It started as a harmless joke in an unusually friendly post-fight press conference. Josh Barnett, having punched his ticket to the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix finals with a submission win over Sergei Kharitonov just moments earlier, casually mentioned his plan to score at least one takedown when he finally met fellow finalist Daniel Cormier to decide the whole thing.
Not that he had any illusions of completely out-wrestling the former U.S. Olympic team captain, Barnett explained later. But if he could nab just one takedown, that would be enough to earn Cormier a lifetime’s worth of mockery from fellow wrestlers like "King" Mo Lawal, which would in turn bring a smile to the "Baby-Faced Assassin’s" face.
Cormier, however, wasn’t laughing. That’s because Cormier doesn’t joke like that. Not about wrestling. Not about the prospect of getting taken down by a guy who didn’t even wrestle in college. As the undefeated heavyweight told MMA Fighting recently, there’s more at stake here than just his reputation among his training partners -- something he found out for himself when he was giving wrestling pointers to a college team recently, and the guys there giggled at the mere thought of Barnett taking him down.
"Right now I can still go into any wrestling room in the country and people will listen to what I say," Cormier said. "If Barnett takes me down, I won’t be able to do that. They won't look at me the same way. This is serious, man."
Maybe you have to be a wrestler to understand it. Maybe you have to know what it feels like to be able to stroll into some college team's wrestling practice and be instantly respected and revered. Not only was Cormier a two-time Olympian in the sport, he's the man responsible for revamping the American Kickboxing Academy's wrestling program. He's the one telling some of MMA's best wrestlers what to do. How would it look if he got put on his back by a catch wrestler? How could he ever live it down if he surrendered a double-leg to some guy who splits his time between MMA and Japanese pro wrestling? You better believe it's serious.
Of course, you could argue that it’s serious for more reasons than just wrestling room credibility. It is, after all, the Grand Prix final. Cormier began as an inexperienced reserve in Strikeforce’s ambitious heavyweight tournament, but after knocking out Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva he now finds himself one victory away from winning it all.
Then again, if the fate of the tournament’s other fighters is any indication, losing might not be such a bad career move. One by one, almost all the Grand Prix heavyweights have made the move over to the UFC, and found great success there. The winner of the fight between Cormier and Barnett will stick around in Strikeforce for at least one more post-Grand Prix bout, according to Zuffa officials, though the idea of delaying his move to the Octagon doesn’t bother Cormier, he said.
"To me, it’s not a negative thing to be in Strikeforce. You have to remember, this is where I started. This is all I know. To be the best heavyweight in this organization, that would be a privilege to me. I just want to fight good guys, and obviously the guys in Strikeforce must be good guys because the ones who have gone over to the UFC are winning their fights. Obviously we’ve been fighting high-level competition."
At the same time, you’d have a hard time finding a fighter on the Strikeforce roster who wouldn’t like a chance to test his skills in the UFC, and Cormier is no different. At 33 years old, he came to MMA relatively late in life. He’s got to make his years in the sport count, and there’s no denying that the UFC is the biggest stage in MMA.
"I do think that at some point in your career, it’s important to experience the show. And the UFC is the show," Cormier said. "It’s the biggest event, the brightest lights, the best there is. But right now I’ve got time. I’ve got to get through this fight with Josh, and then the one afterwards. This is a big fight, regardless of whether it’s in Strikeforce or anywhere else."
For Cormier, the months since his win over Silva in the semifinals have been all about recovery. He broke his right hand early on in that fight and was only recently cleared to start using it in sparring again. That meant he got plenty of chances to work on using his left, which in turn translated to a lot of beatings in the practice room, he said. Now he’s back to full strength, and spending most of his days going head-to-head against former UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez, who has a fight of his own to prepare for at UFC 146, just one week after Cormier takes on Barnett.
Sparring with Velasquez might improve his conditioning, Cormier admitted, but there are days when it "just plain sucks," he said. Maybe it’s also good for him to get used to punching a friend in the head with his newly repaired right hand. That’s what he’ll have to do on May 19, when he takes on an opponent who he likes as a person, but who he knows is intent on ruining his rep in wrestling rooms all across the country.
"I’ve got a job," said Cormier. "For Josh, I don’t think us being friendly is going the change the way he fights in the cage. It sure won’t change the way I fight in the cage. I’ve got a job to do and a family to support, so I’m going to go out there and give it everything and let the chips fall where they may."