Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Things aren't often quiet at the American Kickboxing Academy gym in San Jose, Calif. When you're the home to several of the country's top mixed martial artists, there's always someone with a big upcoming fight.
Rarely, though, are two of the world's best in the same weight class simultaneously training at the same gym for major matches. But that's been the case in Northern California over the past several weeks.
A pair of AKA fighters -- former Olympic wrestler Daniel Cormier and former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez -- have bouts on successive Saturdays which will help determine the direction at the top of the 265-pound weight class through 2012 and beyond.
Saturday, the undefeated Cormier, who is ranked No. 8 at heavyweight in the USA Today/SB Nation consensus rankings, stays at home to tangle with Josh Barnett in the finals of the Strikeforce Grand Prix at the HP Pavilion. Then on May 26, Velasquez, ranked No. 3, will face Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva in the co-main event of UFC 146 in Las Vegas.
"There's always something going on here," said AKA founder and trainer Javier Mendez. "Someone's always getting ready for a fight. I hadn't stopped to think about it, but yeah, now that you mention it, there is some extra energy in the gym these days."
For Mendez, having heavyweights the level of Cormier and Velasquez around to work with one another is as much a practical matter as anything else.
"It means one less person we have to pay to come in and train," said Mendez.
But he also recognizes the value inherent in having both peak for their fights around the same time. Velasquez is more advanced at the all-around MMA game at this stage. Cormier, for his part, has world-stage experience on the wrestling mat, winning gold at the Pan-Am Games and bronze at the World Championship.
So the two have much to offer one another as Velasquez prepares to meet an opponent with a height and reach advantage, and Cormier readies himself for one of the saltiest veterans in the sport.
"Cain's an animal, man," said Cormier. "Cain's a competitor. I want to spar with Cain because I know if I'm able to hang with him here in the gym, once I get out there in the cage and fight, I mean, I've already gone toe-to-toe with Cain Velasquez, you know?"
Velasquez is often reserved when speaking about himself, but in a phone interview, he was eloquent when describing the benefits of working with a wrester of Cormier's caliber.
"He's one of the best in the world," said Velasquez. "You don't always get the opportunity to work with a wrestler with Daniel's level of technique. Every time we're on the mat I feel like I come away a better wrestler."
Not to mention bringing out his competitive edge.
"Here's the thing about having a wrestler the caliber of Daniel train with Cain," Mendez said. "Cain's got to give 100 percent. Cain knows if he slips up, Daniel's going to put him on his ass."
And neither fighter is about to give an inch simply because they're friends.
"We don't hold back," said Cormier. "You have to understand, I like it that way. You might not think that, but I want Cain to give me his best. That's the only way I'm going to improve."
"We go," Velasquez said with a hint of a laugh. "We go at it."
As he trains for his UFC 146 bout, Velasquez finds himself in a unique career spot. He hasn't yet hit his 30th birthday and he still only has 10 career fights, with just one loss. And yet he finds himself in the position of an ex-champion looking to prove he's worthy of another title shot.
According to Mendez, Velasquez has processed everything that's gone down over the past two years, from winning the title against Brock Lesnar, to a torn rotator cuff, to losing the title to Junior dos Santos, with the sort of aplomb that suggests he's ready for the long haul.
"Cain has reached a good point in his maturity," said Mendez. "In a quick period of time, he's gone from contender, to winning the championship and everything that goes with it, to being hurt, to losing the title. Now that he understands everything that goes with it, he's focused. You're going to see a more mature fighter."
To do that, Velasquez is going to have to meet "Bigfoot" Silva. Cormier earned his slot in the Strikeforce Grand Prix final with a first-round knockout of Silva in September. But that's not the only time an AKA fighter has met Silva, as Mike Kyle, who is also on Saturday night's Strikeforce card, fought Silva back in 2010 and lost in the second round.
"Obviously it's not as simple as saying ‘Hey I knocked him out, you should do the same,'" Cormier says. "Mike Kyle fought Silva, and if you watch the tape, he had some good success during the fight before he lost, he was doing well. So if you're someone like Cain, you learn from what Mike was able to do, you learn from what I was able to do, and you incorporate that into your own game plan and your own strengths."
Cormier, meanwhile, might be on the same train Velasquez rode a couple years back. While he's still relatively inexperienced in MMA at the highest level, his game has shown tremendous progress every time out.
The general consensus around the MMA world is that the Grand Prix has dragged on forever, but Cormier feels it has passed in the blink of an eye. He started as an alternate, then was inserted into the semifinals when Alistair Overeem left the company to go to the UFC.
"When this first thing started, I looked at the lineup and I thought ‘I don't want to even be in this thing'" he said. "Just looking at those names: Fedor, Overeem, Josh Barnett, it's a who's who. Now I'm in the main event. So for me, in some ways it feels like its happened real fast."
A win over Barnett would give Cormier a tremendous career boost and make him the heavyweight division's hottest up-and-comer. Velasquez has been there and done that, and he sees in Cormier a fighter who isn't going to be distracted by the trappings of success.
"He's handling it fine," said Velasquez. "This is a guy who has been to the world championships and been to the Olympics. This isn't going to his head."
As we head toward the weekend, the hard sparring is done. Cormier is busy with his fight-week media obligations with the bout only two days away, and Velasquez is tapering down his workouts before he heads out to Las Vegas early next week for the circus which awaits.
Come Memorial Day, the gym could be home of both the Strikeforce Grand Prix champ and a former UFC titleholder in line for his rematch. But regardless of the outcomes, Cormier knows he's gotten the most out of his training camp.
"I'm feeling good," he said. "I'm ready. Get me in there and lock the cage door, I'm as ready as I can be."
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