A US Shocker on the Wrestling Mat

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Bob Martin / Sports Illustrated

Henry Cejudo celebrates winning the gold medal in men's 55 kg freestyle wrestling

Last year Kevin Jackson, coach of the U.S. freestyle wrestling team, labeled his prized phenom, Henry Cejudo, the "future of wrestling." That tag just got tossed off the mat. "Call me the 'present,' " Cejudo, 21, says today, pointing to the gold medal around his neck. "Call me the 'present.' "

Since Cejudo can pin your arms until next August, it's unwise to disagree. Plus, he's right on point. Today at China Agriculture University, Cejudo became the youngest gold medal winner in U.S. wrestling history when he dropped Japan's Tomohiro Matsunaga in the final match. The win shocked the wrestling world; Cejudo placed 31st at last year's world championships. But he upset 2006 world champ Radoslav Velikov of Bulgaria in the first round here. Cejudo was supposed to medal in 2012, maybe even '16. But not in Beijing.

Cejudo won that gold in the second period of the 55-kg (121 lb.) final. In Olympic freestyle wrestling, the grapplers score points during 3-min. periods. The first person to win two periods wins the match. After taking the first period, Cejudo danced around the mat with Matsunaga, before executing the move of the match. "I just set him up," Cejudo explains. "I'm pretty unorthodox — I can find the leg from anywhere. That's just what happened. I didn't even see the leg, but I ended up grabbing it. And I just popped my hips, took him to his back and kept driving. I knew if I kept driving, he would end up on his back. Which he did."

With the three points for the takedown, Cejudo held on to his lead, and at the horn he dropped to his knees. The wrestler grabbed his head and looked skyward after winning the title. He couldn't stop crying. He jumped into the arms of Jackson, who lifted the 5-ft. 4-in. prodigy over his shoulder. "I've probably got Henry by 50, 60 pounds, to be kind to myself," says Jackson. "He was as light as a feather."

He wasn't quite that light two nights ago. On Sunday, Cejudo couldn't keep his eyes closed. "If I can't sleep, I'll drink a whole gallon of water," he says. The problem: that imbibing bloated him like a balloon. He added 10 lbs. onto his chiseled, compact frame. So he spent Monday ridding himself of water weight the tortured way in which wrestlers usually do: Cejudo hit the sauna, then wrapped himself in a plastic sweatsuit and rode an exercise bike. He shed it all in 90 minutes.

When you've had as tough a life as Cejudo, a grueling day is routine. He spent his first four years in South Central Los Angeles, the son of illegal immigrants from Mexico City. His father, Jorge Cejudo, was a career criminal who shuttled in and out of jail. Nelly Rico, Henry's mother, moved her six kids to New Mexico to flee Jorge before he got out of a California prison.

The family spent a couple of years there before moving to the Phoenix area. Still, things were always in flux. How often did the family move? "About 50 times," Cejudo says. "I don't know, it's countless." They often stayed in crime-ridden apartment complexes. He shared a bed with two siblings at a time. In fact, Cejudo didn't get his own bed until he was 17, when he moved into the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) training center in Colorado Springs. "It was tough, but it was life," he says. "Every other kid we knew did the same things."

Despite the chaos, his mother was strict. "We called her the Terminator back home," he says. "In our house, if you cried about something, you'd get laughed at." In a crowded house, tempers flared. Henry and his brother Angel, 22, were sparring partners. "They used to freakin' pull out chains and knives and s___," says brother Alonzo, 28, who made the trip to Beijing with Angel, their sister Gloria, 25, and an entourage of former coaches and close friends. The practice at home paid off: combined, Angel and Henry won six Arizona state wrestling titles.

They both entered the residency program at the USOC training center after Angel graduated from high school. (Angel still lives there; he has not developed like his brother.) While most of the wrestling residents had already competed in college and won NCAA titles, Henry still needed to complete another year of high school. He would wake up at 6 a.m. for training, bike or run five miles to school, and then return in the afternoon. "I had no friends," he says.

The regimen kept him straight, and put him on the podium. With U.S. colleges cutting back men's wrestling programs, often to comply with Title IX's gender-equity requirements, Cejudo's rise offers an alternative path for prodigious wrestling talent. He skipped college; for better or worse, other grapplers will likely do the same.

Cejudo plans on giving the gold medal to his mother, who, though not a U.S. citizen, is now a resident alien. "You ask my mom, she'll tell you she's American," Cejudo says. "She has to study for the [citizenship] test." A few years ago, Cejudo had an itch to reunite with his father. He never had the chance; Jorge Cejudo died in Mexico City in May 2007 from heart failure that stemmed from years of alcohol and drug abuse. He was 44. "I would sure have loved him to see what we've been through," says Cejudo. "And what we are now."