Olympic champion Henry Cejudo planned for a smooth and quiet transition from amateur wrestling to professional mixed martial arts.
But stepping into his fourth fight after three months as a pro, Cejudo’s manager is threatening to pull the 2008 gold medalist from a Gladiator Challenge fight May 18 outside Sacramento, Calif., against little-known Miguelito “Darkness” Marti -- unless the promoter provides clear proof of Marti’s history.
“His record, as conveyed by Gladiator Challenge, changes as much as a parent changes a baby's wet diaper,” said Cejudo’s representative, Bill McFarlane, who contacted ESPN.com to express numerous concerns about the contest.
Marti was the matchup proposed on April 20 by Gladiator Challenge founder and COO Tedd Williams when featherweight Kevin Montejano, whose name appears opposite Cejudo’s on the event poster, had problems trying to make a catch weight of 128 pounds.
Williams told McFarlane that Marti’s record was 3-2, but the official online record keepers for MMA offered no proof. Type “Miguelito Marti Darkness” into Google and you’ll see three videos. He goes after it during a Pepsi dance off. A training session pops up and it looks like he has some idea what he’s doing. And then there’s an XARM contest during a Gladiator Challenge event (XARM, the brainchild of UFC co-creator Art Davie, pits competitors who are linked as if arm wrestling, all the while being allowed to punch, kick and submit the other man). Prior to having one of his arms tied to his opponent’s, Marti was announced as 7-2 in MMA.
“Marti's record continues to evolve and that is not normal and should not be the case,” McFarlane wrote in an email.
Cejudo’s manager went back to Williams “for clarification on Marti given the lack of information on Sherdog.com and mixedmartialarts.com, and the XARM exhibition inconsistency.”
The next time they spoke, Williams said Marti’s 3-2 record was in XARM and Marti had no MMA fights. Then Williams “came back with an email saying his real MMA record was 4-2.”
Williams, a retired UFC veteran, told ESPN.com that as far as he knows, Marti’s record stands at 4-2, and that “one or two” bouts should have been reported to MMA’s official record keepers, “but I can’t find them on Sherdog, so I don’t know.” Williams suggested the sport’s unregulated past makes it impossible to keep accurate ledgers.
“Marti's a good fighter,” said the promoter. “He's that undercard type fight that they asked for.
“The guy is tough and small. It's hard to find those kind of guys. Obviously he's much more of an upright fighter, but he's a stud on the feet.”
After McFarlane voiced concerns, Williams said Gladiator Challenge offered up 35-year-old Stephen Abas, a 2004 silver medal winning wrestler from the U.S. He’s 2-0 in MMA but hasn’t fought since 2010.
“Stephen Abas really wants to fight [Cejudo] badly,” Williams said. “They refused.
“It would be a compelling fight, a gold medalist versus a silver medalist, they've competed before and Henry's beat him in wrestling. It's a great story.”
McFarlane, a self-described politically savvy and connected ex-venture capitalist, “brought up all kinds of stuff” about Abas outside the cage, Williams said, “and none of it matters.”
McFarlane confirmed that Abas was offered up as an opponent. He said there wasn’t nearly enough time for either man to prepare properly, but didn’t rule out a fight down the road. However, he declined to address his conversation about Abas with Williams.
"It's inevitable, I see those two fighting one another,” said the promoter, who believes McFarlane is “fabricating reasons why they don't want to fight” Abas.
In February, a multi-fight deal between Cejudo and the 13-year-old California-based promotion was announced. The idea was for Cejudo to cut his teeth off the beaten track, gain experience without much media attention -- though McFarlane said ESPN and Fox are doing pieces on the politically engaged fighter -- and for six fights at least, build on his skills prior to moving onto bigger and better things.
At some point soon, Cejudo’s competition will improve. His first three fights, including two inside Arizona’s World Fighting Federation, resulted in opening-round wins against opponents offering a combined and verified 6-19 record.
Gladiator Challenge conducts 90 percent of its events on tribal lands, Williams said. Urijah Faber, Quinton Jackson, Rashad Evans, Travis Browne and Robbie Peralta all did the sovereign nation circuit, and since MMA isn’t under federal legislation like boxing, many fights go unregulated and unreported.
California State Athletic Commission executive director Andy Foster doesn’t wake up nights thinking about it, but "any time we have unregulated events happening, it's a problem."
Foster, an affable Georgian who took over the struggling commission late last year, held several discussions with Williams about bringing the cash-strapped regulator onto tribal lands for Gladiator Challenge events. If this happens it would elicit new fees for the promoter, create new standards for the commission, such as allowing more than 20 bouts on one card (a regular practice for Gladiator Challenge that could cost the state additional money to oversee), and require a wider range of medical examinations for the fighters.
Foster also mentioned one of the key reasons for regulation is to ensure proper matchups.
Besides four guaranteed fights plus the option of two more, Cejudo and McFarlane knew what they signed up for with Gladiator Challenge. According McFarlane, Williams promised the promotion’s new owner, billionaire Bruce Kopitar, would deliver “higher production value, there would be larger venues, and there would be sanctioned fights.”
"He knew what he was getting into when he signed the contract,” Williams countered. “He knew where he was fighting, these casinos and under what terms. Why it's an issue now, this is the first time I'm hearing it."
Williams said he has plans for his promotion, and wants to “modernize MMA,” but wouldn’t expound. It’s yet to happen, McFarlane noted. And while he isn’t sorry Cejudo signed the deal, he’s not far off.
"It was a mistake to rely on those representations,” McFarlane said. “The first fight was very poorly organized. This fight will be the same thing.”
McFarlane didn’t like that fighters could use their own gloves, or that hand wrapping wasn’t being closely watched. He has concerns over the level of medical testing that is required of combantants. This was expressed to Williams, the manager said.
“Had the CSAC been involved in lieu of Gladiator Challenge pretending to be the CSAC stand-in, the vetting process would have been done and there would be no uncertainty” about Marti or Cejudo’s participation on the 18th, McFarlane said.
With half the year already mapped out, Cejudo’s schedule is mostly locked in. On one side of the event poster for May 18, Cejudo is pictured with the gold medal draped around his neck, his right hand over his heart. The name of the event is “American Dream.” He’ll take a break from fighting during a two- to three-month trip to Brazil this summer.
Cejudo is quite clearly a significant selling point for the unregulated card. If the situation with his opponent can’t be ironed out, and Cejudo is pulled from the fight, Williams made it sound like a bump in the road could quickly become a roadblock.
"Of course if they end up pulling out, we have a long-term, multifight contract with them,” Williams said. “I'd hate to have to see this thing get put in court, and him not fight at all, you know?"