The Odyssey of Daniel Cormier Continues at UFC 166
Greatness isn't a goal easily achieved, and for those who chase it, failure is not an acceptable option.
While setbacks and sacrifices are interwoven on the path and a necessary part of the journey, allowing one pitfall to break the spirit—to evoke enough doubt to make you turn back and abandon what you were steadfastly hunting to obtain—that is the daunting face of failure.
UFC heavyweight Daniel Cormier once stood face to face with the void.
As a former All-American wrestler at Oklahoma State University, "D.C." had parlayed those talents to a level so many wrestlers dream of but so few accomplish: the Olympics.
While he came up short of winning a medal in his first showing as an Olympian in 2004, in Cormier's mind, it was an obstacle to be traversed en route to a greater accomplishment.
He set his sights on the 2008 games in Beijing, and with his role as captain of the U.S. Wrestling team, he prepared himself to make the final push to turn a lifelong dream into reality.
While his mind and heart were focused on Olympic glory, his body rebelled, making him unable to complete his cut down to the required weight limit. With his place in the tournament scratched, a physical and emotional collapse took hold.
The Louisiana native overcame the adversity of a rough upbringing and battled shortcomings and missteps along his journey to reach the top of a sport that pumped through his veins and was etched on his soul. But suddenly that face appeared from out of the void, and he saw failure staring him down cold.
When a dream so vivid dissipates and the unraveling sets in, even the hardest men fold under the weight of circumstance.
Following the incident in Beijing, Cormier could have faded away into the chasm of a regular life and lived out his days attempting to keep the ghosts of "what could have been" at bay. He could have retreated in the face of failure, but that simply isn't the way the man is wired.
Despite his wrestling dreams being turned to ash, there was simply too much fire still burning in the former collegiate standout.
A red-hot call for personal redemption pounded in his heart and the competitive edge that he tested in wrestling rooms and mats thumped in his chest, and that led Cormier to seek out a new avenue in mixed martial arts.
He dove headlong into the new medium in 2009 and found immediate success.
Under the tutelage of Javier Mendez and "Crazy" Bob Cook at American Kickboxing Academy, Cormier learned that the same tireless work ethic and drive for greatness which made him one of the top wrestlers in the country could also make him one of the best heavyweight fighters on the planet.
After winning his first four showings on the southwest regional circuit in 2009-2010, the San Jose transplant was signed as a prospect to compete under the Strikeforce banner.
Fast forward two years and he's being crowned the champion of the organization's highly-touted Heavyweight Grand Prix, which featured every high profile heavyweight not competing in the UFC.
In the process of winning the Grand Prix, he picked up victories over Antonio Silva and former UFC champion Josh Barnett, and those successes shifted the perspective on how Cormier was viewed as a mixed martial artist.
He was no longer a naturally talented fighter who got a late start in the game. He was one of the best heavyweight fighters on the planet—one the opposition wasn't quick to sign up to face.
Cormier was heading into the UFC, which the biggest names in the sport called home, and it became clear that his staredown with failure four years back was a lopsided decision in his favor.
That said, it was the start of another chapter in his journey.
He drew former two-time heavyweight champion Frank Mir for his Octagon debut at UFC on Fox 7 in April.
Despite having a collection of impressive names already on his resume, Cormier's recognition with the largest fan base in MMA was still uncertain. His credentials certainly spoke for him, but with the skewed view of the UFC being the home to legitimacy in MMA, the 34-year-old needed a solid showing against Mir.
Cormier earned a unanimous decision victory in San Jose, and in the process, the AKA staple solidified himself as a major player in the division.
Yet there was a high level of expectation surrounding his inaugural bout under the UFC banner, and even though he emerged from the bout victorious, Cormier was critical of his performance in the aftermath.
"I think my body of work speaks for itself," Cormier told Bleacher Report. "I've beaten 'Bigfoot' Silva, Frank Mir, Jeff Monson and Josh Barnett. I think all of those guys at one point have fought for the UFC championship, two of which held the title at one time. My body of work should speak for itself. As long as I'm winning fights and winning rounds, nothing else matters in that regard. I haven't lost a single round in any of my 12 fights. As long as I'm winning decisively, then everything is okay.
"Yes, there was some pressure going into that fight, but with success comes expectation. If you are not ready to deal with that then why would you train so hard to obtain success? Winning is the most important thing. Obviously, you always want to give the fans a great fight, and I try to do that every time out. I honestly try to put on the most entertaining fight possible in there. If you have a great dance partner and someone who can bring the best out of you, you're going to have a great fight.
"If you have two guys willing to go at it, magic can be made, but winning is the first thing that needs to happen in all situations. Not many guys are undefeated, and staying undefeated matters to me. That zero on the right side of my record is big, man. I'll tell you one thing for sure though... I'm trying, man. I'm trying to finish my opponent every second I'm out there."
While obtaining a lofty ranking the divisional hierarchy by defeating Mir was a solid step, his route going forward was far from clear-cut.
With close friend and teammate Cain Velasquez holding the heavyweight strap, a run for the throne was out of the question for Cormier.
Nevertheless, the team of people helping Cormier navigate his career had already planned for such a scenario, and a re-route of course into light heavyweight waters became the charted destination.
While shooting for the 205-pound weight limit was going to be a task in itself, Cormier decided it was a path best traveled at a suitable pace.
With that in mind, he decided one more bout at heavyweight would be the appropriate next move, and the man he wanted to face inside the cage was Roy Nelson.
The TUF winner and the former Olympian had been exchanging barbs for months, and now with their date to dance set for this Saturday night in Houston, the opportunity to settle all beefs is rapidly approaching.
"All the talk is good, but once the contract is signed, there is no reason to talk anymore," Cormier said.
"On October 19, Roy and I have to get into the cage and settle any differences we have. I always say, in life, if you and I get into a tiff or an argument, we can scream at each other and get in one another's face, but we cannot come to blows because we'll go to jail. And that's never good.
"But in the rare case—like my job—two guys can say whatever we want to one another, and then we get to handle it. We don't necessarily have to be adults. We get to go inside a cage, handle our differences and punch each other in the face. There is nothing better, and there is no reason to talk anymore. We have our time to settle this thing between us, and it's Oct. 19 in Houston."
In facing "Big Country," Cormier will undergo another stern test inside the cage. Where the former IFL champion has settled plenty of past opposition with a brick of an overhand right, the Las Vegas native is far from a one-trick pony.
Nelson has consistently hovered in the top 10 of the weight class since winning the 10th installment of The Ultimate Fighter.
The 36-year-old was settling challengers left and right, racking up three consecutive victories all by way of first round knockout, as he moved closer to a shot at the heavyweight title. That progress was halted at UFC 161 when he lost a unanimous decision to Stipe Miocic in Winnipeg, a fight Nelson took on with two weeks notice.
While the heavy-handed knockout artist may be regarded for his biggest weapon, Cormier refuses to make the mistake of overlooking all the tools the Renzo Gracie black belt possesses.
"He does a lot of things very well," Cormier said about Nelson. "Not only does he have that big punch, but he's also a great grappler. He's won some big competition in that field, he's very strong, and he has very efficient wrestling.
"People talk about the knockout power of Roy Nelson, but if you think about his time on The Ultimate Fighter, he didn't knock everybody out. He would take them down, get top position which is the ultimate position because there is nothing worse than getting in a crucifix. He was able to do that countless times against great fighters. That in itself shows there is a lot of diversity in his game. There are a lot of things about Roy Nelson I've got to be prepared for, and I believe I am."
While preparing for the challenges a seasoned veteran the likes of Nelson presents, Cormier relied on his teammates at AKA to get him ready for the fight.
The facility in San Jose has long been recognized as one of the premier collectives in all of MMA, but the core group has changed over the past couple years as signature members of the team have moved on to different phases in their careers.
That said, of the group that remains, heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez has become Cormier's primary sparring partner and one of his closest friends.
With both fighters heading into huge showdowns at UFC 166, the training experience for this camp was a unique setting as Velasquez will look to keep his foothold as the king of the division and Cormier will look to add another high-profile name to his resume.
Where two of the UFC's best heavyweights are helping to push the gym to the next level, Velasquez and Cormier are not alone in their efforts.
AKA has a new look these days, and Cormier believes their "second wave" is a group that will keep the future of the gym shining bright for years to come.
"I look around from when I started four years ago and the gym has changed," Cormier said. "It has changed around us. A lot of the older faces are kind of moving on, and I think that is just what happens. Guys like [Jon] Fitch, [Mike] Swick, [Josh] Thomson and [Josh] Koscheck started it and came running out the gates to let everyone know AKA is a great gym.
"Now we have guys like Cain and myself, Luke Rockhold and Josh Thomson is still here. We've picked up great guys like Gray Maynard, and we're lucky the level of talent was so high it brought all of us with it. We have guys like Tyson Griffin and Khabib Nurmagomedov in the gym. The faces have changed, but the strength of the gym has stayed the same.
"Greg Jackson's gym is not powerful because of the guys who started it," he added. "That was Keith Jardine and Rashad Evans. Those guys have moved on, and now there are new faces in that gym that keep it one of the top gyms in the sport. Times change, people move on and new people have to step in and step up to maintain the level of excellence that has been set in that place. When you don't have that second wave of guys who step up, you'll see gyms fall off. At AKA, we've been lucky not to have that."
On Saturday night, Cormier will square-off with Nelson in the co-main event at UFC 166.
While their bout is still several days away, so many questions are already swirling about what move will come next for the undefeated prospect turned contender.
With Velasquez holding the title, Cormier has silenced any potential talk of facing his teammate inside the cage. This scenario prompted a potential drop down to light heavyweight to face Jon Jones for his strap, which a move Cormier himself as added validity to.
Yet, in a strange turn of fate, the 205-pound title picture has grown cloudy in the aftermath of Jones versus Gustafsson at UFC 165, and an immediate title shot at light heavyweight doesn't appear likely if he were to drop down a weight class after Saturday night.
While all the talk of possibilities and hypothetical scenarios brings excitement, the fact remains that he must first get through Nelson.
If he's able to accomplish that feat, then he'll take the next measured step in his plan. If he comes out on the wrong end of the scuffle in Houston... well, he'll handle that as well.
In Cormier's mind, there are no critics or analysts who can fathom the depths he will dig, push and fight to achieve what he's put his mind to.
This is a man who has stared long and hard into the cold face of failure and absolutely refused to allow it to break him. For that, he's already won the biggest fight a man can face, and the rest simply comes down to his ability to mine the talent he knows he possesses into the success he knows is possible.
"As long as I believe in myself, have the team and my family around me; I know what I'm capable of achieving," Cormier said. "I know what is inside of me. I know what I will go through to try to obtain my goals. I know whatever is thrown my way, if I can have these people around me pushing me on a daily basis, I know I can handle anything. Win or lose.
"Roy Nelson could knock me out in 15 seconds on Saturday and my mindset will not change. I'll go back to the gym, and I'll start working to put myself back into the position again where one day I can become the UFC champion. No matter what is thrown my way, I'm going to be ready for it.
"Everything is just happening right as it's supposed to," he added. "My kids are healthy and happy. Salina is happy. My family is happy. My mom is excited she only has to drive three hours to watch me fight instead of having to fly halfway across the country. All my friends and family are going to be there, and everything is happening at the right time. I can almost feel everything coming together, and that's exactly how I want it to be. I know I left everything in the gym. All the preparation is done, and it's going to be up to me to be better than Roy Nelson on Saturday. With that thought, I think I'm ready to get my hand raised again."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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