Keeping up with Henry
Adventures in legend and celebrity with the kid from Maryvale
By Guillermo Reyes
Over the course of several weeks in March, 2013, I tried following Henry Cejudo like an embedded “entourager,” my word for this ceaseless activity of keeping up with the Phoenix-based Olympian, a restless and unstoppable 26-year-old athlete who tears through the desert like a speed racer. I missed his debut in Tucson with the MMA (mixed martial arts) in which he, not too surprisingly, kicked posterior and won his match in a few minutes against a local fighter, but I had an excuse. I was in Phoenix directing Henry’s life story in the manner of a play, a dramatization of his autobiography, American Victory, adapted to the stage by playwright José Zárate, a former ASU student now pursuing his ambitions of a screenwriting career in Los Angeles. In three fast-paced weeks in March, Henry prepared for, fought and won his match, trained my actors in wrestling techniques, faced an audience that posed engaging questions after the play, hosted the after-party in his Phoenix home, then he flew to Burbank to trade barbs with Jay Leno on the Tonight Show. Henry’s also an undergraduate student at Grand Canyon University, so, it’s safe to say he’s got a full plate.
When I finally pinned Henry down to a brief interview, I was more interested in talking about Izzy, the scrawny teenage boy living in a homeless shelter in Florida. Henry posted the encounter on his Facebook: “I met a kid named Izzy today and he was telling me how my autobiography, American Victory, changed his life forever. By the look of the book, it never leaves his sight. He told me he’s read it seven times and the book gave him hope to get out of the homeless shelter where he was staying.”
“Why was the kid even there?” I asked him, “What happened in his family life?” “I didn’t get all the details,” said Henry, “it’s just that I meet kids like him every time I go out there to meet young wrestlers. Sometimes, I also get letters from inmates writing about where they’ve gone wrong. And, if my story gives them comfort …”
Inspiration, comfort, a salve for the great failures and tragedies of broken lives. Henry’s book highlights the tumultuous process of growing up in L.A., Las Cruces, N.M., and finally Phoenix as the son of impoverished and undocumented immigrants; it also charts the discipline the young athlete summoned to develop his talents and rise from a troubled past to compete at the Beijing Olympics as a wrestler. Henry’s story chronicles the grand historical irony of bringing home the gold to the country that gave him citizenship but threatened to deport his parents.
Finally, the book’s also a paean to an indomitable woman, Nelly Rico (Henry’s mother), who raises six children alone after her husband becomes a substance addict and abandons the family.
Anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the play might think this is a story of tough male bluster, but the story features the equally compelling image of an immigrant mother raising children on her own. Then, in a comic twist, the Olympic trainers assign the height-challenged hero to wrestle with women to supplement their training, but the decision allows Henry to learn to treat women as equal partners in the sport. When he ends up fighting one of them in a lovers’ quarrel, the fight almost becomes physical and he has to pull back, and avoid his father’s tragic mistakes, though he himself admits that he came close to battery and feels terrible for it.
Henry’s narrative is supported by a chorus of women. His sister Gloria takes over the care of the children when Nelly needs to work, and she becomes a second mother to them. American Victory, one might be surprised to discover, depends on the survival instincts of the women, which gives the story its balance, its depth and appeal. Henry’s brother, Angel, also became a wrestling champion in this environment; he provides the initial inspiration that leads Henry to start training at Maryvale. As a director, I wasn’t interested in a simplistic glorification of a hero, but about the family struggle that helped him rise from poverty – hence the true “victory” in the title. We dramatized it, played it out with a lively cast of ASU actors and, in many ways, lived it the way Izzy did at his shelter, drawing inspiration from the tale.
The search for an Arizona story
The meeting between playwright Zárate, Henry Cejudo and me took place at the University Club at Arizona State University in September, 2010. I was urging both young men to collaborate on a play version of American Victory. At the School of Theatre and Film, we had determined to find or originate plays that celebrated the Arizona Centennial. We were already developing two other plays that dramatized Arizona history, but now I needed to find one that would be emblematic of our times. I found Henry’s book, read it in one sitting and knew that I’d found such a story.