2013 debut after a failed comeback attempt to make the London Olympic wrestling team.
He struggled early on making weight, switched from bantamweight to flyweight to bantamweight and back again, but is 3-0 since moving to UFC last year.
“I’ve adapted and learned to become more disciplined in the sport,” Cejudo said. “I wasn’t able to make weight because I was spoiled and underestimated it.”
Cejudo will hope not to suffer the same fate as 2008 Olympic teammate Ronda Rousey, who suffered her first MMA defeat Sunday.
“I’m excited to maybe talk to her one day,” said Cejudo, adding that he did meet Rousey in Beijing seven years ago. “There’s this sort of connection. It’s pretty neat.”
Cejudo, the son of illegal immigrants from Mexico, is nicknamed “The Messenger” in UFC.
“I fight for a purpose,” he said. “I fight to inspire people, to continue to be a role model for the Mexican Americans.”
Does Cejudo feel he’s earned a title shot if he can beat the No. 3 challenger Formiga on Saturday?
“That’s up to the UFC,” he said. “Am I ready? Absolutely. Do I want it? Absolutely. UFC, they have their own agenda. I’m just here to scrap and be a contender.”
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