TUCSON, Ariz. -- Five years and more than 6,000 miles removed from
the pinnacle of his wrestling career, Olympian Henry
Cejudo stepped inside a cage Saturday night for his mixed
martial arts debut.
Team USA’s 121-pound gold medalist in freestyle wrestling at the
2008 Beijing Games, Cejudo was slotted in the evening’s co-main
event by Tucson promotion
World Fighting Federation. Cejudo, who captured two high school
state wrestling championships in Arizona, was matched up with
Tucson resident Michael Poe
in a bantamweight bout.
Behind the curtain, a hyped Cejudo burst out of a set of Casino del
Sol’s 15-foot double doors to await his cage walk. The enthusiasm
rolled over into sedation for Cejudo as Poe’s walkout song took
longer than expected. Dressed in a blue T-shirt and sweatpants
marked with a matching USA logo, the 135-pound Cejudo sat in a
nearby chair and waited alone with a calm anticipation.
When his name was called by the cage announcer, Cejudo strolled
through a thick smoke machine entrance and emerged before the 2,000
spectators jammed into the casino’s conference room. Backed by his
own MC, who provided a personalized hip hop walk-out track, Cejudo
made his way to the cage to a respectful response from the local
crowd. The rap track, sung by a childhood friend of Cejudo’s, was
carefully paced to end the moment the MMA rookie made his first
step into the cage.
At the opening bell, Cejudo rushed full-speed at Poe, who
backpedaled and caught Cejudo with his first live punch. A glancing
left hook from Poe woke up the amateur wrestler of 26 years.
“It was different. It’s a little faster paced here. I was a little
shocked,” said Cejudo after the bout. “That dude has a pair of
cojones on him. He just came out swinging. He caught me with a shot
but it was nothing crazy. I don’t like getting hit. I really work
on my defense a lot, that’s what makes me a good fighter. It’s part
of the sport, getting hit.”
Poe followed up with a spinning back kick that grazed Cejudo’s
midsection. Seconds later, before Poe could formulate a follow-up
combo, Cejudo drove his opponent to the ground with a powerful
takedown. The single, effortless motion put Poe on his back and on
Looking for positional control, Cejudo held down Poe. With
ground-and-pound not finding the mark, Poe threw up triangle choke
and armbar submission attempts that made Cejudo aware but did not
put the Phoenix fighter in danger. Still in Poe’s full guard,
Cejudo found a home for a rapid succession of right hands. Moments
after the first significant offense of the fight connected, the
referee inside the cage called a halt to the contest, giving Cejudo
the first-round TKO win and Poe his fifth consecutive loss.
The early stoppage was met by a chorus of halfhearted boos blended
with cheers from the sold-out crowd. The quick trigger by the
referee ended Cejudo’s inaugural MMA fight in less than 90 seconds.
After a lifetime of getting his athletic fix on wrestling mat,
Cejudo welcomed the butterflies that came with trying a sport
foreign to him.
“It’s a little different, but I had a chance to wrestle in Iran, in
front of sold out soccer stadiums,” said Cejudo. “I had a chance to
wrestle in the middle in Times Square for Team USA versus Russia,
the Olympic games -- it’s hard to beat that. At the same time, this
is something new and intense. I like it. I like the rush.”
Cejudo was cornered by Roland
Silaraup, MMA head coach at Scottsdale’s Fight Ready gym. A
disciple of the Bob Cook and
Shamrock incarnation of American Kickboxing Academy, Silaraup
described the joy of training an Olympic-caliber athlete in mixed
“It’s actually easy. It’s kind of a pleasure. He comes in the gym
every day and wants to learn,” Silaraup explained. “The striking
game, the submission game, transitioning from the striking to the
takedown, all the way to the submission; he’s evolving every single
day. He already has an awesome base for MMA. For me, it was just
sharpening him up and having fun.”
With an ambitious schedule of one fight per month for the remainder
of 2013, Cejudo is not shy about predicting where he wants to be
viewed in his new sport.
“On top. I don’t mean to be arrogant or ignorant. I’m here to
perform. I’m here to get better,” said Cejduo. “I’m here to listen
to my trainers and my coaches. I just want to continue to get
better. All I can promise you is that I’m going to give it my
The night’s main event saw two-time UFC welterweight Edgar
Garcia move up to 185 pounds to square off with late
Fornof for the WFF middleweight title. Off a scramble, Garcia
caught Fornof with multiple strikes. The wounded Fornof was ripe
for a finish, and Garcia cranked on a quick kimura for a
no-hesitation tap out at 1:54 of the first round.
In other pro action, featherweight Michael
Parker took on Julian
Samaniego for the WFF 145-pound belt. Parker outworked his
opponent once the fight moved to the ground and eventually forced
Samaniego to submit to a triangle choke at 1:52 of round one.
Tommy Messano is the editor-in-chief of ULTMMA.com. You can
contact him on Twitter at @ULTMMA