Nothing comes easy, including this UFC title shot: "It needed to be Jon Jones. This is how it was supposed to be.”
SAN JOSE, Calif.
Daniel Cormier knows the moment is coming. At some point, inside the Octagon against Jon Jones, his world will be rocked. He will be caught with a punch or vicious elbow. Maybe he gets trapped in a submission hold.
It’s going to happen, and then he will have to reach deep within himself.
Cormier is a man who not only is undefeated in mixed-martial arts but also has never even lost a single round. And yet he still understands what it means to fight through adversity, despair and unfathomable pain.
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He was one of America’s most accomplished amateur wrestlers, and yet Cormier always seemed to fall just a little short. He lost in the college Division I finals. He finished fourth at the 2004 Olympics, and then four years later ended up in the hospital instead of holding a gold medal when a sudden illness prevented him from even competing.
But those disappointments were nothing compared to enduring a series of devastating real-life tragedies as Cormier lost people close to him. The worst was the death of an infant daughter who, years later, remains a constant presence in his thoughts.
So, yes, Cormier is well-aware that UFC light heavyweight champion Jones, the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter, likely will put him in a position where he has to peel himself off the canvas. But Cormier believes that after you’ve been to the dark places where he has, he will rise back up. He has reached the biggest stage of his life, at age 35 and against all odds, for a reason.
“I’m not supposed to be here,” Cormier said quietly after a recent workout at his training gym in San Jose, Calif., the American Kickboxing Academy. “I’ve been somewhere where I couldn’t see any hope, any reason for living. That’s what people don’t understand. That’s what Jon Jones doesn’t understand. I had to pick up a broken man and rebuild him. And now I have this chance to do something special.
“That’s why I’m going to win this. Life has taught me that you can’t give up. Ever. I’m not going to lose this chance. I can’t.”
“DC has not had a dogfight yet. He has dominated every round he has ever fought. That’s why DC keeps saying in interviews: ‘Please be that guy, Jon Jones. Please be that guy.’ He’s looking for the guy to give him that fight because he’s never really had to dig down too deep because he’s destroyed everyone in front of him. So will Jon Jones be that guy? We’ll see.” --Javier Mendez, founder and owner, American Kickboxing Academy
The Jones-Cormier blood match is the most anticipated UFC bout in ages as the fighters have spent months exchanging angry taunts, social-media barbs and even blows at that unforgettable rumble during a press event in August. There is absolutely nothing fabricated about their mutual dislike. But when you search through the endless talking from Cormier’s side, you won’t find any knocks against Jones’ fighting ability. For that, Cormier shows nothing but respect.
“For everything I say about Jon, there’s no denying that he is great,” Cormier said. “He is an unbelievable fighter. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of talent. He has completely changed the sport because he’s so special.”
Then, for once, Cormier went silent. His face just broke into a wide smile.
Translation: But go ahead, Jones and anyone else. Underestimate me. You do it at your own peril.
Middleweight contender Luke Rockhold, Cormier’s close friend and training partner at the AKA gym, has learned that the hard way.
“DC definitely had a rough upbringing and saw things go wrong in his life,” Rockhold said. “But he also has been a competitor his whole life. And it has created in him an unbelievable will to win.”
Life indeed has delivered some crushing blows to Cormier, who is a Lafayette, La. native. They began raining down on him at a young age.
He lost his father to a Thanksgiving Day shooting at age 7. Later a cousin and a high school football teammate died in car crashes. His best friend was on an Oklahoma State basketball team plane that crashed in 2001, taking 10 lives.
> Watch: Countdown to UFC 182: Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier
Jim Ravannack, now the president of USA Wrestling, entered Cormier’s life around age 13. He saw a young kid with obvious athletic talent who was struggling. Ravannack became a father figure who helped Cormier use wrestling to bring focus into his life. He showed Cormier how the sport could open doors to places that were beyond his imagination.
“I’ve been with Daniel every step of the way, and I know how tough it has been with him,” Ravannack said. “It’s never been easy. But he has overcome all of it and certainly is a better man for it. I know some of things that he faces now in fighting are nothing compared to all of that.”
“You have to be OK with getting hit in the face, and you don’t discover what you’re made of until you start exchanging punches and that happens. With DC, he gets hit and the light turns on. He sees red. And he just kept getting better and better.” --Cain Velasquez, UFC heavyweight champion, Cormier's training partner
Ravannack is convinced Cormier could have played in the NFL. A football scholarship was waiting for him at LSU after Cormier was an all-state linebacker in high school. But he didn’t have the grades, and Cormier decided that if he had to attend junior college, he might as well do the sport he loved most.
“The best thing about wrestling is that you are responsible for yourself,” Cormier said. “I didn’t have to worry about 10 other guys. If I got my ass kicked, it was because I didn’t train hard enough. It was that simple.”
> Read: He's the Bad Guy. Jon Jones is Ok with That
An undefeated junior-college career took him to the powerhouse Oklahoma State program where, in his last year, he lost to nemesis Cael Sanderson, arguably the greatest American amateur wrestler of all time, in the 184-pound title bout in 2001.
Two years later, Cormier was a rising international wrestling star with an Olympic medal in his sights.
It was then that he took the toughest punch of all.
Kaedyn Imri Cormier was three-and-a-half months old when she died instantly on a Texas highway. A tractor-trailer slammed into the car that was carrying her.
“You never think that you would have to deal with something like that,” Cormier said. “It’s the most painful thing ever. And you know what my biggest worry was after my daughter passed? How am I supposed to put a headstone on her grave when I have no money?”
Ravannack took care of that, buying the biggest marker that can be seen at the cemetery.
Cormier found solace on the wrestling mat, dedicating himself to winning a freestyle gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics in Kaedyn’s memory.
That dream didn’t happen. He finished fourth.
Then he spent the next four years training for the Beijing Games. He arrived in China as the U.S. team captain and this time as the favorite to strike gold.
Instead, he was struck by a sudden kidney ailment -- the result of cutting weight. His body shut down, crushing his hopes.
Cormier returned to Oklahoma feeling like a complete and utter failure. He gained 40 pounds.
“I had thrown it all away,” he said. “My career was over. I had to accept that I was never going to be an Olympic champ, something that I had dreamed about since I was a little kid. But I knew had to believe in myself again and find people who believed in me.”
In 2010, he walked into the old AKA gym, which was set in a nondescript strip mall in San Jose, next to a fabric store where older women sometimes complained about items falling down when large men were thrown against the common wall next door.
Maybe, Cormier thought, there is a goal bigger than an Olympic medal.
Javier Mendez, a former kickboxing champion who runs AKA, knew he wanted Cormier on his team that very first day.
“I instantly knew he would make a great wrestling coach,” Mendez said. “I said right away, ‘I don’t know whether or not he will make much of a fighter, but I want that guy here because he loves to coach. We win as a team even if he isn’t a fighter.’ You could see that DC is a natural-born leader because he just took over.”
But it wasn’t until his first sparring session that Cormier really opened eyes.
“I know I’m the most like Jon Jones that he’s going to see. I can probably mimic him better than anyone else in the world. So I’m here for DC just like he’s always here for me. Anytime one of us wins, we all win.” —UFC middleweight contender Luke Rockhold, Cormier’s workout partner
It started when Rockhold called him out.
“DC came into the gym kind of cocky and all loud, and you don’t do that at a place like this,” Rockhold said. “So I gave it back to him and said, ‘OK, I want that (expletive) guy.’”
What followed could have been on pay-per-view.
“We just went back and forth,” Rockhold recalled. “I hit him with a couple of shots. He got frustrated. We both put our heads down and were wailing away at each other until our arms dropped from exhaustion. That was when we all realized that DC has that fight in him. It’s something that can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t.”
When it was over, the two were on their way to becoming best friends -- a couple of poor fighters who would live for a time at the home of manager-trainer “Crazy Bob” Cook. Meanwhile, another fighter at the gym who was making the successful jump from the wrestling mat to the UFC cage looked at Cormier and saw someone exactly like him.
“You have to be OK with getting hit in the face, and you don’t discover what you’re made of until you start exchanging punches and that happens,” said Cain Velasquez, now the UFC heavyweight champion. “With DC, he gets hit and the light turns on. He sees red. And he just kept getting better and better.”
Velasquez, Rockhold and Cormier began pushing each other in the gym. The idea: Iron sharpens iron.
“Every time I walk into the cage and look across from me, I think: ‘Hell, that ain’t Cain Velasquez over there,’” Cormier said. “That’s not the best fighter in the world and the guy I train with every day.’”
And in that cage, Cormier steamrolled one fighter after another -- first as a heavyweight, then dropping down to light heavyweight. He has built a 15-0 record by using his AKA-developed striking skills to set up his devastating wrestling takedown ability.
“DC has not had a dogfight yet,” Mendez said. “He has dominated every round he has ever fought. That’s why DC keeps saying in interviews: ‘Please be that guy, Jon Jones. Please be that guy.’ He’s looking for the guy to give him that fight because he’s never really had to dig down too deep because he’s destroyed everyone in front of him. So will Jon Jones be that guy? We’ll see.”
Cormier has been training for month with several fighters at the new AKA gym, which is the site of a former racquetball facility. And that might be the truest sign of respect that Cormier and his coaches have for Jones. So many training opponents have been needed to duplicate the varied skills of an everything-in-one-package fighter.
Velasquez, still recovering from knee surgery, hasn’t been able to help as much as he wanted. But Khadzhimurat Gatsalov, the Russian who beat Cormier at the 2004 Olympics en route to the gold medal, even traveled to San Jose to train with his former foe.
Rockhold, who is seeking his own middleweight UFC title shot in 2015, has been the key workout partner throughout Cormier’s camp.
“I know I’m the most like Jon Jones that he’s going to see,” Rockhold said. “I can probably mimic him better than anyone else in the world. So I’m here for DC just like he’s always here for me. Anytime one of us wins, we all win.”
Perhaps, though, Cormier already has won in the ways that matter the most. He is in a very good place.
He effortlessly moved into the UFC Tonight co-hosting seat on FOX Sports -- a big step up from the public-access TV show about wrestling that once did back in Oklahoma while still finding his way after the 2008 Olympics.
Cormier has a beautiful family (fiancé Salina Deleon and children Daniel II, 3, and Marquita, 2). He’s even giving back to other youngsters with his AKA youth wrestling program.
He has emerged from tough times a stronger man, and one who is ready for the biggest challenge of his athletic life in a fight that has become so personal. This, Cormier believes, is his time. Everything in his life has led to Saturday night.
“We’re just two alpha males who absolutely believe that we’re the best in the world and who are willing to do anything to prove it,” Cormier said. “If I’m going to be the UFC champion, it had to be by beating that guy. It needed to be Jon Jones. This is how it was supposed to be.”
“I’ll tell you this much, we’re going to give people one hell of a show.”
In the days, hours and finally minutes before the fight, Cormier knows his thoughts are going to drift back to Kaedyn, who always will be his little girl. She comes into his mind before he competes.
“She just pops into my head,” he said. “I made a promise to her that I was always going to make her proud. I just hope that I’m representing her in a way that would make her happy.”
Cormier knows he’s going to be bloodied, battered and even knocked down by Jones.
He just thinks the amazing part will be when he gets back up.