Daniel Cormier met Rashad Evans during his senior year at Oklahoma State.
Evans was a Michigan State wrestler, and his school dual meet against Cormier's Oklahoma State team. Cormier was wrestling one of Evans's teammates and friends. Cormier was ranked third in the country, and Evans's teammate had a losing record. What probably should not have been a close match ended up being one, and Cormier only won by a single point.
"It was tough, because Rashad never let me live that down," Cormier says.
Cormier and Evans have remained friends ever since. They talk on the phone. They text. Or, they do when they are not training to fight each other, as they will do next week at UFC 170 in Las Vegas. Right now, there is silence between Cormier and Evans. It is a decision made solely by Cormier, who still receives texts from Evans but chooses not to answer them. He is ignoring his friend, he says, because it will be easier to fight him.
The pair did not want to fight each other, but they were not given a choice. The UFC told each of them that there were no other options, and the fight was happening whether they liked it or not. And so Cormier immediately shifted into fight-camp mode, preparing himself mentally for the night he will stand across the cage from his friend.
It has not been easy.
"It's been tough. But at the end of the day, it's our job to fight. When the UFC said that we were fighting, they told us we didn't have any other options," Cormier says. "This was happening whether or not we wanted it. I think we both took the correct approach and started training the right way.
Though he isn't actively talking to his friend, Cormier still keeps tabs on Evans. Cormier says that Evans looks "jacked," which is a true statement. Evans is indeed jacked. And Cormier knows that his friend represents what will easily be the toughest test of his career so far.
"I think Rashad is training hard. I know that I've trained hard. It's tough, but I think we've gotten through it," he says. "We've gotten to the point where we are going to go in there and put on a really good show."
Cormier is eating a salad as he talks to me. He was never much of a salad guy before he started his drop to light heavyweight, but he is very much a salad guy now. He is on a strict dietary schedule, and every meal is meticulously designed to help him reach 205 pounds on February 22. He was not used to the nature of diets, and the thing he misses the most is simply being able to eat whatever he wants, whenever he wants to eat it.
He is currently 217 pounds, but has been as low as 209.5 pounds in recent days. His goal is to hover around 215 pounds until next week, when he starts his real weight cut. He hopes to shed the weight, then put it all back on and step in the Octagon weighing 225 pounds.
Who wins this fight?
He has closely followed Evans's career since it began. I ask him what he thinks is the biggest moment of Evans's career, and the answer is surprising.
"A lot of people would say it was when he won the championship. It's easy to say that was his biggest moment. But that's not what I feel it was. I think his biggest moment was probably knocking out Chuck Liddell," Cormier says. "Rashad had won the Ultimate Fighter, which was big. He'd won every fight up until then, which was big. But when he knocked out Chuck?
"This was when Chuck was considered one of the best pound for pound fighters in the world. And for Rashad to do what he did to him, I think he truly introduced himself as a superstar."
Evans is indeed a superstar, and Cormier is acutely aware that he's facing one of the better light heavyweights in UFC history. A victory over Evans would place Cormier within shouting distance of a grudge match with reigning champion and current pound for pound kingpin Jon Jones. But more importantly, it is another step on the road to redemption from Cormier's weight-cutting snafu in the 2008 Olympic games. It is a chance to set the record straight.
"I think it's a huge chance, for myself, to prove that I can do anything I set my mind to. Getting over the mental hurdle of having to lose more weight than I have in my life was big," Cormier says. "It's a chance to get it right, man."
Cormier says that the conclusion of his wrestling career was one of the hardest things he has ever dealt with, outside of losing family members to tragedy. He woke up every morning and looked in the mirror, and he did not like what he saw: a man that cost himself the chance to win an Olympic gold medal.
What he sees now, though, is a man who is doing everything the right way. The way he should've done things the last time around.
"In wrestling, I left a lot of things on the table. That's my biggest fear in mixed martial arts," he says. "I don't know if me being the UFC champion is in the cards. But I want to give myself the best possible chance to accomplish that.
"If I do that, and I walk away and it hasn't happened? I can live with that. I just don't want to live with regret like I did after my wrestling career. "