I had the chance to speak with Strikeforce heavyweight fighter Daniel Cormier a week before his Jan. 7 bout against Devin Cole.
Cormier and Cole with be the co-main event on the Strikeforce Challenger Series card that will take place at Nashville Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn.
Before starting his MMA career in 2009, Cormier was a highly decorated wrestler.
In high school, he compiled a record of 101-9 and won three Louisiana state championships. He captured two junior college national championships and was an NCAA national runner up after transferring to Oklahoma State.
After graduating college, Cormier realized his lifelong dream when he was named to the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Freestyle Wrestling squad.
In 2004 he placed fourth in the Olympics. In 2008 he was named team captain, but had to pull out of the games due to kidney failure.
During his short MMA career, Cormier has gone 6-0 and has only been out of the first round on one occasion, winning three of his fights by knockout and three by submission.
What follows is an almost complete transcript of our lengthy conversation.
TR: What inspired you to make the leap from wrestling to mixed martial arts?
DC: It was a few things, after I was done with my last Olympic cycle I wasn’t doing anything competitively. I had a full-time job and it just wasn’t for me.
The whole time that was happening, I was working every morning at a television station, King Mo (Muhammed Lawal), who’s one of my better friends, is in my ear saying, “You could be good at this, it’s fun, it’s good, it’s competitive.”
So I have two ends of the spectrum. On one, I’m getting up every morning at six o’clock and getting my clothes ready and going to an office every day.
On the other hand, I’ve got a friend getting these large sums of money doing exactly what we did our whole lives with wrestling and he’s in my ear telling me I can do it. Eventually I have a person on each shoulder and his side won.
It’s so much better than sitting in Stillwater, Okla., working from 8:00 a.m. until three in the afternoon every day.
TR: What was the hardest transition from the wrestling background to mixed martial arts?
DC: The hardest part was striking. Not getting hit, because I was never really afraid of getting hit and if I was, I never would have made it. When I got here (American Kickboxing Academy) some of the better guys were in camp. Cain (Velasquez) was getting ready to fight Ben Rothwell, Luke Rockhold was getting ready to fight (Cory) Devela.
The better fighters were getting ready and they needed sparring partners, so I had to get in there. I was thrown in the fire right away. Jiu Jitsu’s hard, but it’s a lot like top and bottom wrestling.
TR: Do you think wrestling is a good place to start for MMA?
DC: Honestly, if I could chose for anyone, if I could chose for my kids, my son, I would say, “You wrestle if you want to be a mixed martial artist.” I think it’s the best thing because not only do you control where the fight takes place, but you learn how to train.
It’s a lifestyle to wrestle, especially at a high level. Jiu Jitsu’s kind of a laid-back type of art, it’s kind of slow.
Wrestling has to be the best base, not only because of your ability to take a guy down, but your ability to train and live the life of a fighter.
It’s hard on you to go through wrestling practices for 10-12 years of your life. I honestly believe it’s the best base to begin with.
TR: How do you feel your progression has been? From your first fight to your last fight and training for your fight with Devin Cole on Jan. 7 at the Strikeforce Challengers?
DC: It’s night and day. My first fight was at Strikeforce Challengers on Sept. 25 of last year and it played on Showtime just recently and I was like, man, I had no idea what I was doing.
I was literally four weeks in. I just went out there and did it. Bob Cook is a really good corner man and he told me that if I got in trouble he could talk me through any situation and I trust that he would have if I ran into any trouble in that first fight.
It’s night and day from when I fought then to when I fight now. I feel more confident because I have confidence in my training situation. I have confidence in Cain and Luke and Kyle Kingsbury and Bobby Southworth.
I have confidence when I’m training with those guys that I’m getting better every day. I have confidence in them so it allows me to feel confident when I step into the cage.
I honestly scared myself when I fought my last fight in Australia against Soa Palelei, I had no nerves. I told Bob, It’s insane how comfortable I am going into this cage, I’m not even nervous.
My first time I had a panic attack, I literally caught a panic attack. I was hyperventilating before my first fight.
Now I’m confident in my partners, my coaches and everyone around me to prepare me and give me the best opportunity to win these fights and compete.
TR: Bob Cook had you on a pretty crazy schedule early on (three fights in less than a month and five in less than eight months). How did you get a break this long (two months) between these last two fights?
DC: He got his name (Crazy Bob Cook) for a reason, this guy is crazy. People don’t know his backstory. The guy would work in the mountains, cutting trees all day from 5:00 am to 3:00 pm and drive to AKA and train with Frank Shamrock and those guys at night.
That’s why they called him “Crazy Bob.” The guy was driving five or six hours a day to train and then getting up in the morning and cutting trees.
Sometimes you got to watch him a little bit. He’ll lead you down the path, but he’ll never give you more than he thinks you can handle.
He knows that I’m a competitive person and he figured that with the ability that I had, he figured I could get through these fights and he’s extremely confident in himself. I’ve seen him walk guys through a lot of situations in their fights when they’re in trouble.
From July 31 to Aug. 21, I fought three times and then I got September and October off, which wasn’t really off since Cain was getting ready for his fight with Brock Lesnar, so I was training with him every day.
Then for the Nov. 5 fight to get scheduled was right back-to-back. The funny thing with that was I was getting ready for the Houston fight, and they were all running together, the November fight was already scheduled.
You don’t have any down time between camps. Again, I attribute that to my wrestling background, a lot of guys couldn’t do that mentally, much less physically.
Because of the ability to wrestle at a high level, week in and week out, it allowed me to get ready. With that being said, I was exhausted mentally after Houston.
The fights were fast, but it was the adrenaline dump after every fight and not being able to recover from it. I was back in the gym because I had to be ready to fight the next fight. So after Houston I was just exhausted.
Luke and I were in New Mexico after the Tony Johnson fight (Aug. 13), and he said, “Do you realize that you have another fight next week.”
At that point it began to sink in that that was something I probably was not going to do again.
TR: Looking back, do you think that lack of training between fights helped or hurt?
DC: I think it helped with experience. I’m sitting here at the end of my first year at 6-0. You got to think, I could be 2-0 or 3-0 at this point.
I would have fought in August of last year, March of this year and I wouldn’t have fought again until August of this year, so in a year I would have only had three fights.
Now I’m way ahead of the curve. A lot of guys don’t get six fights in a year.
I think it helped with experience with being in the cage. You can stand in practice with Cain Velasquez, but you don’t know how you’re going to handle situations like that when it’s under the bright lights inside a cage.
I’m grateful for it for the experience. It was a lot of cage time and I think it helped me in terms of visibility and my ability to compete at a level that is really high for me right now. It helped me prepare for the unexpected.
TR: Out of all those fights that were running together you won the Xtreme MMA title and the King of the Cage title and now you’re fighting for Strikeforce Challengers.
Do you have any plans for the titles or are you just going to go with what Bob Cook lines up?
DC: I’m going to buy in to what Bob tells me. I’ve done it so far and he’s led me down the right path. In terms of Xtreme MMA and King of the Cage, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
I’m hoping that my career takes off with Strikeforce where I won’t necessarily have to fight overseas and do that 17-hour flight to Australia as much as I have been.
But the Xtreme MMA guys have been great to me. Terry from King of the Cage has been great to me. They’ve given me opportunities to fight, gave me the opportunity to get my fight on HDNet so people can see the progression and I appreciate them for it.
When people do things like that for you, you’re willing to do things for them in return. So, if Bob says, “Daniel, we’re fighting in Australia in February.” I guess we’re fighting in Australia in February.
I’m not going to be a guy that tries to dictate their career path. These guys are in the position they are in for a reason, they know how to get a guy to become a champion.
They did it with Cain, they did it with multiple guys, Jon Fitch, Mike Swick, Josh Koscheck, Josh Thomson. They know what they’re doing, so I’m just going to trust in that.
TR: Have you had any contact with Strikeforce about moving up to the big cards or are they planning to keep you on the Challenger Series for a little while longer?
DC: I don’t know. I don’t necessarily know what the plan is with Strikeforce. I think I’m in a pretty good situation with Strikeforce, me along with Tyron Woodley. I think that he and I have been two of the guys that have fought more than anybody in Strikeforce in the last year.
This is going to be my fourth fight in the last year and half in Strikeforce. I’m in a really good situation with them, they’ve taken really good care of me. They’ve given me the fights that I should be fighting at every step of my career and they’ve done a great job of progressing me.
If I get through this next fight with a victory, I imagine they are going to move me up to the next step. When you think about the guy I’m fighting now, Devin Cole, whose fought (Rafael) Feijao, whose fought Ben Rothwell, whose fought Jeff Monson, whose beat Mike Kyle, you got to think I’m going to be fighting someone pretty good after beating him.
If I was to speak about it from the outside in, with a good showing on this card, which is on Showtime’s free preview weekend, I would be moving up to the next level.
TR: Your fight with Cole is going to be on Showtime?
DC: Showtime is free that weekend, so the fight is going to be available to anyone with cable. It’s an honor to be fighting on Showtime.
This is an opportunity for me to get some exposure and show what I’ve learned in this great gym. I think we have the best gym in the world, the most well-rounded guys, the best family oriented situation in terms of training partners and family.
TR: Speaking about training, since you haven’t been out of the second round, do you feel that you are ready to go three if needed?
DC: I train hard. I get in there and do my three rounds and I bust my tail and then I get down and spar on the side and then we do our cardio. I hit mitts, I do everything to prepare myself.
I like to think of it as this, when you get into that situation and you’re dog-tired and your arms are burning, your opponent’s arms are burning, too. Who’s going to be the bigger man in that situation?
You got to think about it, they are locking you in a cage and may the best man come out with his hand raised. In those situations I feel pretty confident. I’m going to get my hand raised, I’m going to compete, I’m a competitor.
Will that always equal victory? No, maybe not, but I’m going to give myself the best opportunity, I leave no stone unturned. I train hard and I do the things necessary to compete at a high level.
If this thing goes three rounds, I’ll be okay. To go three rounds with the guys I train with in my gym on a daily basis, it’s harder than most people fight in the actual cage.
It helps to know that when I look across the cage, I’m not looking at Cain. If there’s a moment when you start to doubt yourself, you go, this ain’t Cain Velasquez, so why shouldn’t I be able to compete?
I fight the No. 1 heavyweight in the world on a daily basis.
TR: Has your training changed as you’ve started to fight more experienced guys like Devin Cole?
DC: I’m more focused. Devin Cole is going to be a really tough fight. This guy has been in there with some really tough fighters. This is nothing to him to fight on a big stage like this. He fought multiple times in the IFL.
Devin Cole is a wrestler too and he’s confident in his abilities, so I’ve worked extremely hard. I’m trying to prepare myself for all situations. Hopefully that’s enough. I’m giving myself the best chance.
TR: Are you happy with the accelerated pace your career’s been on?
DC: It’s going great. Like I said when I first started, I’m 30 years old, most guys are starting now at 21. Look at that Oliveira kid in the UFC. He’s fighting on main cards in the UFC at 21 years old.
I started at a late age, so I have to fight at an accelerated pace. I have to do what I’m doing in order to get to the point where Scott Coker (Strikeforce CEO) and Bob feel comfortable putting me across the cage against some of the best fighters in the world.
I don’t think it’s very far off for them to say, “D.C, it’s time to step up and fight these dudes.” And when that time comes, I got to be prepared.
It’s accelerated, but it’s what’s needed, because how long can I really fight? I’m 31 years old. Not everybody is Randy Couture where he started at 30 and went 17 years. I can’t sit here and trick myself into believing that my window is as big as Luke Rockhold’s, when he’s 24 years old.
TR: How have things changed at AKA since Cain’s win?
DC: It’s been the same. We’ve had guys come in, but we’ve always had guys come in. Phil Baroni did his camp here (for UFC 125), we always have guys coming in, Tyron Woodley was here for a while.
Cain handles everything in stride, nothing changes that guy, he’s like a modern-day Fedor (Emelianenko), he just takes it in stride. He’s never going to change.
As high as we all got for Cain winning his championship is as low as we got for Josh Koscheck losing his title shot (against UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre).
It kind of balances out, we’re hoping for Fitch to get past B.J. (Penn) and getting another shot at the title. We’re looking at Josh Thomson getting through his fight this weekend (Thomson lost to Tatsuya Kawajiri at Dymamite!! 2010 after this interview) and getting another shot at Gilbert (Melendez, Strikeforce lightweight champion).
Luke Rockhold is maybe a fight away from fighting for the Strikeforce middleweight championship as soon as he’s healthy.
We’ve got a lot of guys that have title shots on the horizon. It’s real easy to train with guys that have the same ultimate goal and that’s to be a champion.
TR: I know you worked with Cain on his wrestling before the Lesnar fight. Have you entertained thoughts of becoming a trainer?
DC: I’m focused on the fighting, but I’m the wrestling coach at the gym now. I run all of our wrestling, which is great for me because I want to do the things that I feel are necessary to prepare me for those better fighters and now all the guys are coming along for the ride.
They’ve all bought in completely and the best thing about that is it’s a realization by guys that say “We’re going to buy into what Daniel’s saying, because he reached the pinnacle of our sport.”
The great thing about being at AKA is that there are a lot of wrestlers. Koscheck was a National Champion, Cain was a multiple All-American, Thomson wrestled in college, Fitch wrestled in college.
All of our guys wrestled at some point in their career so they look at me, who reached the pinnacle of our sport, going to the Olympics and they completely bought in.
We’ve really focused on our wrestling and our guys are getting a lot better. It’s amazing. I love what they’ve done and the commitment and dedication that they’ve given towards me and the wrestling program that we’re developing at AKA.
TR: What do you think your future holds? Big picture, long term.
DC: Big picture, I’m going to be the champion of the world. I think if you ever shoot for anything less, you’re cheating yourself.
Shoot for perfection and if you accomplish excellence, hey, that’s better than most people ever get.
When I was a kid, when I was in college and I said I want to be an Olympic Champion, it allowed me to become a multiple National Champion, it allowed me to make multiple world teams.
But if I would have said, in high school, that I want to be an NCAA All-American, I never could have accomplished my goals.
For me, I want to be the best in the world in everything I do. My goal is to be the Strikeforce heavyweight champion of the world.
TR: Anything to add?
DC: I just want to say some thanks to a couple of my sponsors. Cage Hero, Unbreakable Mouthguards. Just kind of say thanks for all the support. My management team, Zinkin Entertainment, I just want to thank everyone that supports me. And the fans, thanks for all the support.
The Strikeforce Challengers event will air on Friday, Jan. 7, live on Showtime (11 p.m. ET/PT.) Showtime is offering a free preview this weekend, starting on Friday and running through Monday.