Daniel Cormier: Seeds of the Mat

Barefoot on the Bayou

By Danny Acosta Dec 30, 2014

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Daniel Cormier’s connection to his hometown of Lafayette, La., is like the South itself: deep and, in his words, “slow.”

Having a big family meant everyone took care of each other. Boiling summers united everyone to beat the heat and humidity while imagining ways to make the days pass in the neighborhood. Cormier was born on March 20, 1979, two days apart from his cousin, Terry. They never missed a chance to venture to grandma’s house. They pretended square barriers on her porch were horses and reenacted tales from “The Lone Ranger and Tonto.” School interrupted their pursuits, but when school was out, they did everything they could to stay active, physically and imaginatively.

“I remember hot streets and no shoes,” Cormier told Sherdog.com while sitting in his fiancé’s Lexus to avoid the drought-ending rain after a grueling wrestling session in suburban Silicon Valley, a world away from where he grew up. “We could run faster if we had on no shoes. We’d race barefooted on those hot-ass streets.”

The time-to-kill environment sowed the seeds for Cormier’s competitive nature. He was never alone. There was always action’s steady buzz.

“I’m the kid that had his own wrestling organization in his backyard with paper belts and s---,” the 35-year-old said. “I’m the kid that my mom bought boxing gloves because I had too much energy. Me and my friends would just box each other with no headgear, no nothing.”

Tussling was Cormier’s most enjoyable pastime. Knocking around sweat and wearing down every stitch to the seams was -- and still is -- a way of life.

“Busted noses ... I was rough,” he said. “I missed a lot of school pictures because I always got hit in the head [and had] knots.”

Imagine Cormier as professional wrestling legend Sting, with the 1980’s bleach-blonde flat top complete with rat tail, multicolored neon face paint and trunks to match. That is how Cormier viewed himself when imitating the scripted bouts witnessed on television. This was of course before the stylized corporate liability promos told kids not to try what they were seeing. His friend, P.J., acted as Sting’s tag team partner, Lex Luger. They would team to be the ultimate, unbeatable good duo, but for the most part, Cormier’s interest was in singles competition.

Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images Sport

Cormier was a two-time Olympian.
“I always found a way to be the heavyweight champion,” he said. “All the kids from my neighborhood would come to my house, and we would just wrestle.”

However, what Cormier knew about wrestling was about to change forever. That endless desire to tussle unearthed a spirited, inveterate outlet. This wrestling was not pre-determined. It was aggressive, blue-collar contact sprinting. Sometime after his 10h birthday, Cormier strayed away from believing he was a professional wrestler on national television and committed to becoming an amateur wrestler in his town.

Cormier and his friends would go kick the football around the local high school. His friend got tired of retrieving the ball while Cormier kicked it and suggested they switch. Physical conflict erupted because Cormier was not about to take orders. The local wrestling coach shouted down the scrapping kids. Either take the confrontations into a structured environment or accept that wild energy could lead to a potentially dangerous, uncontained lifestyle on Lafayette’s bad corners.

“I was like, ‘You know what, man? I’m gonna do some pile drivers and Frankensteiners,’” Cormier confidently declared to his friends. “It was none of that. It was wrestling on the mat.”

Without ring ropes, peacocking outfits and spotlights, Cormier’s wrestling career began. He joined for a simple reason: “To tussle and be rough and not get in trouble. It was like the sport was made for me.”

He endured a bad start.

“I couldn’t win,” Cormier said, “but I was very tough and scrappy. Even when I was getting destroyed, I tried not to get pinned. I’d bridge hard. I would get taken down and try to jump right back up.”

Located 130 miles outside of New Orleans, Lafayette was not the most tranquil place. The essential focus wrestling demands laid out a baseline for Cormier’s path to avoid life’s chaos. His biological father, Joseph, was murdered by his second wife’s father-in-law on Thanksgiving Day in 1986. Cormier was 7 years old at the time. Since his father had long been split from his mother, Audrey, his stepdad already had played an instrumental role in developing Cormier’s character at home -- enough that he refers to Percy Benoit as dad.

The tragedy did not untether Cormier. His older brother was essentially married with kids at the time and bore the brunt of the emotions for him. For all his competiveness, Cormier did not have it with Joseph or younger brother Ferral because of their age disparities; and of course he would not dare mess with sister Felicia. It allowed Cormier’s dog-eat-dog athletic edge to face outward in the right environment. Discovering wrestling baptized Cormier in a positive mindset and introduced him to the idea that success could be found through suffering.

That is when everything sped up.

“You know, man, I’ve never really been a quitter,” Cormier said when asked why he never gave up wrestling amid adversity. “I can’t look back on my life and think of anything that I really quit.”

Cormier to this day demonstrates genuine joy that all of his pro-wrestling-league friends joined him to learn real wrestling, even if they did not stick with it. They met new people. They had to pay attention. Most importantly, they wrestled, and it was live -- every day.

“I had to be on task, because if I wasn’t on task, I’d get beat,” Cormier said. “That was probably like my biggest thing was staying on task. I always had issues with focus. Wrestling made me do that.”

The first task at which Cormier remembers improving was running. In wrestling, most kids are nails well before they are hammers. It was true for the future two-time American Olympian. Yet once he realized he could run an entire mile, he felt as free as he did when he was trying to dust his friends barefooted around the neighborhood.

Wrestling rooms became home for Cormier, the battleground where he branched out reality’s possibilities.


As a freshman, Cormier wrestled at the varsity level for the Northside High School Vikings. He had only hoped to do OK, but after he failed to reach the state tournament his first year, the young wrestler pined for his hand to be raised more definitively. As a result, Cormier sought more experience and wrestled out of state. In surrounding areas, his winning ways started. Coming back to Louisiana, which was considered a lesser wrestling state, he troubled himself with a question: Why could he not replicate those winning results at home? In true wrestling fashion, he decided he would simply will himself to beat everyone.

He was “on fire” his sophomore year, winning state and then the Cadet World Team Trials in Evanston, Ill. Cormier’s given athleticism, natural competitiveness and a desire to conquer opponents had translated to victory. However, the first time he boarded a plane signaled that he was about to be introduced to the deeper intricacies of this age-old sport.

“I got to go to Budapest, Hungary,” Cormier said. “I tried my damnedest to get out of that flight. I’d never been on an airplane before ... 15 years old, [and] now you’re telling me that I have to fly overseas? No way. I screened USA Wrestling’s calls every day until eventually the guy ... his name was Roy Oliver. He got my dad on the phone because my dad had to get me a passport. I went.”

Cormier finished third in Budapest, which made him the No. 1-ranked competitor in the 15- and 16-year-old division in the United States. It was his first taste of being the best -- that nebulous rockslide mountain upon which elite athletes base their lives. There is only so much endurance available in running uphill against the grains of time, so competitors must accept acceleration at whatever rate it comes or deal with quicksand-like downslides.

“It was all a matter of 18 months,” Cormier said, “going from a normal kid in Louisiana to the number one recruit in the country.”

In an individual sport, love for one’s chosen pursuits becomes one of the primary motivators.

“No, I couldn’t [imagine a life without wrestling],” Cormier said. “It’s knowing that when you go in there, it’s hard work coming [and] also knowing that in that wrestling room, you’re working harder than most people will ever work in their entire lives.”

Overcoming fierce opposition and enjoying the camaraderie necessary to train for such worthy adversaries is what Cormier loves about wrestling. It is incredibly rare to find so many people on the same page. That is the wrestling room’s virtue for Cormier.

Around junior year, calls poured in for Cormier to wrestle at the collegiate level. Letters from universities requesting his presence filled the mailbox. It was unbelievable to him, despite his burgeoning wrestling credentials. He was not the strongest student, and he showed the recruitment letters to everyone at school instead of paying attention in class.

“It was a big deal for a kid in Louisiana that never really thought that was part of the plan,” Cormier said.

Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Cormier is 15-0 in MMA.
Wrestling challenged his self-perception and set the path for advancement. Cormier may have been a talented kid, but youth comes with inherent weakness. He attempted to shed some of his foolishness toward the end of high school.

“I was just worried about Daniel and trying to get better,” Cormier said. “Selfishly, I wasn’t a leader. I wasn’t the hardest-working kid. I didn’t do my work in the classroom. There was a lot that I did wrong that I should have done better.”

Cormier adopted actual leadership as a senior, leading by actions and not just results. This is always a desired outcome in athletics, where shaping the body winds up shaping the character. It was not enough to win anymore. In the classroom, outside the classroom, in general, it was important for Cormier to be someone others could follow for affirmative outcomes, “because if I didn’t, who would have?” The question stands to this day. That is how Cormier views his place in the world. There is a deep-rooted responsibility to redefine existing perceptions. He is the one willing to venture into uncharted territory to lead.

By 1997, Cormier completed his high school wrestling career with All-American honors and could now be considered the best wrestler in state history. He went to Colby College in Kansas to wrestle for Steve Lampe. Grades blocked Cormier from a four-year university, and Lampe was the first coach to trek to Lafayette for a house visit to recruit him. Cormier promised he would wrestle at the college, which accounted for half of the Kansas town’s 6,000-person population. Under Lampe’s guidance, Cormier scored a junior college national championship in 1998. Cormier repeated as a sophomore. A year later, John Smith, the legendary Oklahoma State University coach, etched the confidence that characterizes Cormier’s psyche today. They met during a recruitment trip.

“It was that thing about him, the confidence he carried in knowing,” Cormier said. “I wanted to be part of what they had to offer. They didn’t need me, because Oklahoma State is going to be OK with or without you. I loved that. I love that confidence.”

His experiences there taught him humility along with that confidence.

“I didn’t know how good you had to be to be part of that program,” Cormier said. “You leave junior college [and] you’re the big dog on campus. You go to Oklahoma State, and you’re just one of the guys. You can’t beat everybody. People don’t pander to you. You’re just one of the guys; it’s different. It’s good to be part of.”

Cormier failed to earn All-American honors his first year at Oklahoma State in 2000. He was the national runner-up in 2001, losing to the greatest collegiate wrestler ever, Cael Sanderson, who secured his legacy with an undefeated national championship a record four times.

It was then that DeWayne Zinkin scouted Cormier to fight. Zinkin was an All-American wrestler at Fresno State University. He attended the tournament to watch his future fighter, Josh Koscheck, win a national championship. Zinkin enticed Cormier with the idea that mixed martial arts was a lucrative mainline opportunity for someone like him; Cormier had the Olympics in mind, however. Zinkin understood the importance of the Olympics for amateur wrestlers. He asked Cormier to call him when he was finished with those pursuits.

Finish Reading » Now in shape and armed with an extensive and respectable fight acumen at the sport’s highest level, Cormier has the chance to write the ending to one of the biggest title fights in UFC history. He has made believers out of those closest to him.
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