into the Lion's Den

Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix finalist Daniel Cormier is up to the challenge.

When Daniel Cormier rang in 2011, all the Olympic wrestling standout wanted was to see his face on television. With an MMA record of 6-0, Cormier was a hot prospect, looking to make his presence felt and hopefully factor into the Strikeforce heavyweight title picture over the next couple of years. Less than a year later, Cormier finds himself in the finals of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix and on the fast track to being considered one of the best heavyweights in the world.

“I really didn’t see this coming,” Cormier says. “Honestly, I was just happy to be on the televised card on the Challengers Series to make some sponsorship dollars.” If everything goes his way, Cormier won’t have to worry about little sponsorship checks any longer.

On January 7, 2011, Cormier dominated Devin Cole with his much-improved striking and world-class wrestling and cruised to a unanimous decision victory. It was obvious that the native of Lafayette, La., needed a step up in competition, and he ended up facing grizzled veteran Jeff Monson on the undercard of Strikeforce:
Overeem vs. Verdum in June, after his original opponent Shane del Rosario dropped out with an injury. Again, Cormier’s standup was the difference, as he kept Monson at bay with punches and kicks while his outstanding wrestling snuffed Monson’s takedown attempts. It was clear that Cormier was a diamond in the rough that was in the process of being polished, but an interesting turn of events forced the undefeated fighter out of the frying pan and into the fire. After Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion Alistair Overeem was ousted from the organization over scheduling disputes, Cormier was asked to step in and face Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva—who had recently dispatched of former kingpin Fedor Emelianenko in the first round of the tournament.

Despite having only two years of MMA training, Cormier stepped in and obliterated Silva in less than four minutes, punching his ticket to face former UFC Heavyweight Champion Josh Barnett in the finals of the tournament. Cormier annihilated Silva in a fashion that had the entire world of MMA raising their eyebrows in astonishment.

“When I found out about the fight, I had a bunch of competitive nerves, which is good because you train harder,” says the 32-year-old. “On my way to the cage, I had already fought and beat Silva 100 times in my mind. That’s just the way we train at American Kickboxing Academy.”

But not even Cormier foresaw clobbering Silva into proverbial dust. “Not one time when I fought Bigfoot in my mind did it end in a KO like that,” he says. “I always envisioned myself grinding it out and winning a decision. But what are you going to do?”

The reason why Cormier was brimming with confidence on that night was because he was well prepared for the task at hand, thanks to what he considers the top gym in the world—American Kickboxing Academy. There certainly has to be a boost in confidence when you’re rolling in the gym with the likes of UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez, former Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, and Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Luke Rockhold. If he could hang with those guys every day, any other fighter on the planet would most certainly be in danger.

“Before the Jeff Monson fight, I had King Mo and Luke Rockhold helping me prepare,” says Cormier. “Before the Bigfoot fight, Cain came back from his injury. So I’ve had some luck when it comes to training partners before each fight.” It’s the presence of Velasquez that has Cormier confident that he can take out any fighter thrown his way. “Having the best fighter in the division to train with on a daily basis is a huge plus. I strongly believe that if you are training with the number-one guy, you should be able to take care of everyone else.”

To drive the point home regarding just how good the team over at AKA truly is, on the night that Cormier punished Silva, teammates Rockhold, Lawal, and Mike Kyle also scored resounding victories. That made AKA 4-0 on that night. With fellow stablemates Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, and Mike Swick helping round out the roster, there’s no doubt in Cormier’s mind that AKA is the best gym on the
planet—even better than that guy named Jackson in New Mexico.

“I think we have been the best gym in MMA to be totally honest,” Cormier says. “I think the last time they truthfully had a team in New Mexico was when they had Rashad Evans, Keith Jardine, and Nate Marquardt, and the guys that were there all of the time. They don’t have guys in there for their entire training camps anymore. You have guys like Georges St-Pierre that represent Jackson’s MMA, but I don’t know if he spends two weeks of his training camp there.”

What makes AKA special is the fact that Cormier and his team don’t just train there, they uproot their entire lives to eat, breath, and sleep American Kickboxing Academy. There are no breaks to go home because home is San Jose, California.

“We have guys who train at AKA on a daily basis all year,” he says. “We all live in San Jose. King Mo didn’t just come to help me train. He took his family, got an apartment, and moved down here. We have guys that are full-time guys. That goes from the top to the bottom. We don’t leave. We do all of our training camps out here.”

Despite his accomplishments, what keeps Cormier’s engine running today is his quest for competition. Whether it’s his teammates in the gym, opponents in the cage, or simply trying to be the best fighter he can be, Cormier says that knowing that there may be somebody better than him drives him to continue learning and building on his craft. Dating back to his high school years when he tried his hand at wrestling, Cormier has always had a ridiculous sense of competitiveness. Although he was slightly discouraged when he found out that he would be wearing a singlet instead of jumping off of turnbuckles in his first high school wrestling practice, the fact that he was dominated by everyone in the gym made Cormier keep coming back for more until he could prove that he could hang. And hang he did. But once he went as far as he could in wrestling—he was a member of the 2004 and 2008 U.S. Olympic wrestling teams—Cormier decided to tackle the world of MMA. In two short years, he has accomplished in MMA what takes other fighters a decade. As he prepares for Barnett and the opportunity to be the best heavyweight in the organization, Cormier realizes that he’s still a work in progress and doesn’t take his success for granted.

“When I finished college, I didn’t think I was the best wrestler ever. If I did, I never would have worked to be an Olympian,” he says. “My goal is always to be the best at everything that I do, and I’ll be leaving it all in the cage when I face Josh Barnett in the Grand Prix finals.”  

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