The Olympian

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterDecember 31, 2014

Daniel Cormier, right, reacts as the referee stops his UFC 170 mixed martial arts light heavyweight fight against Patrick Cummins on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
Photo courtesy Daniel Cormier

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Daniel Cormier slumps in a metal folding chair. He leans his head back, blood pouring from his nose. A cutman shoves Q-tips up his left nostril in an attempt to stop the bleeding.

Moments earlier, Cormier was in a cage at American Kickboxing Academy. After going three rounds with a near 300-pound super heavyweight, Cormier was sparring with a very small middleweight. He was exhausted but mostly frustrated that he couldn't catch his speedy sparring partner.

He went one way, the middleweight went the same way, and the end result was Cormier dripping blood all over the floor.

His nose is not broken, which is a relief. He has traveled great distances to get to this point, and an injury would be heart-wrenching. He came from Lafayette, Louisiana, making stops at Oklahoma State and the United States Olympic team. And now, he's preparing to face Jon Jones for the UFC light heavyweight championship Saturday in Las Vegas at UFC 182.

It is the culmination of a journey filled with tragedy and heartache.


 

Daniel and cousin P.J.
Daniel and cousin P.J.Photo courtesy of Daniel Cormier

On June 14, 2003, Cormier and friends Muhammed Lawal and Jamill Kelly were having a barbecue at Cormier's house. They were grilling chicken. It was a gorgeous day. There was one week before the world wrestling team trials, and life could not be better.

All three were wrestling on the international level by this point, and Cormier had become one of the best wrestlers in the world. He'd just gotten married to his longtime sweetheart, Robin. He had a new daughter named Kaedyn, born in March to Cormier and Carolyn Flowers, Daniel's former flame at Oklahoma State.

During the barbecue, Cormier's cellphone rang. He picked it up and answered.

It was the Texas Highway Patrol.

There'd been an accident. The air conditioning was not working in Flowers' car that day, so she'd strapped Kaedyn into her car seat in a friend's car and then followed in her own vehicle.

An 18-wheeler struck the car Kaedyn rode in from behind.

Kaedyn died instantly. His beautiful three-month-old daughter was gone, stolen from him on a dusty Texas highway.

Cormier hung up the phone and descended into darkness. He hung black curtains on his windows to keep the light out and to turn the day into night. He stayed inside except for wrestling practices, and in practices he turned angry. He bit his teammates. He punched them in the face. He withdrew from the world team trials the week after Kaedyn's death.

He could barely breathe, much less wrestle.

"How could this happen to such an innocent kid? She never got to experience life. It seemed unfair. But after a point, you have to accept things the way they are. It's life. Not everything works out the way you want it to," Cormier says. "I was so terribly heartbroken. It felt like I was never going to come out of that funk.

"It felt like that place I was in was where I was going to stay for the rest of my life."

Roughly one month after the accident, Coach John Smith—the legendary head of the Oklahoma State wrestling team—called Cormier on the phone.

"I know you don't want to hear this. But if you want to honor your daughter, you're going to have to get back to work and get back to wrestling," Smith told Cormier. "This sport has done everything for you. This sport will help you get through this dark time. But you have to get back to work."


 

Cormier and family
Cormier and familyPhoto courtesy of Daniel Cormier

Kaedyn's death was not Cormier's first brush with tragedy. His father, who separated from his mother when he was young, was murdered when Daniel was just seven years old.

The call came one Thanksgiving Day when Cormier was at his aunt Marjorie's house. The entire family was gathered around the television watching The Color Purple. His mother was called to the phone. When she answered, her face contorted. She began screaming.

The details are murky, much like everything else in Daniel’s memory regarding his father. His dad had gone to a party with his new family. There was an argument and Daniel’s dad ended up dead, made that way by his new father-in-law and the gun he’d pulled as the fight escalated.

It was Daniel's first real experience with death.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Cormier

"As a kid, you're so busy playing around that you don't really understand what somebody passing away actually means," he says. "I don't think that I really, fully understood that I would never see him again."

His grandmother's death, roughly one year after his father's murder, made him cry so much that he came down with brutal migraines that restricted him to his darkened bedroom for days. He remembers those days vividly. But why is he left with just one random memory of the man who fathered him?

"I'm not sure if my memories have just faded away, or if I just didn't spend much time with him. You know what that one memory is? I was a boy, and I guess my dad drove delivery trucks," Cormier says. "One day we were at the truck yard, and we were all just sitting around while he was cleaning his truck, getting it ready for a trip. That's my last memory of my dad.

"I don't know to explain why I lost those memories."


 

Cormier wrestling in high school
Cormier wrestling in high schoolPhoto courtesy of Daniel Cormier

One day when Daniel was 10 years old, he and his cousin P.J. were kicking a football in the street. P.J. had acquired a football tee, but this created a problem. They only had one tee. Both kids wanted to kick the ball, but they had little desire to go and retrieve it.

As these things go, the kids started fighting, right there in the middle of the street. This was a regular occurrence. But this time, they were stopped mid-tussle by the local high school wrestling coach.

"He told us we were going to get in trouble, fighting on the streets," Cormier says. And then the coach offered some advice that would change Cormier’s life forever. "He said we should try wrestling."

The next day, Cormier attended the wrestling practice for the kids' team, the Junior Vikings. The only problem? Cormier didn't realize what kind of wrestling he was getting into.

"We thought we were going to do some pro wrestling," he says with a laugh. "We went in there, and they just tore the s--t out of us. I thought 'Man, this ain't for me.'"

Photo courtesy of Daniel Cormier

But he stuck with it, and he got better. Midway through his first year of wrestling, he made it to the state finals. In his freshman year of high school, he made the varsity team, but his grades were so bad that he couldn't continue.

"I actually failed off the team," he says.

It was not the last time he'd be thrown off the team. The second came during his junior year, when Cormier and a friend decided to celebrate a successful wrestling dual by lighting a smoke bomb on the team bus. He was booted from the team then spent every afternoon staring forlornly into the wrestling room as his teammates practiced. It took several weeks, but the coach finally relented and allowed Cormier back on the squad, with two caveats: He had to clean the mats after every practice, and he had to do extra conditioning work.

Perhaps this is simplifying things, but that smoke bomb led Cormier to Oklahoma State and Athens, Greece, and then the UFC and, if things go according to plan, a world light heavyweight championship belt strapped around his waist on January 3.


 

Photo courtesy of Daniel Cormier

Cormier was never supposed to end up in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He’d gone to Colby Community College because his high school grades were terrible, which kept him out of his first choice, Oklahoma.

But in the end, it was not Stillwater or Oklahoma State that helped make Cormier’s decision. It was Coach Smith.

Smith felt wrestlers should want to come to Oklahoma State, dammit, and should consider it a privilege if he allowed them to do so.

This struck Cormier as different from most recruiters, but it also intrigued him. Here was a man who told him one time that he should come to Oklahoma State and then went radio silent. He simply told Cormier that he believed he was good enough to be a Cowboy and then stopped talking to him altogether.

Take it or leave it. That was Smith's attitude.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Cormier

Cormier decided to take it, committing to Smith and to Oklahoma State. And once he got to the Cowboys wrestling room, he realized he wasn't as good at wrestling as he thought. And he was out of shape. After practice, the coaches would make the team run three miles. Cormier was often picked up by a trailing vehicle, walking on the side of the road. He couldn't finish the runs.

But then Cormier began to embrace the grind, to steal one of his future marketing slogans, and he began to improve at a rapid pace. He put in extra work early in the morning. He started winning matches. And before long, he was facing Cael Sanderson—the greatest collegiate wrestler in history—for the NCAA championship.

He did not beat Sanderson, because nobody beat Sanderson. But even placing highly among his collegiate peers did little to dull the pain of not being the best.


 

Cormier meets former President George H.W. Bush
Cormier meets former President George H.W. BushPhoto courtesy of Daniel Cormier

On July 5, 2003, one month after his daughter's death, Cormier resumed his life. He began seeing a psychiatrist. Lawal, Kelly, Kevin Jackson and his other friends rallied around him. His new wife, Robin, was a godsend.

Two months after the accident, he went to Fargo, North Dakota, to wrestle for a spot on the national team. He faced Dean Morrison, one of the toughest opponents throughout his career. Morrison beat him the first of three matches by clinching him and throwing him on his back.

After the match, Coach Smith and Olympic gold medalist Kenny Monday were waiting for him.

"You need to cowboy up and get this done," Smith told him.

In the second match, Cormier threw Morrison and pinned him. The third and final match would determine who would go on to wrestle at the 2003 Worlds in New York City's Madison Square Garden.

Morrison quickly went up 2-0 on Cormier.

"I told you to cowboy up," Smith told Cormier between rounds. "Get back out there and don't come back to this corner until you get your hand raised."

"And that's exactly what I did," Cormier said. He beat Morrison, advancing and becoming a world medalist. "And from then on, I was on every national team from 2003 to 2008. Out of all the wrestlers in the United States, there were only seven guys who got to go and wrestle in the Olympics. And I was one of those guys."

Cormier went to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. He soaked in the experience and felt the rush that comes from representing one's country at the highest levels of sport. On the wrestling front, he advanced all the way to the semifinals, where he lost to the fearsome Russian Khadzhimurat Gatsalov. He went into the bronze medal match but lost to former world champion Alireza Heydari.

"Throughout my whole entire wrestling career, I think I lost to guys that were just better than me. I can deal with that. When a guy is better, he's better. As long as I give myself the best opportunity to win, I'm OK with that," he says. "Gatsalov was better. Sanderson was better. Heydari was better. These guys were better than me. When I lost to them because they were better, I could deal with that."

But he was not the best, and it ate at him. 


 

Photo courtesy of Daniel Cormier

Beginning in 2006, Cormier began having issues with his weight management. He went to the Uzbekistan Independence Cup but couldn't make weight and was forced to sit out the tournament. The next year, he opted to forgo his usual 96 kg (211.5 pounds) weight class and wrestled at heavyweight.

It was a sign of things to come.

Cormier was a heavy favorite going into the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He was the American team captain, and many expected him to medal. A gold was not out of the question. Wrestling expert and historian Mike Riordan noted how great Cormier's chances were going into the Games in China:

The saddest part about this was the fact that Cormier could have beaten any of the wrestlers in his weight at those Games. Cormier had a previous win over the silver medalist, Kazakhstan's Taimuraz Tigiev, and beat bronze medalist Khetag Gazumov at the 2005 Yarygin. Making matters even worse, perennial Russian 96 kg kingpin Gatsalov didn't even compete in Beijing due to an injury.

But Cormier never got the chance to find out if he'd finally ascended to the top of the wrestling mountain.

On August 20, 2008, he was cutting weight for his match the following day. He managed to hit the targeted weight, but his kidneys shut down hours later. He went to the hospital to have fluids inserted in his body, but it did not help. On the advice of Team USA doctors, Cormier was pulled from the Olympics.

His Olympic dream was over. This time, it was not at the hands of a more talented opponent but because his own body failed him. If he'd won a gold medal in the Olympics, he would've ended his athletic career and found something else to do. Perhaps he would've gone out and looked for a real job.

But he didn't win a gold medal, and the hole inside still existed. He needed to find a new way to quell his competitive drive.

He didn't have to wait long.


 

Cormier proposes to Salina Deleon in 2014
Cormier proposes to Salina Deleon in 2014Photo courtesy of Daniel Cormier

In 2001, former collegiate wrestler Dewayne Zinkin founded a sports management company with Bob Cook, a mixed martial arts veteran who earned the nickname "Crazy" due to his willingness to drive four hours from his home to AKA in order to train. Zinkin Entertainment quickly became a powerhouse firm with deep roots at American Kickboxing Academy, a gym started by Javier Mendez.

Zinkin had followed Cormier's career at Oklahoma State with great interest. He believed that Cormier's style of wrestling would make for an easy transition to mixed martial arts.

"When you're done with your wrestling career, call us," Zinkin told him during a 2002 phone conversation. But there were Olympic teams to make, medals to win and dreams to fulfill.

Six years after that first conversation with Zinkin, Cormier decided he wanted to fight. His wrestling days were over after the Beijing Olympics. He'd ballooned up to 264 pounds and was ready to get back in shape.

Cormier got on the phone with Zinkin and told him he wanted to fight and that he wanted to join AKA.

"This is the call I've been waiting six years for," Zinkin told him.

On his second day in the gym, Cormier was tasked with wrestling against super-prospect Cain Velasquez. Cormier had reached higher wrestling levels than Velasquez, but he was also out of shape. Long before he would win a heavyweight title, Velasquez was already famous for his cardiovascular capabilities.

After a long wrestling session followed by jiu-jitsu class, Cormier was dehydrated. His body cramped. He was taken to a local hospital. Zinkin and Cook arrived after Cormier was already settled in a room.

Cormier and Deleon have two children together.
Cormier and Deleon have two children together.Photo courtesy of Daniel Cormier

"They stripped him down and put him in one of those gowns. I walked into his hospital room, and there's Daniel, lying on the bed, hooked up to an IV," Cook says. "His belly was sticking up higher than anything on the table by the bed, and his ass was hanging out of the hospital gown.

"And I thought to myself: 'Boy, we have a lot of work to do on this one.'"

He was in terrible shape, but he showed the same desire that drove him to compete at the highest levels in wrestling.

"You could see his competitive spirit. I already knew that he had that fighter's mentality," Cook says.

A day or two after the dehydration incident, Cook called Scott Coker, the owner and promoter of Strikeforce. Coker had an event coming up in Stillwater, and he wanted Cormier on the card.

"A month after he was on that gurney in the hospital, when he'd just started training, we had him fighting in the first fight on television," Cook says. "So he got a quick fight camp in. And within a month of his first day of training, we had him walking into the cage for his first televised fight for Strikeforce."

As Cook and Cormier walked to the cage for his first fight, Cormier stopped and turned to his new coach.

"Don't worry, Bob," Cormier said. "I'm a gamer."

He had one month of training, zero amateur fighting experience and was rough around the edges. But on that night, September 25, 2009, Cormier walked in the cage and beat Gary Frazier by TKO in the second round for his first professional win.


 

Photo by Jeremy Botter

Today's American Kickboxing Academy is far different than the motley crew that once assembled at the original gym, in a glass shop on Pearl Avenue. In fact, if you'd visited AKA five years ago, you would hardly recognize most of the faces floating through the new facility.

Gone are Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck and the others who once made up AKA's fearsome roster of fighters. Nowadays, the gym revolves around three highly polished professionals: Cormier, Velasquez and Luke Rockhold. Their faces adorn giant posters that figuratively smack you in the face when you walk in the door.

"It’s the DC, Cain and Luke show," Mendez says. "It’s the changing of the guard."

Everyone knows about AKA's legacy of churning out great fighters. But at its heart, the gym is catered to families. There are wrestling classes and jiu-jitsu and conditioning classes, all aimed at working mothers and fathers who drop the kids off after school and pick them up after they've completed classes of their own. Entire families clad in gis mill about near the front desk, sipping meal-replacement smoothies and interacting with some of the professional fighters on the roster.

Cormier trains three times per day. Unlike many professional fighters who sleep until noon or beyond, Cormier is usually walking out his front door between 6 and 7 a.m. He drives in traffic to Santa Clara for his first training session of the day, usually focused on strength and conditioning, then drives back to the house in more traffic. He rests for a few hours, then heads to AKA for his second session of the day, from 12 to 2 p.m.

Afterward, he heads home to eat, rest and spend time with fiance Salina Deleon and their two children. He met Salina years ago, back when he stayed in Zinkin's home while starting out at AKA. He was instantly smitten.

“Will you take a photo with me? Please?,” Cormier asked her. Deleon wasn't quite sure to make of the request.

"I thought it was kinda cheesy and weird. I wanted to know why he wanted a picture with me. But I said yes,” Salina says. "He had one of his friends take a picture of us. So maybe it was love at first sight?"

Cormier and Deleon talked briefly, and then she left. The next morning, he showed up at her work. He asked her out on a date that night. She said yes. 

They've been together ever since. Last July, he asked her to be his wife. They'll get married after the Jones fight.

In the meantime, she spends her days managing their family around Cormier's schedule. She tries to make sure the kids are awake when he gets home each night. During fight week in Las Vegas, she'll give him space to mentally prepare himself, even staying in a separate hotel room at the MGM Grand. But he knows she's there if he needs to see her.

It is a role she gladly accepts, even though it is not always easy. 

"I used to dread training camps. I would have to brace myself. I would have to be mentally prepared to go in,” Deleon says. “But now I think about how far he’s come and know this is exactly where we dreamed of being with all these opportunities. So I try to be positive about everything, and grateful."

Cormier's wrestling team
Cormier's wrestling teamPhoto by Jeremy Botter

 

By 5:30 p.m., Cormier is back at AKA, putting his kid's wrestling team through its paces.

Coaching the team—made up of local kids ranging from four to 11 years old—is Cormier's way of giving back to the sport that has given him so much.

He has a dedicated wrestling room at AKA. A "Daniel Cormier Wrestling" logo adorns the wall. It is spartan, with nothing but mats on the ground and walls. The room smells terrible in the way a locker room smells terrible, which is to say it smells of hard work and more than a few tears.

On one recent night, Cormier stands in the corner of the room. Packed into the room are 30 kids wearing fight shorts, T-shirts and wrestling boots. They are going through the "Shark Tank," which is a kinder way of describing hell. 

There are two circles of kids on opposite ends of the room. In the center of one circle is a kid who, if you didn't know he's only been wrestling for a year, you'd swear is a seasoned professional. He looks like a wrestler should look, with headgear and shoes and bowed legs. It is easy to imagine a time when his cauliflower ears will begin to develop.

He has muscles with definition. He is six years old.

In the middle of the other circle is Cormier's most veteran team member. He is 11 and has won state championships.

Here is the Shark Tank: At the beginning, one kid from the outside circle strolls into the middle and begins wrestling with either the six-year-old version of Dan Gable or the state champion. They try to pin and throw each other, grunting and sweating. After a few minutes, a horn blows. The kid from the outside circle goes back, and his place is taken by another kid from the outside.

The mini-wrestlers in the middle stay put, because that's the entire point of the Shark Tank. They wrestle multiple opponents in a row, for several minutes at a time, with no rest between rounds.

It is excruciating to watch, especially when you realize these children are doing more athletically in 10 minutes than you have perhaps done in your entire life.

Six-year-old Dan Gable pops up from a takedown and immediately grabs his knee. He is attempting to hold back tears, but, as he is six years old, is unsuccessful. Cormier switches from barking directions to a tone of compassion, ensuring that Mini-Gable is OK.

After a few minutes (and a few leaked tears), Mini-Gable returns to the middle of the pack, ready to take on his next opponent. Cormier goes back to yelling.

The horn sounds.


 

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

After wrestling class, Cormier heads down the hall to AKA's locker room to change clothes for his final session of the day. It is a strategy session where Cormier, Mendez and Cook try to figure out how they'll beat Jon Jones on January 3.

The 6'4", 205-pound Jones is perhaps the greatest mixed martial artist the world has ever seen. Beyond his physical traits—many of which are significant, such as his extensive reach—Jones also possesses the most brilliant mind in the sport.

He spends countless hours poring over fight footage. Before each fight, Jones and his coaches make "playbooks" on his opponents: their weaknesses, their strengths, their mental lapses. He looks for holes to exploit and then uses his endless creativity to beat his opponents at their own game. He has utterly dominated some of the greatest light heavyweight fighters in the history of the sport. 

Who can forget the vision of Jones choking out Lyoto Machida, then casually dropping him on his face and strolling away?

It is an incredibly tough fight for Cormier, who is a slight underdog, per OddsShark, with days remaining before the fight. But Cook believes it is also the toughest test of Jones' career and says the world might be in for a surprise.

"We are expecting a tough fight. But I also would not be surprised if Daniel runs away with this fight and makes it look easy," Cook says. "To this point in time, Daniel has made all of his opponents look easy. He has a knack for doing that. He wins and makes it look effortless."

"It's being promoted as two undefeated fighters," Zinkin adds. "The difference between the two is that Daniel has never lost a round."

Cormier can see both sides.

Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

"The one thing that Jon and I have done is that we've made tough guys look like they're not so good," he says. "So when you get in there and you have two guys who have done that at every turn, it'll be interesting to see who can get in there and impose their will on the other. It will be interesting to see who can make the other guy fight in the places they are uncomfortable.

"I'm going to have to push harder, in ways that I haven't had to yet. Do I think I can go in and shut him out and win every round? Yeah. One hundred percent. If I fight to the best of my abilities, I think I can win and it doesn't have to be close. It's still going to be hard. But when it's done, I don't think I have to be standing there with my heart beating a hundred miles per minute."

The fight, more than anything that comes along with it, represents another chance for Cormier to ascend to the top of the mountain.

He has been one of the best wrestlers in the United States. He has represented the country at the highest levels possible in wrestling. But he has always fallen short when given a chance to prove he is the best.

"I've never been in the best in the world at anything. And this will probably be my last chance to do something and be the best in the world," he says. "I'm 35 years old. I probably won't get many more opportunities to prove that I can be the best at something. I feel like this is my last opportunity, and I've trained and worked my tail off to give myself that chance."

And so Cormier goes about his daily grind, waking up early, going to bed late, teaching wrestling classes, fulfilling television duties for Fox and tending to his family at home. He is often exhausted and sounds tired no matter the time of day.

It is all part of a plan that he hopes will pay off on January 3. But he is also refreshingly honest about the difficulties of facing such a talented opponent.

"I can't say with 100 percent certainty that I will beat Jon Jones. I believe I will win. But even after everything I've gone through, there are no guarantees in the fight business. And if I can't beat him, I think that will be OK, because I will have given myself the best chance to win this fight. I cut no corners. I've taken no sick days.

"I've done everything you need to do in order to fight the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. If it doesn't happen, it won't be for lack of effort."

Daniel Cormier faces Jon Jones for the UFC light heavyweight championship in the main event of UFC 182 on Saturday night. All quotes were obtained firsthand. 

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