13 years ago, Daniel Cormier made his first visit to Las Vegas as a 22-year-old participating in the U.S. National Wrestling Tournament. Admittedly overwhelmed by his surroundings, the future member of the United States’ 2004 and 2008 Olympic wrestling team wondered what it would be like to see his face on the marquee that legendary combatants such as Mike Tyson and Oscar De La Hoya had their faces adorned on. He had no idea that he would be the co-main event at the UFC’s annual Memorial Day weekend fight card in 2014 against future hall of famer Dan Henderson. All he was really worried about back then was how he was going to eat.
“I got my meal money and it was my first time in Las Vegas so I spent my whole $75 in a matter of minutes,” Cormier jokes about his first visit to Sin City. “Now I’m bumming around the rest of the time. It was bad. I had to borrow money just to eat and get back home. So now I come back and see my picture plastered on the billboards and poker tables. This is where you want to fight as a fighter. The MGM Grand is the mecca of fighting.”
Cormier’s UFC 173 showdown with Henderson will likely determine the number one contender for Jon Jones light heavyweight title. To become a UFC champion is an opportunity that Cormier has sough after since he made his MMA debut in 2009, one year after his 2008 Olympic dreams fell short due to kidney failure cost him the opportunity to compete. He’s so close that he can taste it, but he has to get by the living legend Henderson first.
“It’s natural to see the light at the end of the tunnel but it’s still all a dream,” Cormier says of his championship hopes. “If I don’t take care of business against Dan Hendrson I don’t get the right to dream anymore. Even though it hasn’t happened, I still enjoy the ability to think about it but if I lose Saturday, I can’t even think about it.” Interestingly enough, Cormier enters the fight as a near 7-1 favorite. When he’s told the odds, his eyebrows raise and he shrugs off the notion as being offensive to someone the stature of Henderson.
“That’s nonsense,” he says about Henderson’s underdog status. Henderson has been competing in MMA before Cormier became a highly decorated wrestler at Oklahoma State University. He calls the first fighter to simultaneously hold world championships in two different PRIDE FC weight classes a legend and feels that there’s no way that he should have come in as a favorite. “He’s legend and has done so much more than I have in my career. Guys like him can’t ever live up to what I make them out to be. I make them out to be Godzilla with Mike Tyson’s punching power and Royce Gracie’s jiujitsu. If I was betting and saw a line like that, I’d drop money on Dan Henderson.”
Nevertheless, the former Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Champion has been quite the impressive fighter since turning pro nearly five years ago. He’s unbeaten at 14-0 and has already toppled other future hall of famers such as Josh Barnett and Frank Mir. He could have opted to make a run at the UFC heavyweight title, but with his teammate Cain Velasquez having a firm grip on the top spot, Cormier opted to drop down a weight class. He was already considered a small heavyweight at 5’11” with a jutting belly, but the kidney failure issue from his Olympic days had him fearful of shedding weight due to the effect that cutting excess water weight had on his body. However, after some pushing by his teammates to live a healthier and cleaner lifestyle, Cormier decided to put his body to the test. And it has paid off in dividends.
“I’ve always been the guy who can run and jump but at heavyweight I couldn’t do those things as well,” Cormier says about his recent weight drop and debut as a light heavyweight earlier this year where he demolished Patrick Cummins in the first round. “I feel better at 205 pounds. You know when you lose yourself a little bit? This is like welcoming myself back. This is the guy I remember being. All around I’m better and am living a better life.”
While Cormier admits that he was initially scared of cutting weight since that episode at the Olympics nearly cost him his life, he was also too focused on making the transition from being a wrestler to becoming a mixed martial artist to even consider trying to employ a new diet.
“When I first started fighting MMA I had no skills so I couldn’t take on the extra aspect of cutting weight,” Cormier explains. “I just couldn’t handle that at the beginning. Before I ate whatever I wanted and then went to train. It’s been 5 years since I’ve had to lose any weight. Now I can manage my weight better since I’ve improved as a fight.”
Although he misses chowing down on Popeyes chicken, the benefits of being a smaller, faster and more powerful version of Cormier is what puts fear in the hearts of all light heavyweights. He’s still evolving as a fighter and has shown a new wrinkle in his game every time he steps into the cage. The scary thing is, he’s not even close to reaching his full potential. “I haven’t been doing this that long,” he says. “This is still an unfinished product. I don’t know when it will all come together but hopefully soon.”