How a near-death experience inspired Henry Cejudo to reach for greatness

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Henry Cejudo celebrates a win over Wilson Reis during their bout at UFC 215 in Edmonton, Alberta, on Sept. 9, 2017. (AP)

Experience, Henry Cejudo says, is the key to victory in his rematch for the flyweight title with Demetrious Johnson on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 227 at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Cejudo didn’t have much mixed martial arts experience when he was ignominiously dominated in the clinch and then stopped at 2:49 of the first round in their April 23, 2016, match in Las Vegas.

There was, though, another experience Cejudo was lacking then that he has under his belt now. It is an experience that neither Cejudo nor any other rational person would want to repeat, yet it is something that is driving him as he prepares for his day of reckoning with Johnson.

In October, Cejudo attended a charity event staged by NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott in Santa Rosa, Calif. In the early morning hours, a quickly spreading wildfire forced the evacuation of the hotel in which Cejudo was staying.

Cejudo, though, slept through the fire alarms. Two-and-a-half hours later, he awakened, pulled back the curtains and saw the fire surrounding the hotel. He jumped from his second-story window, and after some harrowing moments, managed to walk to a nearby highway, where he saw a fire truck approaching. He jumped a couple of fences and flagged down the truck, which took him to safety.

Having survived that has inspired him for his fight with Johnson.

“You don’t really want to think about it too much, but I realize how lucky I was to get out of there alive,” Cejudo said. “And going into this fight, I realize it’s like I’m getting a shot to do it all over. I’m lucky to be alive and I’m lucky to be getting this title shot again.

“Demetrious Johnson is an incredible fighter. You have to give that to him. Look at what he has done. I didn’t have the experience in that first fight to really deal with him the way I needed to do. But going through what I did [in escaping the fire], I am getting a second chance and that’s very motivating. Having gone through that makes you want to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, because you never know if it will come again.”

And so Cejudo, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist wrestler who was born into poverty just 10 minutes from Staples Center, has poured his heart and soul into preparations. He’s used what he calls a scientific approach to training, working with a company, NeuroForce1, on his conditioning and specifically his recovery from exertion.

When Cejudo spoke to Yahoo Sports, he was in a capsule that simulated 13,000 feet of altitude.

“We’re doing that to build more red blood cells,” Cejudo said. “I’m so high up, my ears keep popping. I’m actually all wrapped up in a blanket because it’s super cold in this capsule. But this is part of a scientific approach to getting me ready for this fight.

“Every morning when I wake up, I’m being monitored to figure out how specifically I should train that day. It tells me how hard I should go. I put the omega wave on and it determines how hard I should go that day. It checks all of these things, my body, my stress level, my hydration levels, all to get the best information possible. I am doing things out of the norm. I’m taking certain supplements I have never taken before. A lot has changed with the way I have trained and I will be honest with you, I have never felt so strong in my life.”

That’s remarkable coming from an Olympic gold medalist, but it’s the commitment that Cejudo made to cover the vast difference that existed between the two fighters in their first title match.

He’s extraordinarily competitive and not used to losing, even at the highest levels. In his wrestling career, he won gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, the 2007 Pan Am Games and 2006-08 in the Pan American Championships.

He entered the fight with Johnson 10-0 as an MMA fighter, even though he concedes he hadn’t fully arrived as a mixed martial artist.

“The losses I have had [in my athletic career], I have learned from them and I have gotten better – a lot better – as a result of what I learned,” Cejudo said. “When I fought Demetrious Johnson the first time, I had only been fighting for three years, period. It was just three years in MMA, no amateur fights, straight to the pros and in three years, right to the best in the world.

“Looking back at it now, that [UFC 197] loss wasn’t based on ability. I had the ability. It was based on experience.”

He oozes confidence for a guy who was badly beaten the last time he was locked in a cage with this opponent. But he feels he’s done everything in his power to be prepared for the chance at redemption.

If things had gone only slightly differently, if he hadn’t stirred and awakened at 4:38 a.m. in his Santa Rosa hotel with that fire raging that October morning, he may well have died.

Fate led him out, and he know has the chance to fulfill a dream in the city where he was born into dire circumstances. It wasn’t until he was 17 years old that he had a bed of his own to sleep.

“I was born in South Central L.A.,” Cejudo said. “It’s not too far from the Staples Center where Henry Cejudo was born in 1987, on Feb. 9, born to immigrant parents. It is surreal. It really is a dream come true to be able to fight here after being born just a couple of minutes away in a part of the city where a lot of people never can get out. It is so huge to me, bigger than even Madison Square Garden. I’ve seen [Hall of Fame boxer Oscar] De La Hoya, many of the greats, fight in Staples Center.

“I’m going to be able to tell my kids, and my grandkids and my great grandkids, ‘Hey, I worked so hard and I lived my dream and I reached the pinnacle here at Staples Center, right by where I was born.’ That’s so inspiring to me and it has helped fuel me to be the best I can possibly be.”

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