Patrick Cummins’ ascension to the elite level in the UFC’s light heavyweight division is one of the great stories to hit the sport in recent years. Just don’t tell him that, as he’ll recall a time when he was putting together another remarkable tale – from walk-on to All-American wrestler at Penn State.
“I’m a walk-on on a team and I sucked miserably,” he said. “I’m terrible and then all of a sudden, I make the decision in my head that I need to put everything to work here. I need to give this my all. I have a short window of time to do this, let’s do it and this is my goal, to be a national champ. And in between seasons, right in the midst of me hitting my stride, I was ranked 14th or something, and I was totally unsatisfied with it.”
Someone congratulated him on the feat. His response?
He laughs about it now, even feels bad for reacting that way to a compliment, but he also sticks to his guns for the reasoning behind it.
“I wasn’t satisfied with that. It’s great, it shows progress for me, but for some reason it struck me in the wrong way. I want to be number one, I don’t want to be number 14.”
The same applies here. Heading into a Saturday co-main event in Sao Paulo, Brazil against former world title challenger Glover Teixeira, Cummins is the ninth-ranked contender at 205 pounds. He beats Teixeira, who sits at number four, and he will rise even higher. This is someone who was brought in for a co-main event against future world champion Daniel Cormier on a week’s notice in 2014, yet lost in 79 seconds. That could have been it for Cummins in the UFC, but as he points out, the end could have come even sooner if he didn’t get that life-altering phone call.
“I sit back and think about how close I came to calling it quits and running out of the means to chase this dream,” he said. “I was a week away when I got that call. I can only put one foot in front of the other for another week until I just decide that this just isn’t gonna happen.”
At the time, Cummins was 4-0 as a pro, but those four fights took place over the course of nearly two and a half years. No one wanted to fight a two-time All-American wrestler and rising star, not on the local circuit. But before he pulled the trigger on ending his fight career, the UFC called, and though his first fight didn’t follow the Rocky script, he won three of his next four, setting up a UFC 190 matchup with longtime contender Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante in Brazil.
And on that night in August, Patrick Cummins arrived, even if you wouldn’t know it by looking at his face.
“It’s another piece of the puzzle that I’m filling in,” he said of the third-round TKO victory. “The experience thing, you can’t quantify that. For some reason after that fight, I really felt like I cracked a code or unlocked something where I said ‘okay, I know how to do this.’ I can put my best performance out there when I absolutely need to do it and that comes from adversity. Between rounds my eyes are all swollen up, I’m in the corner and the cutman’s stuffing q-tips up my nose and ironing out my face and I’m trying to listen to my coach out of the side of my ear, and it doesn’t get much worse than that. (Laughs) So every other situation is going to be like ‘well, this is easy.’ And I always have to take that gritty approach and learn the hard way, kind of. Not that I want to be that guy. I’d love to step in there and create something awesome without really trying, but it’s not that style.”
He did create something awesome against “Feijao,” because awesome doesn’t come easy; awesome is overcoming adversity and not just winning, but finishing an opponent in a way that leaves no doubts. That’s what Cummins did, and what he hopes to do this weekend against Teixeira. And if he’s the superstitious type, he can come full circle by winning big in his second UFC co-main event. The first time was a blur, but one that also provided some unexpected surprises.
“Going into it (the Cormier fight), a couple people told me ‘man, you’re gonna have to do a lot of media,’” he said. “And I just thought, ‘eh, that’s fine; I don’t mind doing that stuff.’ And then it was oh my gosh, they weren’t kidding. This is quite a bit. I’m guessing that it was more because it was such a last minute thing that they wanted to build up and do all the stories they would have done beforehand, but looking back on it, I thought, all that media stuff really took it out of me. (Laughs) I’m not the same guy after that. So going at it again, I know what to look for, I know how it’s gonna be, and it’s like everything, experience is my big thing. Get experience, get experience, and this comes with the territory.”
It’s a territory the 34-year-old will get familiar with more than most, simply because he’s so good at it. Cummins has a great story, and he’s great at telling it. That’s a rare mix, and one he admits he wasn’t born with. He even declares that he used to be one of “those guys.”
“I probably used to be one of those guys because I didn’t know what I was doing,” he laughs. “In college, I remember doing some interviews for the local paper and the college paper, and I didn’t want to do it. I don’t want a picture in the college paper in some weird position on the wrestling mat. I don’t really care about this, I’m not going to put any effort into it. And then once I got thrown into that situation, it was like ‘hey, let’s prepare a little bit and make sure you have things to say.’ It’s like studying for a test. If you go in there not ready and you didn’t look at anything, you’re kind of screwed. (UFC interim featherweight champion) Conor McGregor does a really good job of saying that it’s part of the game. Dealing with all the media is one other thing you need to master. And when you look at it like that, I want to do the best job I can possibly do.”
Yet to do it, Cummins has to have a life outside of fighting, whether it’s working on art projects, going on bike rides or just doing anything that doesn’t involve punching someone in the face. And these days, with his career on the right path and able to be his career, he’s found that balance he needs.
“You want to put all that work in and you want to get everything right, but at some point, you have to step back and have a little balance in your life,” he explains. “I was really fortunate to have that in college, where I had my ceramics studio and it’s a totally different ballgame. In the wrestling room, I’m sweating and grinding it out and coming out exhausted, but I would go across campus, sit in the studio, and I would get re-energized. I would make something, do something I really liked and let my mind take off and not worry about everything else that’s going on. It refreshes you and provides a really nice balance. I’ve just recently been able to get to the point where I have my own place to live, I’m not sleeping on somebody’s couch (Laughs), and I can have those hobbies again. I’m finding that balance again, and that’s the sweet spot for me, bouncing back and forth and letting one thing refresh the other, and both things seem to flourish when you do that.”
Coach and manager Ryan Parsons is on board with Cummins’ approach, and he encourages, often kicking the fighter out of the gym in order for him to live the other portions of his life. And when Cummins returns, it’s as someone refreshed both physically and mentally to get back to the business of fighting.
“Talking in fight terms, he (Parsons) always says ‘I want that artist to come out of you. I want something special to happen while you’re in there, and I think this is the way to do it,’” Cummins said. “He gets that reference from the fact that I have these other interests, and he knows that it’s really important for me to be well-rounded and do things that don’t necessarily translate to the fighting world.”
See, the tale of Patrick Cummins is one anybody would be interested in, and when pressed, he’ll even admit that it’s a good one. But not before pointing out that he’s far from finished.
“This could easily have not happened,” he said. “So I’m pleased, but I’m not gonna rest until there’s a “C” behind my name.”