Shortly into his title fight against the most dominant champion in the history of the UFC, Henry Cejudo rolled his ankle. This was not any more helpful than it looks. Cejudo lifted his left leg to step forward but his foot didn’t cooperate, almost as if it were fighting the fact that he was in the cage against a man who had steamrolled him in half a round just two years prior. When he put his weight forward, Cejudo’s toe dragged on the mat. I will confess that I’m not sure what happened for the next 10 seconds or so because I was wincing in vicarious psychosomatic pain. When his ankle contorted the wrong way a second time, both painful experience and the sharp biting sensation in my ankle—a sympathetic pang from a not-dissimilar injury—told me it would be over soon. It had to be.
Ankles are strangely poetic as joints go. Athleticism in any sport that requires bipedalism depends almost entirely upon the flexible capacity of the ankle, without which fast-twitch agility and general explosiveness would be grounded in horizontal limits. Yet the ankle’s astonishing and vital functionality is also its vulnerability. Its ability to grant special, spectacular movement leaves it open to bend grotesquely in any number of opposite directions, to push too far past its natural range of motion. There is a safe sort of comfort in the stillness of a fixed joint. An ankle that’s doing too much is an ankle at risk.
But that’s you and me. Words like “safety” and “comfort” don’t seem to matter too much to Cejudo, which is what got him into the Octagon against an all-time great in his sport, let alone got him past that particular champion. In the post-fight press conference, he called his split decision win “a true testimony of an underdog,” and it’s hard to deny the truth there. “I lasted the first fight with Demetrious Johnson two minutes and thirty-three seconds, and I felt like it was going that way the very first round, too.” Going That Way is a nice euphemism for “the wrong way,” the same way his cirque du soleil ankle skewed as he stepped on it. But Cejudo has had things go the wrong way for him for virtually his whole life. He has somehow found a way to win anyway, against Johnson and in general.
Cejudo and his six siblings were raised by their single mother, Nelly Rico, who emigrated illegally from Mexico. They moved around a lot to evade a drug- and crime-addled father. She worked various jobs to support them, earning the nickname “The Terminator” from her children. After Henry became the youngest American to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling in 2008, he dismissed the hardships of his life and instead focused on his mother. “She’s been a father and a mother,” he said. “She’s such a tough lady. I don’t know how she [raised] six, seven [children]. She’s Superwoman.”
Without the connective tissue of a father or a traditionally stable upbringing, and in spite of the sizable gray space created by the nation’s cruel and contingent immigration policies, Cejudo was nevertheless able to plant his feet on solid ground through wrestling. Despite a stellar high school career that saw him amass a 150-0 record and four state championships, which would have certainly given him a path to a college education, he pursued an Olympic dream. It was risky, and it could have ended horribly had his gold medal aspirations gone another direction. The stakes were high for the 21-year-old at the Beijing Olympics, but he knew what he wanted.
“I’ve never trained for second place or third place,” he said 10 years ago, gold medal dangling around his neck. With an 0-1 international wrestling record leading up to the Olympics, there was reason for doubt. He didn’t see it that way. “I always believed in myself,” Cejudo said.
Little has changed for “The Messenger.” You can practically copy/paste his post-Olympic comments into his post-fight press conference from UFC 227. He still talks about his unwavering belief in himself, and gold still hangs off of him, if now from his waist instead of his neck. “We were poor in material, but we were rich at heart,” he said in his first presser as UFC champ. “[My mom] had the attitude of no excuse. She never allowed us to play the victim role. I’m a son of immigrants; the way you grow up is different. It’s just awesome to be able to see what hard work and dedication—what the mindset of an immigrant—can do.”
Cejudo’s life and career points to the truth of all this, but the comment is subversive all the same in an organization governed by an unabashed #MAGAvangelist like Dana White. But it’s probably unwise to read too much politics into Cejudo’s comments. He’s been saying exactly that for as long as anyone has bothered to put a microphone in front of him.
The similar responses after his two most incredible career achievements may seem at first like rehearsed broadcast professionalism—find your most commercially viable narrative and pitch it until the cows come home—but it’s easier to see it as a reflection of Cejudo’s genuine determination and focus. He found what he needed to drive him and he never moved on from it, never allowed himself to develop a numbing tolerance to its motivational surge, and simply won and won. It is this focus that not only took him to the pinnacle of two of the toughest sports imaginable, but also helped him to see the possibility of that future through the dense thorns of a rough upbringing. His circumstances put him in a maddeningly difficult maze, and so he learned to run through walls.
A lot of fighters say their losses were the best things that ever happened to them. It’s the sort of thing fighters say, and it might also be true. But when Cejudo says it, it feels different, like he actually believes it. Underneath all the corny “Nowhere? Now here!” tricks of self-help salesmanship, there is an essential, discernible truth: turning a negative into a positive, no matter how you do it, is the most urgent task of enlightenment. It is something that everyone who fails—that is, everyone on earth—has to learn to do.
The ankle is vulnerable, but it can be a resilient joint, too. It is capable of operating at a high level after tweaks, twists, sprains and rolls, if only for a certain type of person in a certain type of circumstance. To perform on a compromised ankle requires more than a willingness to endure and ignore pain, although there is of course that. Likewise, it takes more than a belief in the solidity of what’s beneath and within you. To build on a wobbly foundation, moment by moment, requires a specific type of psychological fortitude, a refusal to entertain the innumerable ways in which things could go wrong and instead go-go-go in the direction of the one way it could go right. You have to see past inflamed distractions and focus on the gold beyond. You have to believe that you can build on sand, not because it’s the best or sturdiest foundation but because building is the job and the circumstances are the circumstances.
“This is surreal, man,” Cejudo said to reporters at the Staples Center after the fight. “This is a kid who was born 10 miles away [from here], the ghetto streets of South Central LA, to Mexican immigrants—to being Olympic champion at the age of 21, when my mother wasn’t able to go to the Olympics due to her citizenship status; to her becoming a US citizen about eight years ago, and then me, 10 years later, now carrying UFC gold. Man, it really is a dream come true.”
Neither Demetrious Johnson, who is perhaps the greatest fighter of all time, nor that flimsy rolled ankle could stop Henry Cejudo from boldly stepping forward, with the full weight of his dreams borne by the sturdiest foundation he could make in the moment. There were numerous ways to lose, numerous ways for victory to twist painfully away in the wrong direction. But he found, as he always does, the one way to win. You build with what you have.