This is number eighty-five in Jack’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re pleased to feature Olympic wrestler, Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Champion, and current UFC heavyweight, Daniel Cormier. Cormier is undefeated and looks to stay that when he faces Roy “Big Country” Nelson in the co-main event of UFC 166, on October 19th. Cormier’s impressive wrestling background, combined with the gains he has made training at American Kickboxing Academy over the past four years, have enabled him to skyrocket to the top of the heavyweight division. If his friend and AKA teammate, Cain Velasquez, was not currently the division’s champ, it might be Cormier fighting for the title. Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports, and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Daniel Cormier: I’ve watched it ever since I was a kid. We were really into Karate movies. We always watched those Bruce Lee movies and a lot of Chuck Norris stuff. My dad was a huge Chuck Norris fan so I would watch that stuff with him when I was growing up. I didn’t look at wrestling as a combat sport until I started watching MMA. Then I understood how important it was in terms of everything related to this sport. So I guess my first experience would have been when I was like eleven, when I started wrestling down in Louisiana. Wrestling is a hand to hand combat sport. If Jiu-jitsu is considered combat, then wrestling has to be too.
JB: You are well-known for your achievements wrestling in high school, junior college, NCAA Division I, as well as the Olympics and other international competitions. Looking back, what achievements or moments from your wrestling career are you the most proud of?
DC: One was making my first Olympic team and competing in Athens. It was the place where the first Olympics was ever held, Athens, Greece, and I was able to compete there in the birthplace of the Olympic Games. To put on that United States singlet and to represent our country was amazing. I don’t think I’ll ever again feel what I felt walking out to those opening ceremonies. There were 100,000 people in there. They were going crazy. Cameras were flashing everywhere. I was representing my country. It was unreal.
The second would probably be when I won my bronze medal in the World Championships. I had been close to medaling a lot of times, won a lot of competitions, but I never had gotten a medal at the Worlds or the Olympics. I think that was my highest accomplishment in wrestling, getting that third place medal at the World Championships. It was even better than making the Olympic team.
JB: What do you recall about your first professional MMA fight, your Strikeforce debut back in 2009, and how prepared do you feel you were at the time?
DC: Looking back, I wasn’t very prepared. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I’ve got a coach and manager in Bob Cook that believes in me. He knew that I wanted to make some money quickly and they got me a fight. He said, “You know what? It’s a guy that wrestles. You should be able to beat a wrestler. After you get a little bit of money in your pocket, you can train and get better in the sport.” I wasn’t prepared. I was prepared as much as you could have been for like a three-week training camp.
The thing that probably stands out most to me was during the day I tried to follow the same routine that I would follow in wrestling. I relaxed and just was calm and patient and read. Then when I put my book down, right around four o’clock, and I didn’t have anything to do anymore, I had the biggest anxiety attack. I was so uncertain as to what I was stepping into. So I had this huge anxiety attack and I had my cousin, Terry, there with me. He is always at every one of my fights. He’s at the hotel with me. He’s a guy I trust a ton, but he didn’t help. I just remember him ironing his clothes for the fight. It’s a vacation for a lot of people, but you’re going to fight in a cage. So I remember having that anxiety attack, but then I recall getting to the arena and I was fine. There was adrenaline pumping, and the moment they announced it was time for me to go fight, it was like I was back in my environment. So before, the uncertainty kind of scared me, but then whenever it was time to compete, I just could always look at it as competition and that’s something I’ve been doing my entire life.
JB: Prior to making your UFC debut, you were an undefeated 11-0, you had defeated veterans like Josh Barnett, Antonio Silva, and Jeff Monson, and you had the distinction of winning the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. What were your most satisfying performances from that early part of your career?
DC: I think two of them stand out and those were my last two tournament fights. When you think of the fight with Antonio Silva, he had just beat Fedor, who was considered the best heavyweight of all time. When we stepped into the cage, I hadn’t been fighting two years yet. I came straight from wrestling. I was wrestling, took a year off, and then went right into mixed martial arts. So I had no experience with striking, Jiu-jitsu, and it hadn’t even been two years since I started fighting. I was fighting a guy who had just dominated the guy who had long been considered the best fighter of all time. So beating Bigfoot was satisfying. That was such a huge step up. Towards the end of the Strikeforce deal, when the UFC bought it, you started seeing a lot of prospects vs. established guys matchups. It was almost like sink or swim time for those guys. There was no more Challengers Series. That was my chance to really step up. I mean, I stepped up against Monson, but this was my chance to really step up and fight someone who was well-known and had some big victories in his career and had been a champion before. He was one of the top five heavyweights in the world. So that was a huge win for me.
Then I think I grew up in the Josh Barnett fight. It was the first time that I was pushed to a point that I had never been before. Josh hit me with a lot of clean shots. Josh put me in some dangerous positions. Josh made me fight for twenty-five minutes. I was most proud of that performance just because I grew up in that fight. I learned on that night that I could be a complete mixed martial artist. I could fight anywhere.
JB: Your most recent fight was your UFC debut, a dominant decision win over Frank Mir back in April. Now a few months removed from that fight, how do you regard your performance against Mir and the experience of debuting in MMA's premier organization?
DC: When I look back at it now, I thought I did okay. Any time you’re fighting a guy with the experience of Frank, in a co-main event, on FOX, it’s a big spot to be in for your UFC debut. I kind of thought that my entire athletic career had prepared me for it and it would not have affected me, but it actually did. I got caught up in everything. A lot of people talk about home-field advantage, but I’m not sure it’s always an advantage, especially in that situation when it’s your first UFC fight. When I had been fighting in Strikeforce, fighting in San Jose was not a big deal for me because I had done it before. But to be in the UFC, to fight in San Jose, it was tough. But looking back at the performance, I did exactly what we trained to do. I’m a guy that’s been fighting a certain amount of time, and when we put together a game-plan, myself and my coaches, Javier and Bob and Leandro and everybody else, I follow it. If I had to make adjustments, then I would have made adjustments, but I didn’t have to make any adjustments. It went exactly how we kind of thought it would. The only thing was that Frank was in phenomenal shape and he didn’t wilt like we thought he would. In a lot of instances, if a guy puts that type of pressure on him, makes him wrestle and go that long carrying their weight, normally Frank would have gotten tired and he would not have been himself. Well he didn’t do that in that fight, and that’s a credit to him. From my standpoint, we did exactly what we did in training. We try to exploit guys where we’re better. Where we believe we’re better is where we’re going to fight. That’s the key in all of these fights. You have to fight where you’re better in those positions. We were sure that I could beat Frank in the clinch and use my wrestling to beat him.
JB: You are an integral part of American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose. You not only train there, but you are also a coach and a vital training partner for many other MMA greats, including the UFC's heavyweight champion, Cain Velasquez. What has made the fit work so well for you at AKA?
DC: Like-mindedness, man. Everybody is like-minded. I came in here when Fitch, Koscheck, Swick, Cain, those guys were all running through the UFC. Josh Thomson was running through Strikeforce. Rockhold was making his way up. We did it at the same time. We all have the same type of thoughts. Everybody wants to be the best. Everybody in this gym is like-minded. So not only do we want to be the best, but everybody understands that in order to be the best, they have to train accordingly. All these guys do it. A lot of these guys have wrestling backgrounds and I think that plays a part in it. But we all want to be champions. The training partners, the coaching staff, it was just perfect. I’m from a place where all of my stops over the course of my wrestling career I’ve had great coaches and people that have accomplished a lot around me. That’s helped me to accomplish the things that I’ve accomplished. From John Smith at Oklahoma State, and Eric Guerrero, Jamill Kelly, and everybody else there, to my Olympic years with Kevin Jackson, Kenny Monday, all those guys, I was always surrounded by success. It pushed me. So when I got here, it felt like the same thing. I’m surrounded by a lot of success and guys willing to work to attain it.
JB: Your next fight is against the veteran Roy Nelson at UFC 166 in October. This is a fight that you were specifically asking for. What was so important to you about getting this particular matchup and what do you think of the rather unique Nelson?
DC: First off, I think Roy is a fantastic fighter. I think he’s strong. I think he’s got good grappling. He’s obviously got great knockout power. He’s a tough guy. I think Roy’s a tough matchup for anyone in any division that he chooses to fight in. With that being said, the reason the matchup was important to me was because at some point before he fought Stipe Miocic, there was some miscommunication about him and I fighting and he went on record saying that I turned down the fight. Well I don’t turn down a fight, and if a person says that I’m turning down a fight, then I will probably pursue that fight. That’s basically what it boils down to. I didn’t turn down the fight so why don’t we pursue this fight and make it happen if that’s the fight that we both want?
JB: In addition to your very promising MMA career, you have also established yourself as an excellent broadcaster as well. How does being part of the UFC and FOX's broadcasting team mesh with your fighting career? Are there ever any conflicts of interest that are difficult to maneuver?
DC: I think it’s great. It gives me an opportunity to do something that I enjoy doing. I like working and I like watching fights. So basically we have a job watching fights and getting paid for it. That’s pretty cool. Now when we talk about conflicts, we can actually be pretty open. I think that when you’re open, it’s easier for people to accept. People understand that Luke Rockhold and I are friends. So when he’s fighting, you know that I’m rooting for my friend. You’re as impartial as you can be, but you have to honor your relationships. So when Luke got knocked out by Vitor, it was very difficult for me. But I have to get back and be professional and break down these fights to the best of my ability. In that moment, it was a little hard, but it’s a job. You have to be a professional. Outside of that, there haven’t been any conflicts. They’re very good about scheduling the TV stuff around training camp. Like I’m doing Bader vs. Teixeira next week, but then that’s it. I’m done until after my fight. I have a seven-week window where I’m not even worried about TV at all. It’s your choice, but they’re very good about scheduling you. They are fully aware that fighting is the main priority.
JB: What else do you enjoy outside of training and fighting, and who are the individuals who have supported you most in life?
DC: I do some things. My passion has always been wrestling. So I run a kids’ club out of our gym. We’re up to about thirty kids now. Wrestling has always been my passion and I love giving back. I love working with the kids. Our team went to the state tournament our first year and the nine kids went 0-18. Then last year we took those same kids to the state tournament, after all the commitment that they made, and we had three state champions and two more place-winners. It was the same children, and then our older kids also had three state place-winners, so we ended up being fifth in team scoring in the state of California. That’s probably the thing that I do most outside of my family and fighting and TV and all that other stuff. But if there was something away from wrestling, it would have to be video games - Cormier2008 on Xbox if anybody wants to play me. I also read a lot. I really do like to read. I read all the James Patterson novels, and right now I’m finishing up the Phil Robertson, from “Duck Dynasty,” “Happy, Happy, Happy” book.
My girlfriend, Salina, is who I rely on the most. She does everything because she takes care of our children. She cooks for me. She makes sure our house is always clean and nice. We always have food and our kids are always dressed real nice. Without her, it would be very hard for me. I go to the fights. I go to do the TV stuff. She takes care of the kids but makes sure I get to Skype and FaceTime with them. She’s the one that supports me the most in my personal and professional life. Obviously there are other people too, like Javier Mendez and my coach, “Crazy” Bob Cook. Bob Cook is another guy I rely on for everything. I don’t make a decision without that guy. I’m buying a house right now so I call Bob and he’s actually finding me property. He and DeWayne Zinkin are my management team and help with investments. I have a great support system, but Salina and my family is everything to me.
JB: Last question, Daniel, and thanks for taking the time to do this. What does it mean to you to be a fighter and how much do you enjoy it?
DC: It means that I get a chance to still compete. I wrestled up to 2008 and my wrestling career didn’t end the way I wanted it to. I went to work like a normal person would, and I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like having a regular job. I did it for a year and it just wasn’t for me. There was just something missing. It was the ability and chance to compete. MMA gave me that. It gave me a chance to compete at a high level. From the very beginning I fought in Strikeforce so I was on a national stage right away.
How much do I enjoy it? I absolutely love it. When it’s fight night, there is nothing more that I would rather be doing than getting into a cage and testing myself against another man in hand-to-hand combat. There is nothing more that I would prefer to do competitively. On that night, I feel like I am in my element. When the lights are on, and there’s a crowd, and people are screaming and yelling, and it’s you vs. him, I’m in my element. That’s something I been doing since I was a kid. I love to do that.
Thank you so much for reading and please follow Daniel Cormier, and Jack Brown on Twitter.
Visit JackJohnBrownMMA on Facebook for links to all of Jack’s past interviews. Previous interviews include: Dan Hardy, Rose Namajunas, Joe Lauzon, War Machine, Tom Lawlor, Bas Rutten, Chris Leben, Phil Baroni, Julie Kedzie, Michael Bisping, Duane Ludwig, Sara McMann, Matt Lindland, Duke Roufus, Pat Miletich, Jens Pulver, Dan Severn, Nate Quarry, Ken Shamrock, Matt Serra, Jeremy Horn, Ray Longo, Dennis Hallman, and dozens more.
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