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Cuban wrestling standout Michel Batista turns to MMA, wants to face Daniel Cormier again

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The story of Cubans emigrating to the United States, leaving everything behind in search of a better future, is not an uncommon one even if each one can be unique in their own way. Michel Batista's story is part of that long, difficult transition.

Without knowing any English, Batista defected to the U.S. and moved to Johnson City, Mo. where he lived with Yban Yunior Valdez, a family friend. There, Batista worked an ordinary job moving and organizing pallets in a warehouse. But unlike most Cubans, Batista defected to the United States after wrestling at the 2014 Pan American Championship in Mexico City, Mexico.

That decision put an end to his 12-year career with Cuba's national wrestling team where he notched six gold medals at the Pan American Championships, a silver medal at the World Cup, and a gold medal at the 2007 Pan American Games that included a victory over current UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier.

The two Olympians competed against each other before the 2007 Pan American Games and were also matched up after at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.

Batista recalls the first time he faced Cormier. It was also his first time competing in the senior division after wrestling for three years in the juniors.

"For me, it was a very beautiful experience because I was starting out in Cuba's national team and my first competition was a World Cup and I faced high quality wrestlers, like in this case, Daniel Cormier. I had the opportunity to wrestle him for the first time. It was a very good battle where he came out the winner," Batista told MMAFighting.com. "The World Cup was in 2005 and I told my trainers that in 2007, at the Pan American Games, I was going to beat him. And that's what happened. We were matched up in the first match and I came out the winner."

With the two having earned a victory over the other in their first two meetings, Batista and Cormier were matched up for a third time just a year later at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.

"The third time was in the Olympic games. And again, we were matched up first but he didn't step on the mat due to medical problems that he had. He didn't go up to wrestle," Batista said.

That day the U.S wrestling captain Cormier was infamously withdrawn from the Olympics due to complications related to excessive weight cutting. Batista walked onto the mat with no opponent, had his hand raised, and went on to compete in the Olympic tournament where he placed fourth.

After the 2008 Summer Olympics, Batista returned to Cuba and kept representing his country in numerous international wrestling events where he hoped to compete with Cormier for a third time. Eventually, however, he realized it wasn't going to happen.

"In 2010, I found out Daniel Cormier was fighting. I was excited because I have always been attracted to that sport, but in Cuba we don't practice the sport, so I saw it as something that could never happen," Batista said.

Yet, after defecting to the United States and moving pallets at a warehouse in Johnson City for three months, Batista was given an opportunity to resume his athletic career by taking on MMA.

That opportunity was made possible through one of Batista's former wrestling teammates in Cuba. That teammate was UFC middleweight top contender Yoel Romero. Batista and Romero trained together in Cuba's national wrestling team and traveled the world competing in international events for almost eight years until Romero defected to Germany in 2007.

Romero found out through Facebook that his former teammate was now living in the United States and informed ML Management, his previous management company regarding Batista's whereabouts. ML Management then took the initiative to make contact.

"I was working and managers Andy Mendes and Ray Gonzalez contacted me and offered me a chance to fight. I liked the offer that they gave me, so I said I was interested in fighting. That's how my career started," Batista explained.

Batista soon moved to Miami, Fla. and began his MMA training at American Top Team Kendall. He's now trained by Manolo Lopez, who trains the likes of Alex Caceres, Yoel Romero, Jorge Masvidal, and by highly-decorated Cuban wrestler and MMA fighter Alexis Vila.

"Alexis, I knew him by sight since he is older than me. I always watched him wrestle when I was very little. I always heard of him and his results, but I got to meet him in person when I came to this country."

Earlier this year, the 31-year-old Batista competed as a heavyweight in his first professional MMA fight where he viciously stopped his opponent within seconds of the first round.

"Well, I believe my experience in wrestling helped me a lot. The pressure, the public and all those things I was already accustomed to. The only pressure is that it's a new sport and you want to do it well," Batista said. "I felt more comfortable than I thought inside the cage."

"The year just started and I already had my first fight. But I think when the year culminates, with God's favor, I could have three or four more fights to finish off the year with four or five fights."

Although much has changed for Batista since defecting to the U.S., his desire to compete and test himself against the best in the world still remains intact. Batista hopes to compete with Cormier for a third time.

"Yes, I would like to because it's one to one in real fights, you know. The last time in Beijing I got the victory, but that was due to no presentation because he had medical issues. But yes, I do think it would be interesting competing against Daniel Cormier from a sporting side and be able to have that rivalry once again because personally we have a good relationship," Batista said.

Regardless, Batista's goal is simple: Get to the highest level and become the dominant force in the division.

"My goal is every fighter's goal, which is get to the UFC. For that, I need to continue to train hard and see how I'm looking down the road. Working on the mistakes, seeing what I have to add, what I have to remove. But the goal is one, to become a champion."