LAS VEGAS (April 30, 2008) -- Matt Azevedo figured Sammie Henson would be the man to beat at 55 kg/121 lbs. entering the 2007 freestyle wrestling season.
After all, Henson won a bronze medal at the 2006 World Championships and appeared to be the frontrunner to make the next U.S. Olympic Team in 2008.
But Henson, a past World champion and Olympic silver medalist, stepped away from competition after wrestling at the Chicago Cup early in 2007. Henson hasn’t been back on the mat since.
With Henson not competing, Azevedo figured his Sunkist Kids teammate could help him achieve his own goals.
“When I found out Sammie was retiring, I called him and asked him if he would help me and train me,” Azevedo said. “I wanted the help of someone with his expertise. He was the best at my weight class.”
Henson’s influence is paying huge dividends for Azevedo. Henson was in Azevedo’s corner when he pinned 2007 World Team member Henry Cejudo to win the U.S. Nationals title on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
Azevedo now has the inside track on making the Olympic Team. He will enter the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, set for June 13-15 in Las Vegas, as the No. 1 seed at 55 kilos.
Much of the credit for the 30-year-old Azevedo’s recent run of success goes to Henson, his coach and training partner.
“Sammie’s made a huge difference for me,” Azevedo said. “I knew I had the skills to be the best, but I haven’t been consistent. I didn’t have a game plan in my training and I didn’t have a game plan in my match strategy. Now I have a game plan every day. I work on my areas of concentration, I work on my weaknesses and I work on trying to exploit my opponent’s weaknesses.
“Sammie’s such a great motivator. He has so much passion for the sport that it rubs off on you. He gets me excited and fired up to win.”
Henson said developing a strong game plan has worked wonders for Azevedo.
“Matt is staying in good position and he’s wrestling smarter,” Henson said. “Matt’s made a decision to keep wrestling the same way, whether he’s up by two or down by two. Henry Cejudo’s a tough wrestler – I know because I wrestled the kid. It’s huge for Matt to beat him. It’s a huge confidence-builder for almost everybody in the weight class to see that somebody in this country can beat Henry. We had a good game plan and we followed it.”
Henson and Azevedo also work as assistant coaches under head coach John Azevedo, Matt’s uncle, at Cal Poly. A short time after Henson came to California to work with Matt Azevedo, John Azevedo decided to hire Henson as one of his assistants at Cal Poly.
The influence of John Azevedo, a past NCAA champion and Olympian, also has paid off for Matt Azevedo.
“I can never thank John enough for everything he’s done for me,” Matt said. “He’s basically been my life-long coach. I would not even be close to as good of a wrestler if not for him. My whole style of wrestling is based off of him. He taught me how to wrestle. He’s one of the best technicians I’ve ever seen. He loves wrestling so much and understands it so well. He’s had a huge impact on me.”
John Azevedo made the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team at 125.5 lbs., but lost the chance to compete on wrestling’s biggest stage when the United States boycotted the Olympics in Moscow, Russia.
“John and I just talked about it yesterday, and he feels like there was no need for the boycott. That decision hurt so many people,” Matt said. “It ruined the dreams of so many athletes who put so many years into achieving that goal. I know it definitely hurt John. I think it would mean a lot to John and our family if I could compete in the Olympics. I know John would be proud. I’m wrestling not just for myself, but for my whole family.”
John Azevedo said he has enjoyed working with his nephew.
“Whether he makes the Olympics or not, we’re very proud of Matt,” John said. “Matt is such a great kid. It means a lot to know Matt wants to not only do this for himself, but for me and his family. It doesn’t surprise me that it’s part of his motivation. He’s a great person. He’s put so much hard work and dedication into this. It would be huge for Matt to wrestle in the Olympics.”
Azevedo also has worked with Joe Seay, a past U.S. Olympic coach who coaches for the Sunkist Kids.
“Joe called me yesterday and told me he’s never seen an athlete take a coach’s advice, believe in it and see it work the way it did for me at Nationals,” Azevedo said. “I trust my coaches 100 percent. They believe in me and that means a lot.”
Henson said Azevedo also has benefited from scouting his opponents.
“Matt’s been very disciplined about watching video,” Henson said. “We’ve analyzed and looked at things, and picked up on different tendencies that have helped us.”
In last weekend’s U.S. Nationals finals match against the 21-year-old Cejudo, who swept Azevedo in the finals of the 2007 World Team Trials, Azevedo won in the leg clinch in the first period. In the second period, Azevedo was able to catch Cejudo on his back for a fall.
“As soon as the second period started, he snapped me down and I felt him lock up the front headlock,” Azevedo said. “I knew what his options were and I knew he might try to flip me through. When he did, I was able to feel it coming and counter. I grabbed around his waist and legs, and settled in to hold him on his back. I wasn’t thinking about getting a pin. I was just trying to defend.
“The fact that it ended in a pin made it exciting. It was a surprise and it was unexpected. I knew I was capable of winning, but it was shocking to win by fall.”
Azevedo (Pismo Beach, Calif./Sunkist Kids) is now 2-3 against Cejudo. He beat Cejudo, then a high school senior, in the Sunkist Kids International in 2005. Cejudo was still in high school when he defeated Azevedo in the finals of the 2006 U.S. Nationals. Cejudo then won two straight matches over Azevedo in the best-of-3 finals at the World Team Trials last year.
Cejudo has received his share of exposure, including being featured in a four-page spread last summer in Sports Illustrated. Cejudo is a two-time U.S. Nationals champion. He won the 2007 Pan American Games and recently won the Pan American Championships for the third straight year.
“I understand why Henry is getting the attention – he’s had a lot of success at a really young age,” Azevedo said. “He’s done some great things and he deserves the accolades he’s gotten.”
Making Azevedo’s win over Cejudo even sweeter was it came in Las Vegas, a city he grew up in. His parents, Mark and Sandy, still live in Las Vegas. Azevedo’s wife of nearly three years, Brooke, also was there to share the big moment with him on Saturday night.
“It was pretty emotional to see my family and friends going crazy,” Matt said. “They’ve been behind me 100 percent and it was really cool to see how excited they were.”
Azevedo said he is looking forward to wrestling in Las Vegas again during the Olympic Trials.
“I have a huge comfort level wrestling in Vegas,” he said. “It’s like going home. All my family and friends are there, and I know I will have a big group there supporting me at the Trials. I think it’s a huge advantage for me.”
Another advantage has been the presence of Henson in his corner.
“We don’t really change anything in our approach going into the Trials,” Henson said. “We’re having success and we will work just as hard as we did before Nationals. We can’t have a letdown. He was really excited he won, and that’s great. But I called Matt the next day and told him there is still a lot more work to do. He understands that. Matt really listens well and trusts his coaches. That’s a neat thing to see.”
So what does Azevedo need to do to earn a trip to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China?
“I just need to have a strong game plan and stick to it,” he said. “Winning Nationals was huge because it gives me confidence I can beat the guys I need to beat. I definitely know I can do it again. If it’s Henry again, I know it will be a hard-fought match and a barnburner again. If (2004 Olympic silver medalist Stephen) Abas is in there, that will obviously make it tougher. I know I will be ready, no matter who is in there.”
For full results from the U.S. Nationals, please go to www.themat.com/results.php.