SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The first kid begins to cry less than an hour into practice. Everyone can see it coming. That trembling lower lip, that frustrated stomp of the feet. When the tears finally start, twisting his face into a little ball of anguish, no one seems particularly surprised.
"No crying today," says his coach, Daniel Cormier
. Is there even a hint of sympathy in his voice? There is not. Neither is there anger nor impatience. There is only a sense that this is what we are doing because this is what must be done, and crying never won a single wrestling match.
The kid, who is maybe ten or eleven years old, does his best to stay strong. He sniffs hard, trying to suck all the tears and snot and shame back into his face, but there's little time to compose himself. Already Cormier is signaling for his next tormentor to step to the center of the mat and resume the storm of takedowns that has brought him to this point. The kid can't take much more of this. The kid is losing it.
"No crying," Cormier reminds him before turning his attention to the new opponent who's just joined the fray, fresh and eager. "Now," he says to the new boy, motioning him toward his blubbering, red-faced teammate, "Break him!"
And where are the parents? The parents are there. They're leaning over the back wall of what was once a racquetball court, watching their boys learn to play rough. They knew what they were signing their kids up for. This isn't Little League. It's not one of those youth soccer leagues, all orange wedges at halftime and equal playing time for everyone. This is Tuesday night youth wrestling practice at the American Kickboxing Academy's sprawling two-story gym in the South Bay, and Cormier at the helm, it's serious business.
This particular drill -- one kid in the middle, with fresh opponents cycling in every minute until he can barely stand -- is not so much about improving technique as it is about learning how to take your ass-whipping like a man. And who better to teach it than Cormier, a former U.S. Olympic wrestling team captain and current top-ten ranked, undefeated MMA fighter, who sees no apparent contradiction between imploring one kid to keep it together and, in the very next breath, instructing the other to take him apart?
"Okay, okay," he says once the exhausted crying kid has been planted on his back yet again. "Let him up. Let him up, but stay on him
This is one part of the drill all the boys have down by now. As they climb off their foe and watch him stagger to his feet, they shove him away with all the gusto of kids finally getting to do something that's forbidden everywhere else in their lives. No pushing? In the lunch line at school, maybe. Not here. Here they shove. Here they grab him by the head and fling him around. His fatigue has rendered him almost completely helpless, and they're loving it.
Until it's their turn, anyway. And everybody's turn is coming, as Cormier reminds them when they're fighting back tears of frustration and exhaustion near the end of the round. Revenge is just around the corner. All you have to do is hold on and wait. All you have to do is not break, even as your 250-pound wrestling coach is standing there, shouting at the other kid to break you.
"That was a huge step forward," Cormier tells me later, once the exhausted, sweat-soaked ten-year-olds have limped out of the room and into their parents' waiting minivans outside. "Just getting them not to cry, that's a huge step."
The way Cormier sees it, that's as much a part of what he's doing with the kids' wrestling practices as anything else. The techniques they can learn anywhere. But learning the peculiar joy that wrestlers take in breaking an opponent and refusing to be broken themselves? That's something that the 32-year-old Cormier may be uniquely qualified to teach them.
The temptation in stories like these is to look for the 'Rosebud' moment, some defining experience that will explain everything that comes after. More often than not, there isn't one. For most people, there are several. One piles up on top of another and another and another.
Take Thanksgiving Day, 1986. Cormier is a seven year-old kid growing up in Lafayette, Louisiana, when his father, long since split from Cormier's mother, is shot and killed by the father of his second wife.
You can almost imagine the way this story goes. Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws, an argument ensues, things get out of hand. Then bang. You've got a tragedy in your living room.
"And the guy walked free," Cormier says, relating the story now like it happened to somebody else. "I'm sure she was thinking, well, I've already lost my husband. I don't want to lose my father too. Plus, it was his house. You know, self-defense."
On paper, that seems like the kind of event that would immediately change everything about your life. But really, Cormier says, it was his older brother, who was 19 at the time, who took the brunt of that one, at least for the time being.
"I think I was young enough that I didn't really know enough to really understand what happened. Then I got older and realized, hey, my dad got murdered
. But I was lucky. My parents were divorced, and my stepdad had been there for me since I was about three. He was my father, really. My dad was my dad, but he was my father. He raised me to be the man that I am today."
As a kid, Cormier was a gifted athlete. Football, basketball -- he even won the regional version of the pass, dribble, and shoot competition when he was nine. It was shortly after that when he first discovered wrestling, the sport that would change his life. Back then, however, it was just one of several sports that he excelled at. Not only was Cormier a three-time state champion wrestler in high school, but he was also a standout linebacker on his high school football team. And in Louisiana, football was a religion.
"Our team was terrible, though," Cormier says. "We'd fight all the time. We were like the Bad News Bears."
The problem wasn't so much a lack of talent as a lack of discipline, according to Cormier. Their coach would call one defense and the guys on the defensive line would decide to play another. Everyone led and no one followed.
"I think that left a sour taste in my mouth about football. It was like, man, I have to depend on all these other dudes? Forget this. I've never done another team sport after that."
In wrestling, he didn't have that problem. He might have been dependent on his teammates in training, but when he walked out on the mats to compete, he was the only one he had to trust. That suited him, and he would end up turning down scholarship offers for football in order to pursue wrestling at Colby Junior College in Kansas.
Soon the awards and the medals began to pile up. He went from a high school state champion to a junior college national champion to an All-American at Oklahoma State. It was more or less a given that he'd wrestle for the U.S. on the international stage, and everything seemed to be going according to plan.
But just as he was gearing up to make the Olympic freestyle squad for the 2004 Athens games, tragedy found its way into his life again. On June 14, 2003, Cormier's three-month old daughter, Kaedyn, was killed in a car accident after an 18-wheeler slammed into the back of a friend's car. Kaedyn was strapped into a car seat inside, but it couldn't save her life during the violent collision that left two others injured.
Cormier was 23 years old at the time. He'd only just gotten a taste of fatherhood, but he loved it. He thought about all the times he'd tried to soothe his crying infant daughter by driving her around the neighborhood, trying to locate a song on the radio that would act as a fitting lullaby. He finally settled on Heather Headley's R&B ballad, "I Wish I Wasn't."
"I don't know why, maybe the lady's voice was soothing, but she loved it," he says. "I'd put it on, drive her around Stillwater, [Oklahoma,] and she'd stop crying, go to sleep."
After the accident that killed his daughter, Cormier had no choice but to pull it together and get back on the mat. USA Wrestling arranged a special wrestle-off for its world team trials in order to let Cormier grieve. He won it and earned his first spot on the big stage, and again his wrestling career seemed to be the one dependable constant in his life, even as he continued to struggle with the loss of his daughter.
"When she died, I thought, this is the worst thing that can possibly happen," he says. "Then, the Olympics."
The people who know Cormier know exactly what he means when he refers to 'The Olympics.' Even though he was on two U.S. Olympic wrestling teams, and even though his fourth-place finish in the 2004 games seemed like a heartbreaker at the time, it was nothing compared to 2008 in Beijing.
The important thing to know about what happened in Beijing, Cormier will tell you even now, is that he made the weight. Somehow this gets lost in the telling and re-telling of it, so much so that it still gets brought up by teammates who want to needle him over his diet or physique.
But the fact is that when it came time to step on the scales in Beijing, Cormier made the 211-pound limit. It was what came after that derailed his Olympic dreams.
"I made the weight, and afterwards my body just went insane," he says. "I was vomiting, cramping. I couldn't walk. I didn't know what the hell was going on."
Cormier collapsed and was taken to the makeshift hospital inside the Olympic village, where doctors put him on IVs all night to treat him for what appeared to be kidney failure. As they explained, it was likely the result of cutting weight the wrong way for so many years, and he was simply unlucky enough to have it catch up with him at the worst possible time. Of course, that explanation didn't sit well with Cormier.
"I took [the IVs] out and said, 'I'm going to wrestle.' It was about eight o'clock. The competition started at nine or ten. The lady from the [United States Olympic Committee] said, 'Listen, they are not going to let you wrestle. You've been on IVs all night. What do you think you're doing?' I was all broken up. I was crying. I was a mess. My mom was sitting there crying. My ex[-wife] was crying. Everybody was crying. Everybody was freaking out, because I was just going insane."
As U.S. wrestling coach Kevin Jackson remembers it, the devastation struck them all at once as they watched Cormier come to grips with the situation.
"I was in the room when they told him he would not be able to wrestle, and the emotions that hit him were overwhelming," Jackson says. "You know, I teared up. It's the Olympic Games. Those opportunities don't come along very often, and he'd had two."
As Jackson saw it, Cormier had had "a very good chance to wrestle for a gold medal" that year, and now he wouldn't even make it onto the mat. It was a disappointment not just for Cormier, but for the entire U.S. wrestling community, which wasn't entirely sympathetic when he returned home.
"It didn't seem like I got the most support from everybody," says Cormier. "The USA wrestling people were really mad at me. Kevin Jackson stood by me. He was kind of the only one. He actually lost his job behind all that."
Jackson resigned his position as head coach after the 2008 games, he says, and the Cormier situation was only part of the reason for it.
"The people he was closest to, who he thought loved and supported him the most, they turned their back on him a little bit," Jackson says. "They didn't look at how it affected him; they looked at how it affected them and their program."
The way they saw it, Cormier had torpedoed their medal hopes with an irresponsible weight-cut.
As Jackson puts it: "The doctor said that eventually it would have happened, and unfortunately it happened at the worst time. It was a consequence of not only losing weight the wrong way, but doing so when he was aware of the right way to do it. That's the only place I really fault Daniel in this whole situation. He was a professional athlete, an Olympic athlete being paid to wrestle, and he was responsible for being at his best, and this was a part of that. I had been communicating with him about that since 2006, talking about...different things we needed to do, weight-wise. Unfortunately, it came back to haunt us."
Once he got home, Cormier fell into a deep depression. A few weeks earlier he'd been an Olympic hopeful -- one of his country's best wrestlers. Now the nation's wrestling apparatus wanted nothing to do with him, and his life suddenly seemed empty and devoid of purpose.
"I felt so alone. It was just me and my family. I had so many breakdowns. My ex would be at work and she'd call me and I'd be crying, so she'd rush home to make sure I didn't do anything to myself. It was that bad. I just walked around like a zombie. I was taking sleeping pills, pain pills. I just wanted anything to take the pain away. I felt like I'd let everybody down."
Even now, all you have to do is mention the Olympics to Cormier and you can watch his face fall. At dinner in a hotel a couple nights before his Strikeforce bout against Antonio Silva, AKA teammate Luke Rockhold brought it up to make a point about the futility of Cormier even considering a potential bout at light heavyweight, and that was all it took to get Cormier practically jumping out of his chair.
"It sticks with me to this day," he says. "I think about it all the time. I mean, the Olympics? I can't not think about it. And the guys, we can make fun of each other all the time, but when they bring that up it just kills me. It drains me."
Cormier tried to lead a regular life after that. He had a job selling advertising space at a TV station in Oklahoma. He hated it, because "I felt like a telemarketer," but it was something. He coached on the side. He thought he would do what every other wrestler did, which was hang around and wait his turn to get a head coaching spot for some college team.
He even tried playing in an adult softball league, just to satisfy the competitive urges. It was no good. Again he was dependent on other people.
"I was dying," he says. "I was drinking every night after work. I didn't even leave for lunch anymore. I just stayed in my office and slept."
Meanwhile, his old wrestling buddy Mo Lawal was in his ear about this MMA stuff, all the money that an elite wrestler could make at it once he learned the basics of the other arts.
"It was crazy. Mo had so much money. He was sending me money. He's like my little brother, and he's sending me money. He was fighting every month, and they paid him $48,000 a fight in Japan when he was first starting out."
Better still, Lawal was getting to compete. He wasn't dying slowly in an office somewhere. He wasn't depressed every day, dreading the alarm clock going off the next morning. Dreading tomorrow, next week, next year. Whatever was doing that for him, Cormier had to get a piece. Something had to change.
"You go through so many things, and it's like one cloudy day after another," he says. "You think, eventually the sun's got to shine. A better day has to come. Who deserves to just get beat down into the ground, one bad thing after another?"
You see Cormier these days, and it's hard to imagine a happier, more well-adjusted person. Not only is he an undefeated heavyweight on the verge of what should be the biggest fight of his career against Josh Barnett in the Strikeforce Grand Prix finals, he's also AKA's go-to man when it comes to MMA-specific wrestling -- a role he relishes.
Ask AKA head coach Javier Mendez what Cormier changed about the team's wrestling program, and he'll tell you: "Everything."
And though on any given day the training room at AKA includes famous pro fighters who were themselves standout college wrestlers, they all answer to coach Cormier during wrestling practice.
As he takes them through warm-ups just a few days after teammate Cain Velasquez lost his UFC heavyweight title, he's quick to let everyone know that he's watching them.
"Why are you walking?" he demands of one teammate who's strolling from one drill to the next. He might as well be talking to one of his ten-year-olds, but the man isn't about to argue with Cormier. It goes on like this all afternoon.
Why is Josh Koscheck not doing push-ups with the rest of the team? Why is Todd Duffee taking his time about starting the next round? And Gray Maynard, you can't really be tired already, can you?
If you're on the mats at AKA, you're subject to Cormier's critical eye. And if you have the misfortune to be close to his weight class, as one unfortunate sparring partner is, you're about to find out how much he enjoys breaking people even in training.
At first, the guy's a game opponent. They vie for takedowns and control in the clinch, and he holds his own against Cormier. He even comes close to getting a takedown of his own, which is a sight so rare everyone looks up and stops what they're doing, as if the London Philharmonic just hit a bad note.
Then the grind starts to get to him. One round after another, this unceasing assault, and you can see it in the way he slowly shuffles over to Cormier to start a new round.
"Stop wasting time," Cormier shouts before slamming him to the mat. There's still several minutes on the clock, but this guy is done. He can barely get on his feet long enough to get taken down again, and by the end of practice he's flat on his back, looking up at Cormier, who's barely breathing hard.
"I love that," he says later. "That's something your wrestling coaches put in you, and you learn that there's nothing more satisfying than a guy laying on the mat, just done. I'm tired, but when I see him like that, I get a second wind."
Second winds are coming in many forms for Cormier these days. His MMA career couldn't be going better, even as he rehabs a broken hand and spends a lot of days sparring with one good hand, "getting blasted" as he learns to make do with a jab and some kicks. He and his girlfriend had a son in February, and he's now old enough to walk to the door to meet his father when he returns home from practice.
They've got another on the way -- "Irish twins," he says with a grin -- and even the pain and fear that lingered after his daughter's death has begun to dissipate, though it hasn't been easy. When he first drove his son home from the hospital, he says, it hit him harder than he expected.
"I was [expletive] terrified. I didn't want to go anywhere with him in the car. My girl was in the backseat with him, but I was just so scared. I was driving slow in the rain, people passing me. But guess what song comes on the radio?"
Heather Headley's "I Wish I Wasn't," of course. The same one that used to put his daughter to sleep. The one you almost never hear on the radio in 2011.
"It seemed like it was my daughter saying, 'It's going to be okay. I'm going to watch over my little brother.' That's when I was like, I think I'm going to do alright by this one. I think it's going to be okay this time. I'm catching my break."
And maybe that's what you learn after all those years in suffocating wrestling rooms, one long grind after another. Besides the double-legs and the duck unders, maybe you really learn the value of simply refusing to be broken. You find out that even when you're in a terrible position with no clear way out, all you have to do is not give up. You take it. You try and give some back. You keep pushing and you don't quit, and before you know it you're on top. You're winning. The clouds are gone and the sun is shining and the living and the dead are waving you on, telling you to keep going, keep going.