One day back in 2009, American Kickboxing Academy guru Bob Cook told Scott Coker, over dinner at their favorite little Italian eatery in San Jose, that he had a heavyweight Coker should take a look at. Cook told Coker that the new guy was going to be a great heavyweight, but Coker was skeptical.
"I told Bob that he didn't look like much. He didn't look like Mike Tyson. He had a little stomach on him. He was extremely articulate and smart," Coker told me over brunch recently. "Bob told me he'd been an Olympic wrestler, and I told him this was Strikeforce, not Wrestleforce. I could just see in my head him laying and praying on the guy because he can't punch or submit guys.
"But I told Bob I would give him a shot. I mean, if that conversation had never happened, we never would have signed him. And he's been one of the jewels of the heavyweight division. And think about how many fighters could fight at that pace that he did, against a big guy like Josh?"
The heavyweight in question, of course, was Daniel Cormier, who rose from prospect to outsider to world heavyweight grand prix champion in just over two years. It was a stunning developmental curve, even to those of us who are used to seeing fast-rising prospects.
"When Daniel fought Jeff Monson, I really saw a difference in him. This guy wasn't just a wrestler anymore. It's just a testament as to how hard he's working to become a complete MMA fighter.
And then, when he fought Bigfoot, it was unbelievable. I was really worried for him that day because I thought Bigfoot had the edge on him, at least a little bit. But then Daniel knocked him out. He's the real deal, and he proved it once again against Josh."
The heavyweight grand prix, originally conceived as the last great heavyweight tournament and a throwback to the golden years of PRIDE Fighting Championships, didn't pan out the way Coker intended. Plenty of things disrupted the tournament along the way, but Coker said he's ultimately happy with the way things turned out.
"I think a star was born. And if you look back at the beginning of the tournament, we had eight of the top 10 heavyweights in the world fighting in this tournament. All of the guys except for Brett Rogers had been champions in one league or another, whether it was the UFC or EliteXC or others. It was a special moment in time, when we were able to put all of those fighters together.
"It was a magic moment, and I'm glad I was able to put it together."