Patrick Cummins (right) and Jason Miller: Marcelo Alonso | Sherdog.com
Patrick Cummins’ physique screams “bruiser”: a former two-time NCAA All-American heavyweight wrestler, the topography of his ears has been eroded smooth. The stubble of his shaven head and beard run together. If you catch him without his front false tooth in, you might mistake him for a hockey enforcer.
But Cummins’ slice of Pennsylvania is not Broad Street. It is idyllic Reinholds, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country -- the kind of quaint place where an Amish dairy farm is still a legitimate tourist attraction and where a naturally gifted grappler might end up with a simultaneous love for ceramics.
When he was vying for a national wrestling title at Penn State University, campus and local newspapers wrote about him. The narrative was always the same.
“People just can’t seem to get over that I could be sensitive artist guy and heavyweight wrestler guy,” Cummins, a fine arts major, muses. “They want to believe I’m some kind of Renaissance man, that I’m so bizarre. I don’t mind talking about it, but, really, it’s personal. I love pottery, but I don’t want to be a potter. I don’t want to produce cups and bowls. Clay is something I feel like I can develop. I’ve got a good set of skills with it.”
One struggles to imagine Cummins at a pottery wheel, but he has had a long relationship with clay. Now, he’s becoming the clay himself.
Cummins will step into the cage for the first time on the Strikeforce “Henderson vs. Babalu II” undercard on Saturday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, taking on unbeaten local light heavyweight Terrell Brown. The bout will stream live on Sherdog.com.
If the praise for Cummins is gospel, his opponent is an irrelevant detail; that’s what kind of prospect people feel Cummins is. They rave about his athleticism and natural ability. They cannot imagine this lump of clay not becoming a serious sculpture.
His manager and trainer, Ryan Parsons, is quick to remind he administers to only two other fighters: Jason Miller and Muhammed Lawal. Parsons sees Cummins in that same mold, a marriage of winning ability and personality.
“I’m not interested in working with you if you’re just a good fighter,” Parsons explains. “He’s a legit tough guy with a real artsy side. It’s rare. He’s got that kind of energy and natural ability and the compelling personality.”
The All-American, The Bridesmaid
While Cummins’ track record alone is enough to attract hype, people get more excited about a wrestling convert if he has “champion” attached to his name. In the minds of the masses, there’s a wide gulf between “NCAA runner-up” and “NCAA champion,” “Olympic hopeful” and “Olympic champion.” However, Cummins is from the same era of heavyweight wrestling that produced UFC and Bellator heavyweight champions Cain Velasquez and Cole Konrad, respectively.
“I remember him being one of those guys always at the top of the division in college and then after,” recalls Velasquez. “He was a really good athlete.”
A top-four finisher in 2003, Cummins was the runner-up to rival and two-time national champion Tommy Rowlands in 2004. This might have been the greatest period for NCAA heavyweight wrestling in decades -- a fact not lost on Cummins.
“I look at heavyweight wrestling a year or two after I was done, and, man, I feel like I could’ve been a national champion,” Cummins says with a laugh. “On the other hand, if I won a national championship, would I have pushed myself that hard? Maybe I would’ve given up wrestling and gone in a completely different direction. I don’t know.”
Cummins equivocates, but Lawal, a close friend and training partner, does not.
“He was just a few points away from beating some of those guys,” Lawal opines. “If he was coming into his prime a few years earlier, he could’ve beat John Lockhart or Tommy Rowlands. He could’ve beat Brock Lesnar and Wes Hand. Pat is a power guy, but he’s got a real skill set. He’s not just gonna shoot double-legs and gas out. He’s a well-rounded wrestler. Even though he was never a Greco guy, he can throw you in the clinch. He can go for an inside trip, then all of a sudden he’s lateral dropping you. He’s got great balance and hips.”
The unfortunate reality of collegiate wrestling is that your nemeses typically do not disappear afterwards. In 2004, Cummins opted to hop on the Olympic ladder for freestyle wrestling, and all the familiar faces joined him: Konrad, Rowlands, Steve Mocco and more. Cummins racked up quality finishes in major tournaments -- your Dave Schultz memorials, World Team Trials, Olympic Trials and so on -- but could not capture gold.
Cummins roomed with Lawal in Athens, Greece, where they both served as training partners for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team. In the downtime, their discussions turned toward fighting.
“I told him, ‘Man, I want to fight.’ He told me, ‘Really? I kinda want to fight, too,’” Lawal says, reminiscing. “So we started to play fight. I remember I threw a kick, and he checked it. He got a big ol’ lump on his shin. We had no idea what we were doing.”
When I broach the memory with Cummins, he laughs fondly in the way someone in their middle age recalls their high school prom.
“I can’t believe that was six years ago,” he says with a real sense of wonder. “It was a long time coming. People were looking at me saying, ‘We know you’re not happy, Pat!’ It wasn’t just all of a sudden, ‘Oh, I’m fighting.’ I really wish I had done it a long time ago. With MMA, it’s learning new things; it’s never the same. With wrestling ... I don’t know how many high crotches I’ve hit in my life.”
To start 2010, Cummins, who had competed most of his adult life as a 250-pound heavyweight, dropped to 211.5 pounds. The assumption was that he was hot in pursuit of a spot on the World Team.
“Yeah, I wanted to make the World Team, but, honestly, it was like a test cut to 205 pounds. I knew I was going to be a light heavyweight in MMA,” he reveals with a smirk. “We did the test cut [to 205] just about three weeks ago, and I felt good. I think I’ve got that balance, where I can be bigger and stronger than most guys at 205 but still have the speed and endurance.”
The most obvious potential red flag, however, is Cummins’ age. The average age of MMA’s superstars continues to drop with the influx of pound-for-pound-level 20-somethings; Cummins turned 30 on Nov. 16. Though he has had a healthy wrestling career, it’s hard to be excited the way people are about a 23-year-old Jon Jones.
“The other day, I met this guy, and he said, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ‘I’m tw ... er ... I’m 30.’ He said, ‘Oh man, you’re old!’” Cummins says. “Maybe I’m getting old, but getting into something new, I don’t feel that way at all. I feel like I’m 20.”
The Globetrotter, The Sociologist
In October, Cummins took an eight-day sojourn to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, alongside Parsons and Miller, as part of the EA Sports MMA Fighter Exchange. Prior to that, he had only trained full-time for two weeks. The trip, which took them all over Rio’s most celebrated gyms, crystalized Parsons’ excitement for his new charge.
“Pat just ‘gets it.’ On the feet, he can really punch and is coming along quickly. On the ground, he's surprisingly good off of his back already. He knows when to flip, when to hip heist. He just knows,” Parsons says, trying to give his best clinical assessment through obvious excitement.
The trio went everywhere: Nova UniÃ£o, X-Gym, Team Nogueira, Brazilian Top Team, RenovaÃ§Ã£o Fight Team and Nobre Arte. Everywhere Cummins went, fighters and trainers marveled at his game, and they were shocked by how briefly he had trained.
“It’s crazy how fast he picks this stuff up,” Miller told me after the pair had come back from Rio. “A few days into the trip, he was pulling guard -- in Brazil. And yet, he was still throwing guys around with his wrestling.”