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Henry Cejudo ready to follow in Ronda Rousey’s gilded footsteps

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

DALLAS -- It's a funny thing, the life of an Olympian. Only the true crazies sign up for a youth of cold sweats and lukewarm paychecks, where 1,460-day intervals are consumed by the thought of one week where it all may be worth it, but only if the stars align just right. If they're lucky, most Olympians get that experience once, maybe twice, before it's all over and those years of sacrifice are suddenly outsourced to the next kid straight out of high school.

And then what? It's not like all that perspiration prepares oneself for the doldrums of a second life. Or at least, it didn't use to.

But now it seems like ‘former Olympian' is the hottest résumé padder around. And if you think about it, it makes sense, too. Any athlete freakishly committed enough to one sport to count themselves among the best in the entire world, it's only natural to think their devoutness could be rerouted elsewhere.

Which is all a long-winded way to say that, yeah, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Henry Cejudo figured out how to fight pretty dang good over the past five years. Because any wrestler who can call themselves the youngest Olympic gold medalist in American history, they're exactly that special kind of crazy who fits at home inside a steel-sided cage.

"Coming from the background that I come from, being a gold medalist, you see Ronda Rousey and Daniel Cormier doing so well. Yoel Romero. All these Olympians. It's kinda hard to bet against them," Cejudo told MMAFighting.com.

"I think I have all tools in the world to beat anybody at 125 pounds. I really do. You just have to see it, man. That's all there is to it."

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If all goes well, Cejudo may not be waiting long to get his chance. In a division largely devoid of contenders, the 28-year-old appears to be one of the only legitimate blue-chip prospects who could someday challenge for Demetrious Johnson's UFC flyweight belt. The UFC seems to believe so, too. That's why Cejudo has been handed a top-10 fighter, Chris Cariaso, before ever even proving he could make the weight.

If you ask him, Cejudo will say the right things. But press him a bit, and he'll admit he's not at all surprised to be listed as high as a six-to-one favorite over Cariaso despite his relative inexperience. Everyone always knew he could wrestle. But it was the masterful boxing clinic he put on Dustin Kimura last December that really opened some eyes.

"Maybe (I was trying to prove a point)," Cejudo admits. "I think that kind of scared some people, because Kimura, he's no joke, man. He can strike too. He's very diverse. But I think the pressure and the head movement and the fakes, switching combinations on him from time to time, it's dangerous.

"I've been boxing for five years. I boxed amateur boxing, I went through the whole amateur rankings, so this isn't new to me. My head's down, my hands are up. I'm a very detailed fighter. I'm very detailed. I study myself. I study film and I make sure that everything's on point. Any wrestler with good, world-class wrestling who has good boxing skills, he's a dangerous fighter."

Cejudo's attention to nuance is one of the first things that jumps out whenever he speaks, and because of that it'd be easy to attribute his quotes to any of his fellow Olympic medalists. That peculiar brand of obsession just comes with the territory -- which is part of the reason his muddled history with the scale is so damn puzzling. At this point, Cejudo can't quite explain his fixation on flyweight, other than admitting it's become "a personal thing more than anything." Because guys like him, they're not used to failing. They're not used to all this embarrassment.

Things got so bad that earlier this week a curious prop bet was posted on online gambling sites -- people were actually wagering whether Cejudo would once again bungle his cut to 126. Cejudo admits, at that point he grew a little nervous. But any worry wiped clean from his brow at Friday's UFC 185 weigh-ins, were he hit the 125-pound mark on the nose.

It was in many ways an unspoken statement. Championship weight, to swipe a phrase from Conor McGregor.

So now the fun can really begin. Cariaso, for all the grief he took for his failed title bid last September, is an undeniably tough out. His only UFC losses at flyweight have come at the hands of Johnson, Jussier Formiga and John Moraga -- aka the champ, and a pair of bona fide contenders. Another impressive showing on Saturday, and Cedujo could very well be one fight away from gold.

And in case you forgot, gold is sort of his specialty.

"That's up to the UFC," Cejudo says. "If they want to give me a world title shot, I'll take it. I've taken my time with this sport. I can box. I can counter. I can slip punches. I'm ready. I'm ready."