Henry Cejudo will donate a portion of his LFC 24 fight purse to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. | Jose de Orta/Sherdog.com
When Henry Cejudo steps into the Legacy Fighting Championship cage in Dallas on Friday night, he will be fighting for more than just his fifth professional mixed martial arts victory.
As a gold-medal winning wrestler for the United States in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Cejudo already knows plenty about athletic glory. And so far, with four first-round finishes in as many professional appearances, his latest endeavor is going about as well as anyone could have imagined. But Cejudo would prefer that any acclaim from his burgeoning new venture serve a greater purpose.
That includes helping kids like Kevin Marti, an 11-year-old cancer survivor from the Dallas area. After undergoing a grueling round of treatments, Marti says the Hodgkin’s lymphoma that once ravaged his body is now in remission. Marti’s last treatment was in July, but the healing process will continue when he attends Cejudo’s fight.
“It feels good to meet Henry,” Marti told Sherdog.com. “It’s kind of good to be with him.”
Cejudo recently inked a multi-bout deal with LFC, and he makes his promotional debut against Ryan Hollis at the Allen Event Center in Dallas. For the duration of his Legacy contract, Cejudo will donate a portion of his fight purses to the North Texas branch of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. His bout on Friday, as well as the rest of the Legacy Fighting Championship 24 main card, will air on AXS TV beginning at 10 p.m. ET.
By competing in the cage, Cejudo hopes that he will give others like Marti a chance to extend their own battles against life-threatening illness and disease. Cejudo understands how fortunate he is to be in his current position. Once upon a time, before he became the youngest American to win a gold medal in wrestling at age 21, Cejudo was one of seven siblings raised by a single mother. With healthcare not always available or affordable, home remedies were often the norm.
“When we’d get sick, my mom would just tell us to drink 7-Up and put VapoRub on us. So, that was just like the Mexican thing to do,” Cejudo said with a laugh.
“To look at it now, fortunately, we made it all right. Sometimes we should have been hospitalized, but [we weren’t] because of the lack of money and the fact that my mom couldn’t miss work was always in the back of everyone’s minds. So we never really complained unless we had to.”
For that reason, Cejudo said the partnership with Make-A-Wish is ideal.
“It’s a way that we can give back to kids that are hospitalized or fighting certain obstacles. In some situations they’re fighting for they’re lives. It’s a way that we can contribute funds, but it’s even beyond that. It’s inspiration.”
Given his decorated wrestling background, Cejudo’s entry into the MMA world was met with great anticipation. So far, the Arizonan hasn’t disappointed. He made his pro debut in Tucson, Ariz., on March 2, forcing Michael Poe to submit to punches in 85 seconds. Each of his next three appearances were similarly dominant, and with another Legacy bout tentatively scheduled for Nov. 15, Cejudo could compete six times -- or possibly more -- by year’s end.
Just this week, Cejudo planned on holding a free wrestling clinic for kids in the area -- all while in the middle of a weight-cut process that required him to shed some 14 pounds prior to Thursday evening. If the itinerary seems ambitious, the journey is more than worthwhile for the 26-year-old flyweight.
“If it’s me putting the whole building on my back to inspire others, then that’s what I’m willing to do. I fight for a better world,” Cejudo said. “I don’t fight to beat people up, but if that’s what I have to do to get my message across, then that’s what we’re willing to do.”
Hollis, who is 4-1 as a professional, will be the first opponent with a winning record that Cejudo has faced. Cejudo’s Olympic credentials mean that he deals with more scrutiny than the typical MMA newcomer. Today, of course, that includes plenty of negative feedback on the various social media platforms. It is perhaps the only thing Cejudo dislikes about his current pursuit.
“I try to stay away from that. It’s people that have nothing to lose and everything to gain that try to get into your head, which doesn’t work with me,” he said. “I see the sport of mixed martial arts as an art, not as a sort of entertainment.”
For the foreseeable future, Cejudo’s canvas will be the cage, his creations a boon to people like Marti, a kid who fought cancer and won. That, not a trip to the UFC or another top promotion, is why Cejudo does what he does.
“I look forward to not just winning the fight, but more importantly receiving the mic afterwards and letting people know it’s much bigger than fighting,” he said. “It’s becoming somebody. It’s sharing that dream.”