When is a proven, accomplished talent forced to reset their career and revert to prospect status all over again? In mixed martial arts, it's when former wrestlers - even the most accomplished of their sport- attempt to import their talents for a run at professional prize fighting.
Daniel Cormier is more familiar with the conversion process than most. The two-time Olympian and Strikeforce heavyweight prospect competed at the highest levels of amateur wrestling, becoming captain of the Olympic men's wrestling team as well as earning a gold medal at the Pan Ams and bronze at the World Games.
But the days of donning the singlet in the name of Oklahoma State or U.S. men's wrestling glory are over. Wrestling very much still defines Cormier as an athlete and is still a key component of his offensive and defensive arsenal. But if Cormier is seeking anything, it's to prove he's redefined himself as a competitor and is a challenge to be taken seriously even in the higher echelons of the heavyweight division.
To do that, he'll need to demonstrate a high level of MMA-skill proficiency against credible opposition. Fortunately for Cormier, he's got exactly that chance this weekend. He takes on former UFC heavyweight contender Jeff Monson on Saturday at Strikeforce: Overeem vs. Werdum. Unequivocally, Monson is the most challenging opponent Cormier has thus far faced. As Cormier himself tells it, 'The Snowman' is on an eight-fight win streak, has more fights than he does and has already fought for a title in his career. Defeating Monson isn't only his biggest win to date, it also shifts the paradigm of Cormier's athletic career: first a prospect, now a contender; first an elite wrestler, now an elite heavyweight MMA contender.
In this exclusive interview with SB Nation, we go full circle with Cormier as we discuss the potential futures of wrestling talents Henry Cejudo, Ben Askren, Jordan Burroughs and others. But we also look to the future and the next phase of Cormier's career - what beating Monson means to him, becoming a full-fledged heavyweight contender and more.
Daniel Cormier: Before we start, how are you doing?
Luke Thomas: I'm doing well. I'm excited to talk to you. About two weeks ago I had an interview with Henry Cejudo and as you know, the UFC has announced they were going to add a flyweight division. You gotta think at 125, could he be the next big star of MMA?
Daniel Cormier: How could he not be one of them? Just with the base that he has, Olympic champion. I was looking at that stuff the other day, reading your article on Henry and after listening to it, where you stated his age at one point and I go "God, it's hard to imagine that the kid is still only like 24 years old."
Luke Thomas: So continuing on Henry, he made it a point in the article that I thought was interesting. He said that on the positive side, wrestling is helping MMA because it's increasing interest at the lower levels, you know club teams. But it's hurting MMA at the top of the sport. Would you agree or disagree with that assessment?
Daniel Cormier: I think that in that instance, as I said I read the article. He said that if you look at guys like Me or Mo (Muhammad Lawall) but in reality we were done. We had done two Olympic cycles so we had pursued our dreams to the highest level and we were probably going to walk away anyways. So MMA didn't play a part in that. I didn't decide to fight until a year after the Olympics. So in a sense, in my case and in Mo's case, we were done. But I think it does affect it to a certain degree. I think you have guys that could compete that don't, that have a chance to make the Olympic team. But Luke, the problem with that is that it's just so hard to make an Olympic team. You get all these guys that wrestle every year and there's only seven spots on the Olympic team. So it's really difficult. So guys see MMA and they have a base in wrestling where most guys are successful and the money starts calling. I think we lost Jake Rosholt, I think he's a guy that could have competed. I think we lost Johny Hendricks, another guy that could have possibly been in the mix to make the Olympic team for 2012. So obviously, you want to have some guys that move on a little sooner than we in the wrestling world would like but also you have cases like Me, Mo, and even Ben Askren, he might have been around for another Olympic cycle before MMA took him away from the sport. But it's going to go both ways obviously. And you have guys that will leave early so I think it goes both ways, it's just on a case by case basis.
Luke Thomas: You know, I know you're a big fan of Jordan Boroughs, I think a lot of people are after his last run at the NCAA National Tournament. He's expressed interest in going to the Olympic Training Center. He competed at that May 5th event in New York. After he makes his Olympic run and who knows how well he'll do, would you like to see him in MMA?
Daniel Cormier: I'd like to see before Jordan even considers doing Mixed Martial Arts, I'd like to see Jordan try and compete at the 2012 Olympics and the 2016 Olympic games. He's one of the guys that we can't lose to Mixed Martial Arts early. We can't afford to lose to guys like Jordan Boroughs to MMA because those are the guys that are supposed to be World Olympic champions for USA Wrestling. We can't lose those guys. So in a perfect world for me, Jordan would compete during this Olympic Cycle and next and then maybe move over to Mixed Martial Arts but I would definitely like to see him pursue his goals and hopefully attain a gold medal. I think he has the ability and time once he gets the game of Freestyle because people don't realize that he hardly knows what he's doing and he made the World Team and won the US Nationals, so once he gets his feet under him and gets some international competition, I think he's going to be tough to beat. Mixed Martial Arts is going to be there but if you leave wrestling early, you can't just go back and make the team, you know?
Luke Thomas: What do you think of Ben Askren's chances of making the 2012 London Games?
Daniel Cormier: You never bet against Ben Askren. I don't know what it is about this guy and he'll tell you himself, don't ever bet against Ben Askren. You know, with that being said, it's going to be an uphill battle for him to make the Olympic team because he hasn't been training wrestling full time but I cautiously say that because you just don't bet against Ben Askren in anything that he does. He's proven that time and time again whenever people doubt him he always proves them wrong. They didn't think he could win the Bellator tournament and he did. He beats every body. He does exactly what he says he's going to do and he wins so I will never ever rule out Ben Askren in anything he does.
Luke: Last question on wrestlers and then I want to move onto your fight with Jeff Monson coming up here. Jordan Oliver, the Oklahoma State phenom, looked phenomenal in his 2011 national title run. Does he have the ability to take his wrestling game past the collegiate level and to the international stage?
Daniel Cormier: I think Jordan Oliver could compete at the international level right now. If you watch his style of wrestling, his wrestling is way more mature than that of a 21 year old kid. In college as a Sophomore he's got great offense, great defense. He can go get points when he wants to and he is so composed and calm under fire so I think Jordan could compete at the international level right now. He'll never lose another college match, that's one thing. He's just way out ahead of those guys. And it's because he committed himself so much to becoming a national champion and when you get guys like that, guys who make a commitment to anything they're going to be successful so yes, I think that Jordan could be at the international level lifestyle and I truly believe that right now he's a problem for any body.
Luke Thomas: Talk to me if you can, if you don't mind my asking, what is your weight right now?
Daniel Cormier: 245, somewhere in that area. During training camp I'm much smaller so I'm actually putting more weight back on, you know I was actually lighter during the training camp cause I was doing so much stuff. Right now I'm probably 45, somewhere in that area.
Luke Thomas: Do you feel that that's an optimal weight for you? That 245 range. Do you think about it consciously and say that "I would like my weight to be at this point for this kind of a fight"?
Daniel Cormier: I just think that if I'm training heavier, I should fight heavier. If I'm lighter in training I should fight lighter. So a lot of the times in camp I've been 230, 238 just after training sessions but 245 is fine. I feel good, I feel quick, I feel strong at the weight so I think right around the area I've been fighting in has been good, 240 is probably as light as I'd want to be. I don't want to be any lighter than that fighting at Heavyweight.
Luke Thomas: Now if I'm not mistaken and I could be so help me correct the record if I am. You participated in the Real Pro Wrestling, which was actual wrestling but they just called it Real Pro Wrestling, I guess that's where the "Real" comes into play and you won the title there at 211 pounds. Were you 211 pounds during the run through that show?
Daniel Cormier: I can honestly tell you that I probably weighed 211 pounds for an hour, the day of the weigh ins. I weighed way more than 211. I was probably 240 when I was wrestling. I was probably only 211 for an hour before weigh ins. Then I'd go home and rehydrate.
Luke Thomas: Let's talk about your fight now this weekend with Jeff Monson. Fair to say that he's the toughest competitor so far in your mixed martial arts career?
Daniel Cormier: Hands down. Hands down best guy I've ever fought. No disrespect to the other guys but they'd probably agree. Devin Cole fought him too a while back and lost so it's a constant progression. I've went from a guy with no wins and no losses in my first fight and then the next guy had five and the next guy had six, you know? It's been a constant progression for me and my career and right now I think I'm at the point where I can start testing myself against some of the people that have been in the game a long time and have had success and have fought at the highest levels of the sport. Because how am I supposed to get there? For anybody to ever advance in the sport, you've gotta beat some body. You can't continue to just fly under the radar. It's my opportunity to step up and show what I'm made of.
Luke Thomas: I want to talk about his submission game. You're one of the best if not the best wrestlers in MMA and for heavyweights it's obviously a completely different game but he is, for heavyweights, one of the best submission grapplers. Multiple titles in Abu Dhabi dating all the way back to I think '99. To what extent does that influence your decision to go to the ground? I know you're confident at all points of the game and I know that's a cliche question but I guess when elite Freestyle Wrestling meets elite Submission Wrestling, how does Freestyle Wrestling win the day?
Daniel Cormier: I'm very aware of his half guard position, whether he's on his back or pulls guard or when he shoots and then pulls half-guard. It's one of his strongest positions and you have to be totally aware and I am. I am aware that he is unbelievable in that area but with that being said, I cannot admit that or sit here and say I'm not going to wrestle him because that would be unfair to myself and the skills that I have. I'm a wrestler so I have to be willing to go to the ground with Jeff and hope that the training I've done in the gym and my partners and everything else has sufficiently prepared me for all the challenges that he's going to present. It's going to be extremely tough but we are confident in what I've done in the gym. Nobody in the gym is Jeff Monson and nobody can grapple like Jeff Monson but I've gotta believe that what I've got so far coupled with the skills I have naturally and that I've gained in wrestling, should be enough to allow me to grapple with him through everything else.
Luke Thomas: Have you at all participated in submission grappling tournaments?
Daniel Cormier: Honestly, I like jiu-jitsu, I think it's fun. I like doing it in training and in the gym. But I don't have any desire to do it competitively. You know how somethings just rev you up? Submission grappling isn't something that gets my engine running much. If I really had the desire to do something outside of MMA competitively, I'd just go back to wrestling. It just doesn't really get me going. It doesn't interest me like that.
Luke Thomas: When you're training MMA, is wrestling still the most fun part? I've talked to some former wrestlers and I guess everyone is different, but some have said that they do like jiu-jitsu and some say that striking is their new toy and others say "you know what? It's still wrestling for me." For you, what's the most fun part of training MMA these days?
Daniel Cormier: I like striking, as you said, it's new and cool. But we wrestle a lot at AKA. We still do straight wrestling a couple times a week which is great because it allows me to keep my skills sharp. But I'm like everyone else man, learning to punch and kick it's because you can see the advancing. Even Jiu Jitsu, I enjoy myself in Jiu Jitsu in training because I can see myself advancing. In wrestling, I'm not so focused on it and the level that Me, Mo, and Ben Askren are at, you have to spend some serious time to see any improvement in your game of wrestling. It's not like that in striking or Jiu Jitsu, I can see my improvements very fast, so I'm kind of more into those.
Luke Thomas: So that's interesting and I don't think anyone would argue with you, but if you could elaborate. You believe it is a significantly harder climb to measure your own growth in wrestling vs submission wrestling?
Daniel: Of course it is. I'm starting from zero. In wrestling, I'm wrestling with King Mo and those guys and Mark Ellis. We've been rocking so long that you can't really gauge if you've gotten better because you go out and take Mark down five times because he could just be having a bad day. But in jiu-jitsu, you knew nothing in the beginning, you were getting submitted everyday. Just like Luke Rockhold would submit you every single time you guys grapple and now you're able to grapple multiple rounds without getting submitted. You're able to maintain top control, you're able to escape. So you're able to see the gains and strides in your game so much easier and faster because you were just so green at it before. So that just makes it more fun. That was my biggest thing in my first couple of fights, my coaches were telling me how much better I would be there, but I couldn't tell at the gym. It was when I got out and fought in the cage that I was like "alright, I am getting better". I feel more comfortable and confident and everything seems to be flowing better so it's about seeing the gain. In wrestling you don't necessarily see that. When I was wrestling competitively though, I would see the gains in my wrestling because I was so focused on it every day of the week and it was all I did so when I would wrestle guys that had beaten me before and beat them, I was a lot more competitive.
Luke Thomas: This is a side bar, but what do you think is harder to do: make the Olympic Team in wrestling or win a legitimate title in Boxing?
Daniel Cormier: I don't know. I've never won an IBF or WBC championship but again, guys like Andre Ward who's a WBA champion or Henry Cejudo who's an Olympic champion, they've been doing it their whole lives. I'm pretty sure that Henry would tell you that he trained harder to win an Olympic Gold Medal in Wrestling than Andre did to win an Olympic Gold Medal in Boxing and vice versa. So I think it's depending on who you're asking. Me personally? I don't think anything is harder than training in wrestling. I think it's the hardest thing in the world. We were talking about it the other day at the gym because there's so many wrestlers and Cain and I were sitting in the sauna yesterday and I go "how come wrestling seems so hard?" and he said "I dunno, it's just really hard". I don't know what makes it so hard to train because it's not such a diverse set of things that you're doing. You're doing striking, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, hitting bags, and all this other stuff in MMA but in wrestling you're just straight wrestling. You drill, you wrestle, you run, you lift weights, but wrestling seems so much harder than anything else.
Luke Thomas: Alright, if you beat Jeff Monson circling back to this fight. Where does it put you in the division? Fair to say it cracks the top 25 for you in the rankings? Is it something you don't care about? Do you think of this fight as a place for you to make a position among the elite heavyweights in MMA?
Daniel Cormier: It's time for me to start making my mark. I'm still really young in this sport but I feel confident. I train with the best heavyweight in the world three days a week in sparring, I do Jiu Jitsu and wrestle on the other days so it's time to start making my mark. I beat Jeff, I beat a guy who's been fighting for a long time, I beat a guy who was there in the dark days of MMA, a guy who helped build the sport, and I do think it should start putting me in the route for big fights. I love big time competition and this it what MMA is to me. So Jeff is a huge competition and my training camp has shown that to my coaches and to every body else. I love big time competition and I win this fight it'll put me in line for bigger fights. I think the next step would to take on the winner of Chad Griggs and Valetijn Overeem in the alternate tournament. The four guys who have fought along side the tournament, I think you could take it that way and then after that you get some of the bigger named guys coming out of the tournament.
Luke Thomas: Alright, I appreciate your time, one more question or two. Talk to me about Cain Velasquez and I hate to make it all about me but the only reason I say this is because I've had the exact same injury he had. I had labrum surgery two years ago, I tore it weight lifting. I also tore my rotator cuff. Different shoulders but I've had both. I'm not world class athlete, far from it but I lost a lot. I can't do a lot, I lost range of motion. How is Cain's development going? We've heard that it's slow than before and I'm sure he's still motivated and doing everything he can, but can you talk to me now about where he is in his rehabilitation process?
Daniel Cormier: I think it's going as stated a little slower than anticipated, but not because of Cain's commitment to his rehab. He's fully committed to getting better. He's fully committed to getting healthy and he's doing what he can. As soon as they told him he could get back in the gym, he started working. Cain Velasquez is a work horse. He wants to be in the gym getting better. So even in this time down, it allowed Cain to step back and work on different aspects of his game. Just because he hasn't been fighting or training doesn't mean he's not getting better. He's working on his mental. He's working on his skills now. He's working constantly to get better at all facets of the game and you'll see him better whenever the fight with Dos Santos comes around. People are so afraid because it's such a serious injury but due to his level of commitment, I think he's going to bring himself back bigger, stronger, meaner than he was before.