Who is the Strikeforce success story?
Posed with this question, fight fans will scour their memories of the rich history of athletes who have made their mark in the promotion, and most will likely answer Nick Diaz followed by Cung Le. The former went 6-0 inside the Strikeforce cage, fought and won in two different weight divisions, and left the organization as the undefeated and three-time defending welterweight champion. The latter’s four-year stretch saw Le go 7-1, including winning the middleweight belt, having all his in-cage performances happen in the company’s home of San Jose, California, while his lone defeat against Scott Smith was avenged in Le’s final outing before joining the UFC.
It is difficult to argue with either claim of being the quintessential Strikeforce sensation, but, with a possible victory in the May 19th main event against Josh Barnett to declare the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner, the unparalleled Cinderella story of the organization’s mighty tenure could be Daniel Cormier.
“A lot of people have talked to me about the fight, but they've kind of missed that point,” says Cormier. “It means a lot to me. My very first fight was in Strikeforce on the Challengers series. The opportunity to finish with this Grand Prix and as the number one heavyweight in this organization, it is something that I could not have guessed or even imagined. It means so much to me that at the end of this thing I could be the Strikeforce Grand Prix Champion. That really means so much to me because I really appreciate Scott Coker and everyone at Strikeforce for even believing in me and giving me the original opportunity that they did. It's awesome for me to be a guy who started in the Challengers series and, if I'm good enough, I could win this championship. It's an unbelievable achievement for a guy that sat at my friend's house two and a half to three years ago in the Summer of 2009 watching Jon Fitch fight at UFC 100 after watching Georges St-Pierre and Brock Lesnar and saying, ‘Next week I'm heading up to [American Kickboxing Academy] to visit.’ To think in three years time I'm about to fight Josh Barnett in the Strikeforce Grand Prix finals, it's unbelievable how far this journey has taken me in such a short period of time. That's the thing that I think makes mixed martial arts so special.”
It’s not shocking that Cormier has won, and only won, in his adopted sport, but it is surprising how he has won, how he has evolved, how quickly this has all happened, and how eerily similar Cormier’s fighting style resembles that of one of the greatest MMA heavyweights ever: Fedor Emelianenko. As an All-American wrestler from Oklahoma State University who devoured medals in international wrestling tournaments throughout the 2000s and who was a two-time member of the US Olympic Freestyle wrestling team, Cormier seemed like a natural fit to make the transition to caged combat, even when he did it at 30 years old. Again, Cormier’s ability to use his obvious athletic talent and wrestling experience to defeat opponents is only part of it. The real story is that Cormier doesn’t fight like a wrestler in flux; Cormier looks like a polished veteran who has been cagefighting his whole life.
In two years, Cormier won all nine of his fights, with four by knockout, three by submission, and two by decision. A couple W’s on Strikeforce’s unofficial developmental shows were followed by winning back-to-back heavyweight belts in smaller organizations, and he punctuated 2010 with two first round drubbings of opponents who submitted due to punches. A microcosm of his already abbreviated MMA career can be seen in Cormier’s three masterful wins in 2011 in Strikeforce, with the latter two happening in the Grand Prix tournament.
“I think athletically 2011 would probably be the first or second most successful year of my career,” asserts Cormier. “I think 2004 when I made my first Olympic team was probably the most successful year competitively. But 2011 ranks right up there. I fought some very tough guys. You have to remember I fought Jeff Monson who had 50 some odd fights, I fought Devin Cole who had almost 40 some odd fights, and ‘Bigfoot’ Silva has roughly 20 fights, so I fought guys who in total have 100 fights and I was fighting them at my 7, 8, and 9th fights. Just that in itself. The amount of respect I have for those guys, the amount of success they have had, and the amount of fights they have had, so each win was huge for me.”
The Lafayette, Louisiana native began 2011 with two dominant decisions over battle-hardened and well-traveled opponents: Devin Cole and Jeff Monson. In January, Cormier threw everything including the kitchen sink at Cole in the first round, put on a wrestling clinic in the second, and cruise controlled his way to a 30-27 victory in the third. In June, Cormier put a striking showcase on Monson with leg, body, and head kicks as well as punching combinations which left “The Snowman” bloody. The win over Monson set up Cormier for easily his toughest test, a Grand Prix semi-finals showdown with the then 18-2 Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva.
“I had a whole bunch of nerves and a whole bunch of excitement for the chance to compete at such a high level,” remembers Cormier. “I have so much respect for Antonio Silva that when I found out we were fighting, I put myself through the ringer. I trained harder than I ever had until that point because I had so much respect for him and I knew I had to train my ass off for him. I was excited and nipping at the bud. I have a pretty solid routine come fight day. I'm in bed all day, I'm listening to my music, I have my iPad, I have the room all dark, and I try to take naps. But I was so nervous. I had to have my manager Bob Cook come into my room and have to stop me from shadow boxing. He was saying to me, ‘You have to calm down. You need to relax.’ He had to come into my room and settle me down because I was so excited at the opportunity to fight at a high level. It was crazy. It was a challenge the whole day to control myself and control my emotions.”
Change in his daily routine aside, once in the cage that night, Cormier looked to be on another level than his highly regarded Brazilian opponent. Cormier deftly landed punch after punch on Silva like his fists were magnetically drawn to the chin of “Bigfoot” and he easily dismissed a takedown attempt from Silva for good measure. All told, Cormier literally punched his own ticket to the Grand Prix finals by knocking out Silva in just shy of four minutes.
“I felt good,” humbly admits Cormier. “Not only did I feel confident in myself, but I gained a whole new level of confidence in my training, my partners, my coaches, and everybody who was supportive and confident that I could do it. Figuratively and literally, I was looking at a tall task, but they did not question at any point whether or not I could win that fight. For the fight to go the way it did, it did really exceed all expectations. I was really expecting a long, drawn out, hard fight, but it didn't turn out that way. It really is a testament to all the work I put in at the gym.”
Up next for Cormier is a battle with catch-wrestling poster boy Barnett on Saturday in sunny San Jose. As mentioned, this bout is not only special for its main event status and it being the culmination of the Strikeforce Grand Prix heavyweight tournament, but this is also expected to be the penultimate heavyweight fight in Strikeforce history, as the rest of the division has been consolidated into the UFC. One could easily draw comparisons from this high stakes finale of Barnett versus Cormier and the ultimate WEC bout between Anthony “Showtime” Pettis and Benson “Smooth” Henderson for the WEC lightweight championship. Besides those surrounding details, Cormier knows without a doubt he is facing about the most dangerous opponent he could ever choose in the 31-5, perennially top 10 ranked Barnett.
“I think Josh is a great opponent,” affirms Cormier. “He's very durable. He's very crafty. He's fought at the top of this sport for a very longtime. He was a UFC champ, he was in the finals of the PRIDE Grand Prix, on top of countless accomplishments he's had over his career. I think it's time. I started doing MMA to compete at the highest levels like I did at wrestling. Standing across the cage from Josh Barnett shows me that I have arrived. There are not many guys in the room who have a resume like Josh Barnett. I think he's one of the best of all time and it's an honor to fight him. When you see a guy like that you know you need to focus on your wrestling. Not only is it about your takedown defense in the moment, but being in wrestling shape and ready to defend takedowns for 25 minutes if you need to, while you're getting punched and while you're getting kicked.”
To prepare for the 6’4” and 260 pound battler dubbed “The Warmaster”, Cormier is busy training with the same group of guys at the same gym that got him to the dance: American Kickboxing Academy. “All of my training partners are in-house from AKA and I do the majority of my stuff with Cain Velasquez - we spar, we wrestle, and we do jiu-jitsu,” explains Cormier, who hones his MMA game day-in-and-day-out against the former UFC heavyweight champion Velasquez, who is preparing for his own tussle with “Bigfoot” Silva. “I also fight Mike Kyle, Kyle Kingsbury, and Todd Duffee. I've had the best training camp I ever could have possibly imagined. I have had great partners and my coaches are there for me wholeheartedly.”
Although he is completely concentrating on his date with Barnett, it’s difficult to not picture what the future holds for Cormier in terms of a seemingly eventual move to the UFC’s Octagon. “There's really no mystery to it anymore because if everyone else is there you would assume that me stepping into this tournament and making it to the finals, I'm 6-0 in Strikeforce, and with a win I'm 7-0 in Strikeforce, so you would think I would get a chance,” estimates Cormier, who would be a welcome addition to the renaissance the weight class is currently having in the UFC. “Logic tells me I am going to and I'm really excited for it, but it just depends on where. If I win this fight, then I go into the UFC a lot closer to the top of the division. But it's really hard to think about that when you have someone as good as Josh Barnett in front of you, so I'm not getting too excited for it because I don't want to lose focus on the task at hand.”
On May 19th at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, California, Cormier will tangle with Barnett to crown the Grand Prix champion. “I know that when that cage door closes, I'm going to bring it hard for 25 minutes if I have to and I know he's going to do the same thing,” states Cormier, who entered Strikeforce with only his status as a two-time Olympian and a dozen plus wrestling titles to his name. Now he has the chance to leave as the best in the company. “When you put something so valuable on the line, like the Strikeforce Grand Prix championship on the line and possibly going into the UFC as a top five ranked heavyweight in the world, that's like hanging a deer in front of two lions. If you have that great of an opportunity and you don't attack it then you'll never be able to live with yourself afterward. My feet can't get me there fast enough.”
That’s not only the Strikeforce success story, Cormier is the MMA success story.