BY RYAN BEVINS, ON X (FORMERLY TWITTER) @BEVOIS
Henry Cejudo famously stated before his rematch with Demetrious Johnson at UFC 227, “There’s not too many times in life do you get a chance at redemption.” The man known as “The Messenger” made good on that message by winning his rematch against the UFC flyweight division’s record-setting champion to win his first UFC world title. Along the way, that same message could be used to describe the path of one of the young fighters that the eventual two-division UFC champion and Olympic wrestling gold medalist has helped influence during his legendary combat sports career. That would be the path of a former two-time National Champion Boxer from Mexico, Leslie Hernandez, who began training with Cejudo when she was a teenager and was in the middle of chasing her own Olympic dream when they met.
“I met Henry when I was 15. We used to box together with the same trainer. Henry is the one who encouraged me to one day jump into MMA,” Hernandez told LFA.com. “Henry put me on the right path, he took care of me like a sister. He even took me to the TUF 24 house to watch them train and film. That’s when I knew I wanted to really do MMA after boxing. I met so many great fighters through him. Leandro Higo (the LFA’s first-ever champion) was one of them. It was so fun to train with them all.”
Cejudo saw a lot of himself in Hernandez as she was chasing an Olympic dream in boxing the same as he once did in wrestling. In fact, Cejudo would become the youngest American Olympic gold medalist in wrestling history at the time, when he won the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China at age 21. Hernandez had the same goal to win an Olympic gold medal at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, but fate would have other plans for her.
“I was hoping for the 2020 Olympics. That was always my goal since I started boxing,” Hernandez explained. “I went to Mexico from 2017 until 2018 to try to get a spot on the Mexican National Team. I did that and was at the Olympic Training Center for 3 months in 2019. Unfortunately, my permit to be out in Mexico expired in the spring of 2019 and I wasn’t able to renew it again. So that is when I made that big decision to give up that dream and transfer fully to MMA.”
Leslie Hernandez (second from left) training with Henry Cejudo (far right) in 2016.
MMA has now given Hernandez a second chance at redemption to become the best in the world. However, it is a new sport, which heavily involves Cejudo’s base sport of wrestling as well as a variety of martial arts and forms of unarmed combat… and therein, as The Bard would tell us, lies the rub.
Hernandez, however, had already developed the most important tool for a young athlete, which is a champion’s mindset. Born in Baja California, Mexico and raised in Oaxaca, Mexico, Hernandez actually began training in another Olympic sport at age 8. That would be Taekwondo, which is the national martial art of South Korea that is known for its flashy kicking techniques. Hernandez is a black belt in Taekwondo, but by the time she was 13, her father got her and her three siblings involved in the “Sweet Science” of Boxing.
“My dad never boxed, because he never got the opportunities to do so, but he always loved boxing,” stated Hernandez. “He put the four of us into boxing back in 2013. We all competed at the highest level. I became a Mexico National Champion and one of my younger brothers became a USA National Champion. My other two siblings also fought at an elite level. My sister also fought amateur MMA. None of them became a pro in Boxing or MMA. They all eventually quit fighting for school and joined the Army. I am the only one who turned pro and made fighting my career. Between all of us, I’d say we have a total of 170 amateur fights.”
Leslie Hernandez is one of the most decorated boxers to enter the strawweight division of MMA.
Hernandez would quickly excel in boxing and became the first woman from Oaxaca, located in southern Mexico, to win a National Title in the sport.
“I became a National Champion in 2017 and 2018 for Mexico,” Hernandez explained. “I wasn’t allowed to compete in the big USA tournaments, because I wasn’t an American citizen. I only had about 40 amateur boxing fights since I started in 2013 until 2019. I could of had a lot more, but my citizenship status didn’t allow me to compete as much as I wished. I was only able to go to Mexico for 2 years, but with a lot of issues.”
Those issues led Hernandez, a two-time Mexican National Boxing Champion, to set her sights on a new goal. That would be the goal that Cejudo had suggested as he knew she had the level of mental fortitude it would take to transition from being an Olympic level athlete to a world champion in MMA. Hernandez was soon all-in on MMA by the time she was 21-years-old.
“I was 20 when I made my amateur MMA debut,” stated Hernandez. “I did it while I was still fully boxing and competing, but I didn’t make the full move until I was 21 in mid-2019. That is when I put my full focus on MMA.”
Leslie Hernandez celebrates after her big knockout win against Jasmine Pouncy at LFA 147.
Hernandez is one of the most credentialed boxers to ever enter the women’s strawweight division in MMA, but she credits boxing for giving her more than just punching power and proper technique, while she enjoys the well-documented and newly found camaraderie of MMA.
“The thing I love the most about boxing is how disciplined, consistent, and tough it made me. Without boxing, I would never be the person I am today,” Hernandez explained. “It really built me. I understand hard work because of it. Boxing is a lonely sport, it’s tough. In MMA, I love the community. I love how family oriented it is. You still fight alone, but you need a team to prepare yourself for any battle. MMA is so fun, because there’s so much to learn every time, so many styles.”
Hernandez also looks up to some of the greatest to ever do it in each sport for inspiration, while pursuing greatness of her own.
“In boxing since I started, Floyd Mayweather Jr. has always been my favorite,” stated Hernandez. “He was so smart and I just loved his style of boxing. In MMA, I always loved Cris Cyborg, because she was a badass. I also love Jon Jones. He is in my opinion the greatest MMA fighter. Of course, Henry Cejudo as well. He is one of the most accomplished fighters of all time.”
Leslie Hernandez with David Michaud, John Crouch, and her husband Ivan Gil. The MMA Lab standout returns to action at LFA 176.
Now a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, Hernandez is busy training under the watchful eye of John Crouch at The MMA LAB, which is one of the most successful MMA teams in the world. The elite fight team includes the likes of current UFC bantamweight champion and former LFA star “Suga” Sean O’Malley as well as Kyler Phillips, Clay Carpenter, Casey Kenney, Mario Bautista, and many other UFC stars and LFA standouts. This is where Hernandez has been rounding out her full arsenal of MMA skills after transitioning to the sport with her world-class striking pedigree in tow.
Those skills will be put to the test in her adopted hometown of Phoenix, when she faces another tough LFA veteran in Brittany Camozzi at LFA 176. Camozzi is the wife of UFC veteran and former RFA welterweight champion Brian Camozzi. She is also the sister-in-law of Chris Camozzi, who is currently tied for eighth most fights by a middleweight in UFC history (19 total fights). Hernandez is confident headed into this matchup.
“I think that she’s a tough fighter. I never overlook my opponents,” stated Hernandez. “The fact that her family are UFC veterans doesn’t mean anything to me. I know what I bring and I’m surrounded and helped by greats, champions… UFC and Bellator vets at the gym that I call brothers.”
Now the proud Mexican-American fighter, who grew up watching legendary fighters develop inside the LFA Octagon, is now doing so herself. Hernandez is also excited about starting the year on a positive note as she prepares for her fourth professional fight with all four happening inside the LFA Octagon.
“My goals for 2024 is to be as active as I can in the cage, Hernandez explained. “I want to fight for the LFA title this year. I’m manifesting that. I will be LFA champion this year.”
You can watch Leslie Hernandez face Brittany Camozzi on the main card of LFA 176. The event takes place this Friday, February 9th and it will be available worldwide on UFC Fight Pass at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT.
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