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Former Olympian Daniel Cormier Takes AKA's Wrestling Program Back to the Basics

Ask Daniel Cormier what he changed about the American Kickboxing Academy's wrestling program and you'll get a very simple answer: "Everything."

It wasn't so much tweaking as it was ripping it all out and starting from scratch. Which, according to AKA co-founder and trainer Javier Mendez, is exactly what they needed.

"He 100 percent revamped the wrestling program," Mendez said. "When he came over and I saw his ability with teaching, I told our management, I don't care if this guy develops as a fighter, because worst-case scenario, we got a great wrestling coach. As it looks, we got both: great fighter and great wrestling coach."

It wasn't that the San Jose, Calif.-based gym was lacking in wrestlers before Cormier showed up. Between Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, and Cain Velasquez, the squad had plenty of guys who had done their time in college wrestling rooms.

What they didn't have, according to Mendez, was somebody willing to take the lead as a teacher and a coach.

"We didn't have anybody who really loved the teaching. Koscheck didn't like it. Fitch didn't like it. They're more interested in themselves. Daniel actually loves to teach, and that made him better with technique than anyone else. He's got a passion for teaching and a knack for it like I've never seen."

It wasn't that Cormier brought in new ideas, necessarily, but rather that he helped his teammates return to the old ones that had helped get them to where they were.

"I went in, and these guys are good wrestlers," Cormier said. "Really good wrestlers. Fitch, Kos is an NCAA champion, four-time All-American. Cain's an All-American three or four times. But what we did is we went back to the basics."

And by basics, Cormier means they started having wrestling practice again, just like some of them had done in college, and others had done, well, never. As the only two-time Olympic wrestling team member in the gym, Cormier made it his mission to strip everything down and start from the beginning in order to focus on technique above all else, he said.

"We all develop bad habits over the course of our careers, in terms of wrestling and everything else. But we went back and went to the basics, started doing basic wrestling practice. We'd get in there two days a week and we'd do wrestling practice as if we were at Oklahoma State or the Olympic Training Center. No punching, just straight wrestling practice. Not many gyms around the country do that. That's why you see some of the better wrestlers [in MMA], their skill level diminishes as they move forward."

Cormier was determined not to be one of those guys as his MMA career advanced. He showed up at AKA with a wealth of wrestling experience, but not much else. Strapping on the gloves and getting on the mats made for a humbling experience at first, he admitted. The first time that he got taken down in sparring by a fighter with no formal wrestling training he realized that this was whole new sport, with entirely different demands.

What really drove that lesson home was taking on Velasquez -- the current UFC heavyweight champion -- in some seriously one-sided sparring sessions.

"Some days I'd only be able to go a half a round with him, half a five-minute round, and I'd roll under the ring I'd be so exhausted. Well, when I was down on myself, [Velasquez] would come over and talk to me. And Koscheck, you know, most people don't expect it from him...but he did it. He came to me and told me, 'You're getting better, just stay the course and learn.' And Fitch, Fitch is one of the best leaders you can ever find. Those guys lifted me up when I had hard days, and it's paying off now."

At the same time, while Cormier gave his AKA teammates the benefit of his wrestling knowledge, they were equipping him with what he needed to become successful mixed martial artist -- and they were doing it whether he liked it or not.

"It's not like I can just take Cain down any time I want, so I have to stand in the pocket with him and fight him," Cormier said. "I can take him down, but I can't just go in there and say, I'm going to take Cain down this time. It doesn't work that way; he's a world champion. So I have to stand in front of the best heavyweight in the world and bang with him. I do it on a daily basis."

Cormier's gains in the striking department were evident in his bout with Jeff Monson on last weekend's Strikeforce: Overeem vs. Werdum card. For three rounds he battered the MMA veteran on the feet en route to a unanimous decision.

It was almost enough to make you wonder what all that time working on straight wrestling was for, since Cormier never looked to engage Monson on the mat. That's a lot of hours invested in takedowns for a guy who relied so much on his right hand.

But then, it's not like Cormier really needed to improve his wrestling game to begin with. The changes he made at AKA, he did for the other people in the gym. And seeing it pay off for them is reward enough, he said.

"We train wrestling hard and we do it two days a week. At first it was physical. It was real physical and hard and it was hard for us to get through the rest of the week... But the guys love it. They enjoy it, and everybody's getting better. I saw a kid in the room the other day that couldn't wrestle to save his life. But by just paying attention, wrestling every week hard, he's getting a ton better. Now, that's not me -- that's him. He's paying attention to everything we're trying to teach him and he's learning and committing himself to the sport. Now he's taking down wrestlers."

And you better believe that nobody gets more excited about that turn of events than Cormier -- even if you wouldn't know it if you watched him forego double-legs in favor of switch kicks and Superman punches.