HOUSTON -- Off to the corner of a makeshift stage within the bowels of the Toyota Center, AKA head coach Javier Mendez shifts his weight and gazes out at the throng of bodies churning around his two star pupils. Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez hold court not far away, Cormier in his beige blazer, Velasquez accompanied by his glittering UFC belt, and Mendez just shakes his head.
"Right off the bat, when Daniel came to AKA, knowing full well that he's a heavyweight, knowing that he's an Olympian, he's a high level individual coming to AKA, Cain embraced him," Mendez marvels.
"Daniel was very impressed with that. Daniel felt like, ‘Man, this guy knows we may fight one day and he's giving me everything. He's showing me everything.' The relationship felt really good right off the bat."
Mixed martial arts, like most combat sports, is an inherently selfish endeavor. Athletes lean on their teammates in hundreds of ways, but when the lights draw low and an arena explodes into a frenzy of white noise, those relationships mean little. It's just the way this game works. One man wears the crown, the others are relegated to chasing him down.
When Cormier arrived at AKA in 2009, a two-time Olympic wrestler in his athletic prime, Velasquez had already established himself; the undefeated cardio machine who'd run roughshod over the lower UFC ranks. Had Velasquez shut Cormier out, none could've blamed him. After all, the heavyweight division is notoriously thin. Why trade secrets with the man who may one day break down your door and steal everything?
But instead Velasquez saw opportunity, and thus the partnership was formed. "That was the best thing for us," Velasquez simply says.
Looking back, the relationship between Cormier and Velasquez almost played out too perfectly -- as if it was ripped straight from an 80's Hollywood script. Shots of early struggles interspersed between montages of Cormier's wrestling tweaks and Velasquez doling out another exhaustive lesson inside the AKA sparring cage. In the end both friends are ranked No. 1 and No. 3 in the world, as the chugging vibrations of Joe Esposito fade into rascally laughter. End scene.
"It's goal setting, man," Cormier says with a smile. "You have to always have something. There can't be a finish line. If the finish line is right there, you have to push it out a little bit further so that you're always working and always improving.
"It's always easier when you have something to accomplish."
There was a time when Mendez worried how this would all play out, juggling two premier heavyweights under one roof. Velasquez had risen to the heights of UFC champion, while Cormier was the surprise victor of Strikeforce's stacked heavyweight tournament. If both organizations stayed intact, it'd be easy to keep the pair's battles contained within the halls of AKA every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
"But then when [Strikeforce] got bought out, the reality set in," Mendez says. "Oh crap, this is a possibility.
"But Daniel, on his own, said, ‘Hey, I'm not fighting him. I'm dropping weight.' This wasn't us talking to Daniel. This was Daniel making a decision. No one encouraged him, no one indicated to him. No. It was Daniel. That's what kind of person Daniel is."
It's a decision that, in many ways, flies in the face of what we've come to expect from our professional athletes -- who exist in a realm filled with short windows where greed trumps all. Being known as a top-5 fighter in the world is nice, but life changes with that belt. Opportunities drastically increase, and most of all, so do the zeros on one's paycheck.
While teammates electing to not fight teammates is nothing new, reality in the heavyweight division is different. Only within its beefy ranks is the mantle of ‘Baddest Man on the Planet' up for grabs. It's the marquee to supersede all other marquees, yet Cormier is willing to relinquish it without nary a complaint.
"To watch Daniel do what he does, it's pretty amazing," Mendez says. "Knowing full well that he could be the king of the kings, which is to me the heavyweight (champion), that Daniel chooses to go down to the light heavyweight division, not because he can't compete at heavyweight -- Daniel could very well be the champion at the heavyweight division -- he's just doing it because of his friendship and his love for Cain.
"You don't see that. Daniel's special. Not only is he a great athlete, but he's got a great heart."
For Cormier, a transition as drastic as the drop to 205 would be hard enough by itself. But factor in his infamous failed 2008 Olympic weight cut, when the drain down to 211 pounds and resulting kidney failure derailed a lifelong dream of an Olympic gold medal, and the idea of Cormier willingly volunteering himself for another go-round becomes much more stark.
"It was tough, because I've been big," Cormier admits. "When I fought Bigfoot, I weighed 249 pounds. It didn't seem as realistic as I wanted it to be. But when you start to get a little bit lighter, and start to feel better about the weight cut, it's not that bad. I don't want to fight Cain.
"Cain's helped me a lot. I would not be where I am today, in this short period of time, if I didn't have one of the best fighters in the world to go against every single day."
And so Cormier did what he vowed to do, abandoning a shot at heavyweight glory to preserve a friendship he holds dear. He arrived in Houston looking leaner than he had throughout his entire career. While Velasquez tipped the scales at 241 pounds to a raucous Toyota Center on Friday, Cormier landed at a much more modest 224 -- 26 pounds lighter than he was in his professional debut.
If Saturday's heavyweight trilogy is settled in Velasquez's favor, Cormier may've been the next man up to bat. But that option was never realistic, not for the two titans of AKA. Win or lose at UFC 166, light heavyweight is Cormier's new path. According to Mendez, three months of final preparations after Cormier fights Roy Nelson, and this selfless decision will be compete.
Then, as Mendez says, "it's showtime."