UFC's Million-Dollar Friendship: Heavyweights Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterOctober 17, 2013

The trash talk flows easily when two of the best mixed martial artists on the planet square off. Punches will soon be flying too, but first the words come at a frenetic pace.

One man blatantly mispronounces his opponent's name, a huge insult to his proud Mexican-American heritage. The other responds with a taunt about his rival's receding hairline. With that, the two clash, a collision of superheroes that wouldn't be out of place in a summer blockbuster.

The catch?

Only a handful of people are watching this fight between UFC heavyweights Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier. And not a single one paid a dime for a fight that would conservatively draw hundreds of thousands of viewers and millions of dollars on pay-per-view. When it's all over, the two men will smile, hug it out and go out for barbecue.

Welcome to the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif.

"Monday, Wednesday and Friday I've got ringside seats for the best fight there is in the heavyweight division," head coach Javier Mendez said. "I get to see it with my own eyes."

Velasquez and Cormier are amazing friends. Like brothers, they say. But that doesn't mean they intend to make things easy on one another.

When the two spar, whether it's wrestling or MMA, action in the gym tends to stop or at least slow to a trickle as other fighters and trainers sneak looks. It's not often, after all, that you see the greatest big men in the world duke it out for nothing, going hard for 15 minutes at a time three days a week.

"There's definitely those days the whole gym wants to come over and watch sparring," manager and trainer Bob Cook admits. "These two guys have been competing for so long they don't know anything else."

Velasquez, the UFC heavyweight champion, will defend his title against former champion Junior dos Santos Saturday in Houston, Texas, at UFC 166. Right before his teammate comes to the cage, Cormier will take on perennial contender Roy Nelson in another high-level heavyweight scrap.

Both men expect the contest in the Octagon to be the easy part of their journey.

"The hardest fights I've had have been in the gym, not in the cage," Velasquez told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "It keeps you motivated. One day you'll go in and feel like you can beat anybody in the world. The next day you kind of get humbled. That's what keeps us coming back to train more and more. I'm not at the top every day. Some days he'll get the better of me. That makes you the best you can be."

For Cormier, Velasquez's mere presence at the gym is a daily wake-up call, a walking and breathing example of how hard you have to work to stay at the top and a reminder of how good his opponents in the Octagon are going to be.

"It's kind of a priceless thing. Not many people have that," Cormier said. "It's good to have someone you can relate to. You're doing the same things, you know? Just being in the gym every day with someone with goals in common is special. That's what really ties us together: the fact that we both want to be the best in the world. When you find someone, and they see that in you and you recognize it in them, it's easy to jell with that person."


The beginning

In many ways, the friendship between the two men defied the odds. After all, in the talent-thin heavyweight division, it seemed obvious that the two would be pegged to compete against each other someday. For most fighters, having a potential opponent in the gym leads to reticence, to giving less than your all. To withholding information and assistance.

Cain Velasquez is not most fighters.

"Right off the bat they began sharing. Cain started showing Daniel stuff right away. And Daniel started, right away, to help Cain improve his wrestling," Mendez said. "They were open with each other despite knowing full well that they might fight somewhere down the line. It meant a lot to Daniel that Cain opened up his arms to him and showed him everything."

As Velasquez explained, however, there was an element of self-interest to his selflessness.

"You always try to make your teammates better," Velasquez said. "You help out your teammates, and they help you out in return. As they get better and better, they can help you more and more. At least I've always seen it that way."

The bond between the two was immediate and fierce. Manager DeWayne Zinkin attributes it to an understanding forged in common experience. Both were All-American wrestlers. Each knew what the other had put in to earn those credentials, making it a relationship built on a foundation of mutual respect.

"There was such a great camaraderie right away," Zinkin said. "They were both aware of each other and their accomplishments in the wrestling world. And they took to each other right away and helped each other out tremendously. So much of their success has come from being in the gym together everyday.

"They immediately became each other's coaches. Cain helped Daniel get up to speed in terms of the striking. And Cain got not just a great sparring partner but also a great coach. Because Daniel was used to competing at such a high level of wrestling."

For Cormier, that speed was of the essence. Less than a month after entering the gym for the first time, he had a fight on the docket. Already 30 after two Olympic cycles, he didn't have much time left in his athletic prime to get up to snuff. He needed to run with the wolves immediately.

Velasquez's support made that possible.

"I would have never gotten to this place without him," Cormier said. "When I came into the gym, I wasn't just some guy. I was a two-time Olympian. There was a decent chance that I'd be okay at this sport. But he never viewed me as a potential opponent down the line. He just tried to help me.

"I remember at the old gym when it was just me, him, his wife and Javier Mendez. And we would just wrestle. Trying to get better. When someone does something like that for me, it stays with me."

It helped, of course, that Cormier was a gifted natural fighter and an athlete with an uncanny ability to quickly pick up, process and utilize any technique he came in contact with. Almost immediately he shattered the wrestler stereotype, incorporating fluid punches and even kicks into his arsenal.

"Daniel would pick up a technique and use it in sparring later that same day. Which is unheard of," Mendez said. "More than that, Daniel would watch somebody do something and then go use it in sparring effectively. Normally it takes weeks to incorporate things like that. He's a pupil I just kind of let go to learn on his own. Then I would help him perfect what he was learning. That's how easy it was to train Daniel."

"Wrestlers may make great fighters. But that doesn't mean all wrestlers are fighters," Cook said. "Both these guys were natural fighters. As soon as they started, you could immediately see the potential that they had to be special. From the very beginning, without really knowing anything, they had the ability to compete at a very high level. Just basically walking out of wrestling."


On the mat

Velasquez also saw an almost immediate return on his investment in Cormier.

The Olympian became a coach as well as a sparring dummy, helping take Velasquez's already superb wrestling to the next level. It's the little things, he says, that separate Cormier from other wrestling coaches he's had—including his ability to get on the mat and demonstrate the practices he preaches.

"He makes sure your hands are in the right place. That your head and body are in the right place," Velasquez said, revealing there's no such thing as an easy takedown when working with Cormier. "He makes sure you're doing things the right way, not just sitting there holding the leg. He wants me in there driving, trying to get a takedown."

The battles between the two on the wrestling mat, most often on Saturdays, have become almost as legendary as their MMA sparring. Egged on by Mendez, the two men compete with an intensity that borders on the supernatural—but never crosses the line toward unfriendly or angry.

"It started when I said to Daniel, 'Cain's going to take you down.' He said, 'No he's not, Jav.' And he didn't. Not that day," Mendez said. "They love challenges. It's all friendly. There's never any rivalry between them, but they are both so competitive. It's in their nature. If one gets the takedown, the other has to get him back. They aren't going to let it slide."

Velasquez admits that Cormier has pushed him harder than anyone else, often getting the better of their wrestling exchanges. But it's a positive frustration, one that has only made him improve his own game to compete. Today, he says, it's much more even than it was a few years ago when they first started sparring.

"It's hard for both of us. We know each other so well that it's very hard to get one over on the other," Velasquez said. "We'll both get takedowns here or there, but it's tough. My technique has to be on, and my game plan has to be on to take Daniel down. You have to set up the right technique to get that takedown. It can't just be any shot. You have to really set it up."


Brother vs. brother

May 19, 2012; San Jose, CA, USA; Josh Barnett (right) fights Daniel Cormier (left) during the heavyweight tournament final bout of the Strikeforce World Grand Prix at HP Pavilion.  Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On May 19, 2012, less than three years after taking up the sport, Cormier beat former UFC champion Josh Barnett to become the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix champion. Fellow Strikeforce champions Gilbert Melendez and Nick Diaz parlayed similar success and title accolades on Showtime into UFC title shots.

For Cormier, however, it was never an option, even if it meant leaving a fortune on the table. The champion in his division, after all, was Velasquez.

"Daniel had it in his mind that he would never fight Cain," Mendez said. "He's never forgotten what Cain did for him and has been planning for this move to the 205-pound division for a while. These two great warriors will never fight each other because they don't have to. One of them can make the light heavyweight division."

To Cormier, it's not really much of a sacrifice. If things go perfectly, both men, and the entire team, will benefit.

"I still have a chance to be UFC champion. Just in another weight division. So I'm not giving up much, not really. I'm just not fighting my buddy," he said.

Even the dreaded weight cut won't be as bad as he feared. He's already started preparing his body for a 20-pound drop, and it hasn't been nearly as dreadful as anticipated.

"Food doesn't necessarily have to suck in order to be healthy," Cormier said. "It doesn't have to be terrible to be healthy anymore."

He's also already laid the ground work for a future fight with light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. To Cook, it's a move that makes sense.

"He is only 5'10"," he said with a laugh, pointing out that Cormier's natural size makes him better suited for the light heavyweight division anyway. "I think Daniel is definitely one of those guys in the Randy Couture mold who is capable of fighting the best guys in both weight classes."


Iron sharpens iron

For now, at least, both are still heavyweights, preparing side by side for fights that are among the biggest of their respective careers. For their coaches, it's a relationship that has turned into a godsend. Rather than desperately search for someone who can keep up with them during the daily eight-week grind en route to the cage, the two can rely on each other.

"It's fantastic. I don't have to look for many sparring partners; I've already got two great ones," Mendez said. "It's not just having someone to fill three rounds; it's the level. Daniel is one of the best. It would be like having Jon Jones and (UFC welterweight legend) GSP at the same weight and them sparring three times a week. That's what I equate it to."

"They're sparring, grappling, wrestling, doing jiu-jitsu," Cook said. "They're doing it all. There's no higher level of competition for either than each other."

"Then they go back in the gym in the evening to do cardio together," Zinkin added.

Cormier says it's a partnership that pays dividends in the short and long term.

"When you have high-level guys around you, you can get good fast," he said. "We're here every day, even when we aren't in fight camp. Trying to get better. Trying to learn."

On the surface, the friends are the consummate odd couple. Cormier is outgoing and never at a loss for words. Velasquez is all business, his intensity and workouts legendary even in a sport that seems to attract people with an unhealthy drive and work ethic.

"Daniel is constantly the prankster. He's the one always talking and joking around," Cook said. "But, secretly, Cain has a little of that too."

Lately, the conversation, and the ball-busting, has revolved around motorcycles, or, more specifically, what counts as a legitimate bike and what doesn't.

"Daniel wants to be part of the motorcycle club," Cook said. "But he wants to ride one of those three-wheelers from Eastbound & Down. Cain doesn't think that counts."

"My wife wanted to get one of those too," Velasquez joked. "That shows you that they aren't really motorcycles. I said, 'If you get that, you've got to ride in the back.' Not in the front. Not in the middle. All the way in the back. That's not a bike. You can be in the carpool lane with that thing."

As the fights loom, the joking is now at a minimum. The two men, connected at the hip for months, will enter their own fight-week bubbles. It's time, now, for action. And, coaches say, when the lights are brightest, both are at their best.

"There are so many guys who are great in the workout room but can't pull the trigger when it counts," Zinkin said. "These are guys who both perform very well and have for years in wrestling. All of that experience, doing it when it counts, translates over to MMA. When it's time to perform, these guys are performers. You can always count on them showing up on fight night."


Cormier and Velasquez headline UFC 166 this Saturday on pay-per-view. Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's Lead Combat Sports Writer. All quotes were gathered firsthand.


    MMA's Top Disappointments

    MMA logo

    MMA's Top Disappointments

    Matthew Ryder
    via Bleacher Report

    Leslie Smith Plans Legal Action Against UFC

    MMA logo

    Leslie Smith Plans Legal Action Against UFC

    MMA Fighting
    via MMA Fighting

    Lewis Wants to Knock Out 'Wife Beater' Hardy

    MMA logo

    Lewis Wants to Knock Out 'Wife Beater' Hardy

    Christopher Simpson
    via Bleacher Report

    Winners and Losers from Atlantic City

    MMA logo

    Winners and Losers from Atlantic City

    Scott Harris
    via Bleacher Report