After being in Daniel Cormier’s corner throughout his mixed martial arts career, American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) founder and head coach Javier Mendez knows that when the UFC light heavyweight champion wants to do something, there’s nothing he can do to stop him.
“You don’t necessarily have complete control on that,” Mendez said when asked how he will keep Cormier to the game plan once the first punches start flying in DC’s UFC 210 main event against Anthony “Rumble” Johnson on Apr. 8. “A perfect example is what he did with (Alexander) Gustafsson. He went out there in the first round and did exactly what we asked him to do. It appeared to be an easy fight, then all of a sudden, Gustafsson hits DC with a good knee, and then it was all out the window. DC was not gonna do what we wanted him to do now. He wanted to punish him back the way he got hit. He wanted to hit Gustafsson’s standup and he didn’t really want to wrestle that much. He did a little wrestling, but he didn’t do it enough. So that was a perfect example of, yes, we have a fighter that does listen, but he also has his own mind too, so we can’t one hundred percent control how he’s gonna fight.”
It’s the blessing and curse of having a two-time member of the United States Olympic freestyle wrestling team and UFC champion on your roster. Guys like that are so competitive that a game of checkers can turn into all-out war in a matter of seconds. So when Cormier gets hit, he wants to hit you back twice as hard. Against Gustafsson in October 2015, Cormier successfully defended his title for the first time by way of a split decision in a fight that was an instant classic.
In his next fight, Cormier was equally eager to test his standup game against a legend of the sport in Anderson Silva, but an early shot from “The Spider” at UFC 200 last July put DC back on track in a hurry.
“Before that fight, we said, ‘Look, we can’t screw around with him. This guy’s way too good in the standup, he’s one of the best ever. Don’t stand with him. Just take him down and beat him down on the ground,’” Mendez recalled of the fight with Silva, which the combatants took on two days’ notice after Cormier’s original UFC 200 bout with Jon Jones was called off. “And DC wanted to stand with him. But if you watch the fight, you’ll see where Anderson hits him with a front kick to the belly and you could tell it hurt DC because he changed his routine around. That’s what happens in the game.”
Against Gustafsson and Silva, Cormier was able to eat a big shot or two, make adjustments and get a pair of victories. He did the same thing when dropped in the opening round of his first fight against Johnson in May 2015, roaring back to submit “Rumble” in the third stanza.
But since then, Johnson has seemingly gotten more intimidating, knocking out Jimi Manuwa, Ryan Bader and Glover Teixeira in succession. In other words, if you can survive a shot from the Georgia native, that’s good, but you don’t want to press your luck by taking more than that. And while Cormier already owns a victory over the challenger, that doesn’t guarantee he’ll do it again in Buffalo.
“In one way it’s easier, and in another way it’s harder,” Mendez said of fighting the same opponent a second time. “It’s easier because you already know what he has. You’ve been in there with him, so that territory is already covered. It’s harder because you know he’s gotten better and you have to work a little extra special, more so than you did the first time, to be careful because he’s more dangerous. So there’s good and bad on both sides. It’s easier and it’s worse. But he (Cormier) is technically better in every area, except the wrestling, which is as sharp as it’s ever been. He’s gotten better everywhere – striking, strategy, everywhere.”
But what happens when the fight heats up and DC takes a shot, bites down even harder on his mouthpiece and gears up for war?
“If he’s winning, I just let him play it out his way,” Mendez said. “If he’s not winning, then I’m going to let him know. But DC’s so capable of beating you in so many different ways and he’s so good everywhere that it’s kind of like a wait and see. The one thing everybody knows and of course we know it even more so, is that Anthony hits hard and you can’t get hit by him. So if you’re gonna stand with him, DC’s got to be very crafty because you can’t stand and brawl with a guy like that. He’s too fast, he hits way too hard and he’s very dangerous. So that’s a big no-no; that’s something that can never happen. But the beautiful thing about what DC does is he’s such a warrior that even if he does go off the game plan, he can still hang long enough to come back to the game plan. He may want to go out there and stand with Anthony, and that’s okay, because when he wants to do something, he’s gonna do it.”
What Cormier won’t do is assume that since he won the first fight that this one will follow the same pattern. The champ knows that to keep his crown and keep his hopes alive of a Jones rematch, he has to win on Apr. 8.
“I don’t have to do anything because he’s doing it himself,” Mendez said of motivating his fighter. “He knows what this fight means for him. It’s the path to a rematch with the one man that beat him – Jon Jones. So that’s all the motivation he needs. All I’ve done is support what he’s already saying. His motivation is to get back at Jon Jones, and he knows that in order to do that, he can’t underestimate Anthony at all.”