The news of Strikeforce's upcoming heavyweight tournament was a bombshell development for a company still working on prying eyes from the UFC. And it's also a welcome scenario for the Strikeforce athletes, who are well aware of the extra spotlight it is likely to bring, even to fighters who are not part of the field.
One such fighter who may receive added attention from it is Daniel Cormier
, an undefeated fighter who is among a group of rising stars in Strikeforce's heavyweight ranks.
On Friday night, Cormier (6-0) will face Devin Cole
in a featured bout on Showtime's Strikeforce Challenger series.
In 2010, Cormier fast-tracked his development, fighting five times. In 2011, he hopes to take his career to the next level, fighting some of Strikeforce's stars. A win over Cole, his most experienced opponent at 18-8-1, may be the fight to get him there.
"I'm constantly getting better, so I think I'm at a point in my career where I'm going to be fighting the better guys here pretty soon," Cormier told MMA Fighting in a recent interview. "So I've got to be constantly getting better in the gym. I've got to be careful, to train every day and train hard. My preparation has been good for Devin. Before I was just training to get better and rounding out my game. But when I get an opponent, I can focus on him."
Cormier, a two-time U.S. wrestling Olympian, has made the transition to MMA in a relatively smooth fashion, finishing all six of his opponents inside of two rounds.
But he says the move wasn't as smooth as his record indicates. After his MMA debut in September 2009, Cormier wanted to get back in the cage quickly, but was slowed down by his training staff at American Kickboxing Academy.
He quickly realized they were making the right move for him.
"In the beginning, I wanted to fight all the time, but I wasn't good enough," he said. "Like my first fight, it was just bad. I wasn't good enough, so my guys at AKA wouldn't let me. But now that I'm getting better, [trainer] Bob Cook is more comfortable with me fighting more often. It's something I want to do. I like it. In wrestling we competed a lot, and I want to take that approach. Now, I'm getting better so I can do that more."
His learning curve was helped along by the entire AKA team, but most notably the man who recently captured the UFC heavyweight championship, Cain Velasquez
While preparing to join the Strikeforce elite, Cormier has had the good fortune of preparing with the UFC elite, including its heavyweight kingpin. Needless to say, he learned a few things the hard way.
"I've got to get better learning across the cage from Cain," he said with a smile. "I've got to find confidence from that to know I can get in there with anybody. When I go into the cage now, I'm thinking, 'OK, this isn't Cain.' I go in there every day and I spar with Cain Velasquez. This guy isn't Cain. I find comfort in that, honestly. This guy is the UFC champion. He's the No. 1 heavyweight in the world. So I think to myself, 'I'm not fighting him, so why should I lose?' That's like my thing. It's what I tell myself before I go fight. 'This ain't Cain.'"
Like Cormier, Cole grew up on the wrestling mats, and he went on to compete collegiately at Southern Oregon University, but no one mistakes his resume with that of Cormier's.
Cormier says the adjustment from wrestling takedowns to MMA takedowns was one of mind set, saying, "it's almost like you have to dumb it down a little bit," because most MMA fighters are not high-level wrestlers. The focus, he says, needs to be on timing even more than technique.
But his greatest enjoyment has come from learning the striking portion of the game. He says he didn't have a tough time learning how to take a hit.
"I grew up in Louisiana and I used to get beat up all the time. That part came pretty naturally," he jokes.
All of it, he hopes, has been a prelude to a long and successful career. As a former Olympian, he has to believe that fights like Cole have to be steps on the way to something bigger. Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker told MMA Fighting that Cormier may have a chance to be an alternate in the promotion's upcoming heavyweight tournament, but even if he doesn't get that opportunity, Cormier feels like he's fast on the way to sharing a cage with the Alistair Overeems, Fedor Emelianenkos and Fabricio Werdums of the world.
"There's no mid-tier," he said. "That's the thing about Strikeforce, it's really a separation between these elite-level guys and then us, the guys that are coming up. There's kind of no gatekeepers to go through to get to that level. I think I'm getting on the cusp of that where I'm one, maybe two fights away from being in the thick of it, fighting against what I believe are some of the best heavyweights in the world.
"I've got to keep working in the gym," he continued. "It's not going to come from in-cage experience. One day I'm going to fight Devin Cole, and then six months later, I'm going be standing across the cage from Brett Rogers or Josh Barnett. It's not going to be learning on the job. I've got to get better with learning across the cage from Cain. I've got to find confidence from that to know I can get in there with anybody."