Last week, Arizona’s Henry Cejudo became the newest Olympic wrestler to announce a move to professional MMA.  After the announcement, speculation quickly arose regarding the weight division he would compete in and how he would fare.

Cejudo began establishing himself as a combat artist early in life, earning a gold medal in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing at only 21 years of age.  He made a big impact as the youngest United States wrestler to win Olympic gold.  In his wrestling days, Cejudo competed at 55 kilograms, or 121 pounds, so most people would assume that he would be a natural flyweight, but that is not the case.

As a wrestler, Cejudo had a tough time making weight at 121 pounds, even though he was walking around at only 130.  However, he was much younger then, and age has added about ten pounds of lean mass to his walking weight, even though he has almost no body fat.

Cejudo is currently walking around at about 140 pounds, so he is currently eyeing the bantamweight division, which would only require a five-pound cut.  This will be much more achieveable for the young fighter, even though it may disappoint a lot of MMA fans who recognize the lack of depth in the flyweight division.

However, the global bantamweight division has some room to spare, too.

Of the top 10 bantamweights in the world, seven to eight are currently under contract with the UFC.  Some of the other guys, such as Eduardo Dantas, Tyson Nam and Bibiano Fernandes, are fighting throughout the world in other promotions like Dream, Bellator and Shooto.  So, unlike some of the other weight classes, not all of the best bantamweights are currently in the UFC.

With UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz currently on the sideline, UFC interim champ Renan Barao will be defending his belt against other contenders, but Bellator and Dream have undisputed champs in Dantas and Fernandes.

For Cejudo, the situation now exists where he could try his hand against some of the best non-UFC bantamweights in order to earn his shot in the Octagon.  At the young age of 25, with world-class wrestling experience and some amateur boxing under his belt, he has a great base and plenty of time to grow into a successful MMA career.

However, even with plenty of world-class opponents, the gold medalist wrestler has to take the necessary steps toward a professional MMA career. There’s no doubting the necessity of wrestling and boxing skills in MMA, but the sport is a lot more comprehensive than that.  Cejudo will need to round out his skills and abilities by incorporating kickboxing and submission grappling into his game.  This all starts with a good gym.

Cejudo has yet to identify exactly where he will train for his new venture, but certain comments on Twitter have linked him to both The MMA Lab and Gracie Academy.  Daniel Cormier also sent him a message about being welcome at American Kickboxing Academy in California, where top-level wrestlers like Cain Velasquez and Josh Koscheck train, in addition to Cormier himself.

Regardless of where his training camp is located, Cejudo’s first fight appears to be set for March 2 in the bantamweight division at the World Fighting Federation’s Pascua Yaqui Fights IV in Tucson, Ariz.  Cejudo is scheduled to face the fairly unknown Michael Poe, who is 0-4 as a pro, for the co-main event.

Although it seems that an Olympic gold medalist could stand to face some stiffer competition for his first fight, this will be a good way to gauge where he needs work.  Obviously, he will be a little rusty having never competed when kicks and submissions were involved.  However, should he make quick work of Poe, bigger things could soon follow.

It’s no secret that the UFC brass has an affinity for Olympians, especially considering the juicy contracts that have been getting signed, most notably including Ronda Rousey, a bronze medalist in Judo.  If Cejudo puts together a couple of good performances over the next couple years, he could easily get fast-tracked into the Octagon.

Though, the path does not come easy.  Rousey may have moved up quickly through Zuffa’s own Strikeforce promotion, but that route no longer exists, so what’s the course of action for the young gold medalist?

After Cejudo puts on a couple of good fights in lower-level promotions like WFF, then, barring a surprise contract from UFC, it would greatly benefit him to look at one of the other top paths to greatness.

Bellator seems to be a natural fit.  Eduardo Dantas sits atop a pretty deep selection of bantamweights, and that’s the biggest bonus to Bellator.  The way the promotion is structured with its tournament format, there are plenty of really good fighters to choose from.  Plus, while the pay may not be UFC money, it’s still a fairly well-paying promotion with lots of exposure through the brand new Spike TV contract.

Speculation aside, the facts remain the same.  On the positive side, Cejudo is a world-class freestyle wrestler on the highest level and also possesses amateur boxing experience.  He has a lot of clout among the MMA community, and several gyms have expressed interest in training him.

On the flip side, he needs to get his feet wet in the sport and, although Poe may be brave in stepping into the ring with him, his first fight should not be too big a challenge considering the potential that people see in Cejudo to make a big climb into the Octagon.

Until March 2, though, nobody really knows how the youngster will adapt.  But if there is one certainty amidst all of the speculation, it is that Cejudo is no stranger to one-on-one combat. So keep an eye out for this American Olympic hero to make a big impact in the years to come.

Photo: Henry Cejudo (The Open Mat)

About The Author

Dan Kuhl
Interview Coordinator