Olympic gold medalist, Maryvale HS alum Henry Cejudo fighting for those 'who need a leader'

Even the man who has 10 mixed martial arts victories and became the youngest Olympic gold-medal wrestler in American history can appreciate what NASCAR drivers do.

"I’ve seen it on TV and I’m just amazed how everybody can come out alive," Cejudo told ABC15's Craig Fouhy before he served as the official pace car driver during Sunday's NASCAR Camping World 500 event at Phoenix International Raceway.

"I think people think I’m doing some crazy things, but I think going 140 miles an hour being chased by your competitor -- I think that’s tough, too," he said.

There's no questioning the toughness of Cejudo, an alum of Maryvale High School in Phoenix who went on to win a gold medal for Team USA in the 2008 Summer Olympics at the age of 21. Cejudo went on to star in the MMA world and is among the top contenders for the UFC flyweight championship. His next fight is set for May 13 at UFC 211 in Dallas.

But Cejudo said his nickname "The Messenger" doesn't come from the physical statements he makes during his fights.

"It’s not a message of punches, kicks and knees. 'The Messenger' comes from more of being a leader, being a role model, giving people hope," he said. "The reason why I fight, the reason why I do a lot of things, it’s mainly to inspire those who are uninspired, who need hope, who need a leader."

The 30-year-old Cejudo came from an impoverished family. His father was an alcoholic who was constantly "in and out of jail," according to Cejudo, and deported when Cejudo was just five years old.

But The Messenger didn't allow his personal circumstances to dictate his lot in life. 

"My mom was a very courageous, hard-working lady, but on the flip side, my dad wasn’t," he said. "But I was able to overcome because I had a good leader, which was my mom. I had a good leader, which was my brother, which was my family, and I was kind of able to come out of that due to good leadership.

"My mom would always tell me, 'Henry, you are an American,' This is a lady who barely spoke a lick of English, and she would always tell me, 'You have opportunity here. Me, I struggled. Me, I had to do certain things to kind of get you guys by, but you have an opportunity, and spread that message: Let’s not be the victim, but the victor.'"

Heading into Sunday's race, Cejudo said he's been inspired by Daniel Suarez, the 25-year-old Mexican-American who taught himself English and became the first Mexican-born driver to win a NASCAR race.

Cejudo hopes Suarez will continue to inspire the Latino community on the race track the same way The Messenger has done in the wrestling and MMA world. 

"Seeing Mr. Suarez doing his debut here (at PIR on Sunday), it means a lot to our community," he said. "Even for myself, I’ll forever be an Olympic champion, and people will always recognize me or identify me as that, and I’ve been able to kind of inspire the Latino community in my area with the prestige that comes with being a gold medalist."

Cejudo hasn't allowed himself to be defined by his race, ethnicity or background, and he'll continue to fight, both inside and outside the octagon, to deliver that message to others in similar circumstances.

"If I have a message for them, it’s don’t put so much pressure on yourselves," he said. "Be good, reach for the stars, and if you don’t accomplish your dream, there’s good things to come out of it.

"I’m American just as much as Donald Trump, President Trump, is. Color or ethnicity shouldn’t (matter). I can’t put a level on it because I believe the heart, the mind, the soul can do some incredible things."

 

Got to love our national anthem 🇺🇸#campingworld500 #lavida

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