UFC 230: Daniel Cormier balances fighting, high school coaching
The undead have descended upon midtown Manhattan—skeletons and demons, zombies and vampires, not to mention the electrifying spectral presence of some creature that looks like Ghost Pikachu. Gliding down the shadowy sidewalks in their Halloween night’s best, these haunted souls pay no attention as an SUV slows near the Renzo Gracie jiu-jitsu studio on 30th Street and the UFC’s best pound-for-pound fighter climbs out, bleary-eyed but focused.
Sipping from a cup of coffee, rocking an Oklahoma State wrestling sweatshirt, Daniel Cormier strolls through the front doors around 11 p.m., smack on schedule for another late-night workout, three days before he will defend his heavyweight title against Derrick Lewis at nearby Madison Square Garden. The room is stifling hot, and reeks of stale sweat. Logos of dragons and lions adorn the walls. A plastic pumpkin sits on a desk, nearly drained of its bite-sized candy supply.
Soon the mats are buzzing with activity, rap beats bumping through a speaker system. Knuckles wrapped, muscles kneaded, Cormier first spends five minutes performing basic combos with boxing coach Rosendo Sanchez, grunting like a giddy-up cowboy with every strike. YUH! YUH! HYAH! After stealing two puffs from an inhaler and a quick breather—carefully timed by conditioning coach Chris Camacho to simulate the break between rounds—Cormier joins fight coach Javier Mendez for drills focusing on combating Lewis’s powerful style. Finally he finishes with striking coach Rudy Mendoza. The entourage is big, but operates with clockwork efficiency.
It all stems from the top. A former Oklahoma State all-American who wrestled freestyle at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens—a tattoo of the five Olympic rings adorns his right calf—the 39-year-old Cormier is physically unremarkable relative to most chiseled mixed martial artists: 5-foot-11, 71-inch reach, decent dad paunch. But few, if any, are more intensely determined. How else does someone retain the UFC light heavyweight belt for three and a half years, only to return to his natural heavyweight this July and capture that crown too?
A jack-of-all-trades fighter—his 21 victories break down to 10 knockouts, four submissions and seven decisions—Cormier is equally diverse outside the octagon. He runs a youth wrestling club out of the San Jose-based American Kickboxing Academy (AKA), co-hosts a weekly UFC roundup show, and occasionally does play-by-play ringside. Soon he will audition for an analyst role with WWE, which was only delayed because the Lewis bout emerged on short notice. “Such a good guy, such an intelligent guy, and just so badass,” says UFC president Dana White. “One of the greatest to ever do it.”
There is something else too. Lavoris Walker can explain. He is sitting against a wall at Renzo Gracie, watching Cormier whip kicks at Mendoza across the studio. They became close friends because their respective partners are sisters; now they co-own several barbershops that Walker operates in the Los Angeles area. Since Cormier has long planned to retire from fighting upon turning 40 next March, Walker has begun lobbying for Cormier to relocate. So far, those efforts have been rebuffed. As Walker says, “It’d take a lot for him to leave those kids.”
See, in addition to separate careers of fighting, commentating and helping raise two young children, Cormier was also named head coach of the Gilroy High School wrestling program less than seven months ago. No joke. Check out the team website. There is his personal email address, listed in small font under CONTACT, hyperlinked to “Coach Daniel Cormier.” Better yet, check out the wrestling room at Gilroy. Tucked away in the corner is the boss’ office, which is really more like a closet, furnished with a small desk, computer and storage bins.
Located half-an-hour south of San Jose and one mile from Cormier’s house, the public school had already built an established track record under predecessor Greg Varela, setting records for individual winners and points at last year’s section championships, where the Mustangs finished first for the 16th straight time. As such, when Varela bolted for another gig in March, principal Marco Sanchez—who in ’96 become the first (and still only) Greco-Roman to represent Puerto Rico at the Olympics—scrambled to fill the void, soliciting emails and calls from all corners of the wrestling world.
“Then DC just came along,” says Sanchez. “Once I determined that he was serious about taking over, we stopped the search at that point. It was a no-brainer.”
Chase Saldate is a 17-year-old junior at Gilroy, a nationally ranked 138-pounder who finished fourth in states last season and recently committed to Michigan State. He also happens to live one house apart from Cormier along the same sun-splashed Californian cul-de-sac. When the Cormiers first moved there in ‘12, roughly a year before the fighter’s UFC debut, Saldate wondered whether he would even meet his new neighbor. “I thought he was going to be one of those guys who kept to himself, more isolated,” he says.
Turns out, the opposite was true. Before long Cormier was hosting lively block parties and organizing basketball games, inviting members of his fight team whenever they were in town. As fellow wrestlers, he and Saldate have naturally grown close. Upon learning that the teenager was competitive on a national level, Cormier started driving him to AKA every Tuesday for practice, helping him cut weight before club meets. Today, whenever Cormier trains for a bout, Saldate tags along and does all the same workouts too.
It was through the Saldate family that Cormier first learned about the Gilroy vacancy. Five-minute commute aside, he was immediately intrigued. Dating to his college days, Cormier had always enjoyed coaching, whether helping out at youth clinics or leading the AKA team that he founded six years ago. Others in his camp were less than thrilled. Both Mendez and cornerman Bob Cook expressed concern that Cormier was already stretched too thin. So did his wife, Salina. “She was like, ‘Daniel, this is too much, this is crazy,’” Cormier says. “And she’s a very supportive person … But on this one she was like, ‘I don’t know. If you do this, is it fair to us as a family but also to these kids? Can you give the time that they need?’ I told her, yes.”
Once Cormier accepted the Gilroy job, some of Saldate’s teammates were similarly skeptical. How could someone so famous have time for us? Saldate knew better. Sure enough, Cormier has not only attended virtually every practice, lift and run so far, but he also performs each set and rep alongside the high schoolers and grapples with the Gilroy heavyweight. As training for UFC 230 ramped up last week, Cormier conducted a sprint workout on the treadmill while simultaneously barking instructions across the wrestling room. “It’s almost like you wouldn’t think he’s a fighter, or has anything else to do, because we’ll see him around school,” Saldate says.
Like thousands of high school coaches around the country, Cormier must deal with certain logistical mundanities. In addition to filling out an application through the Gilroy Unified School District, he was required to take a tuberculosis test, pass a background check and obtain CPR certification. He helps arrange team fundraisers, fills out paperwork for road trips, and deals with the NCAA clearinghouse and college recruiters. “It’s not just show up with a whistle and wrestle,” Sanchez says. “There’s a lot to it.”
Fortunately, Cormier has enlisted help. He accepts none of the $3,000 (or so) that accompanies the position, instead divvying that stipend among a horde of teammates who help share the coaching load. (“Here’s the big running joke in our league,” Sanchez says. “He is the highest-qualified and lowest-paid coach in the league.”) There are Shawn Bunch and Kyle Crutchmer, fellow fighters who help run practice if Cormier cannot attend. And Camacho, who sometimes flies from Los Angeles to oversee weekend lifts. And Deron Winn, a two-time junior college champion who stayed behind while everyone else jetted to Manhattan for UFC 230.
“Can you imagine me sitting, trying to find the best price for hotels, trying to figure out what works?” Cormier says. “I can only do this because of those guys. Because those guys allow me to still focus on my fighting, focus on my commentary career and my TV work, and when I leave, I feel like my team doesn’t miss a step.
“Honestly, they’re overqualified to be coaching high school.”
The costumed have cleared out, save for the usual overbearing bunch of tip-seeking Elmos and Buzz Lightyears, as Cormier weaves through Times Square, explaining why a world-famous fighter began moonlighting as a volunteer coach. To him, the calculus is simple. “Wrestling gave me a way to build a better life,” Cormier says. “I would not be where I am today without the sport of wrestling. So to be able to give that back, at any level, is just tremendous.”
It’s Friday morning now. Moments earlier, Cormier officially weighed in at 251.2 pounds—more than 14 lighter than Lewis. It is a comfortable weight under uncomfortable circumstances: Whereas the hulking Lewis entered camp already conditioned from fighting in Las Vegas last month, the short notice shaved Cormier’s usual training calendar from eight weeks to three. “We’re just trying to do whatever we can to get in the fastest shape possible,” Mendez says. “His first sparring session was horrible. We were like, ‘Oh, s—, what are we doing?’ Then his second was 50% better. Then I’m going, ‘Well, you know what, we can do it.’”
As usual, Cormier finds a way. The same has been true at Gilroy. In steering both its nationally ranked varsity team and offseason club affiliate, the Hawks, Cormier is conducting business his way. This means that wrestlers are tasked with running six to nine miles each week, expected to participate in fundraisers and punished with sprints for tardiness. At the time same, their wrestling room recently underwent renovations, receiving spiffy new mats courtesy of an MMA company that Cormier knows. If someone needs help cutting weight on the road, Cormier always has a hookup for a nearby gym. And guess who paid for sushi dinner every night while the team attended the Freak Show invitational in Las Vegas last month?
“Across the board, man, we have kids who have bought in,” Cormier says. “They love it.”
Back inside his 27th-floor hotel suite overlooking Times Square, Cormier wades through the detritus of a week in town with his crew: pizza boxes, empty McDonalds bags, open suitcases. He is on a roll now, rattling off names of Gilroy wrestlers, all of them “kids” in his eyes. “We’ve got some really good ones who people don’t know yet,” he says. “Jayden Gomez is a stud. Victor Jacinto too. We’ve got a kid who’s a senior, Daniel Viscara. He had wrestled in the same system for so long that he was almost combative of what we were trying to do. Something clicked, right? He won the high school elite division at Freak Show this year.”
Regardless of how Saturday night goes at Madison Square Garden, Cormier has declared that he will only fight once more before retiring next spring, likely either to defend the heavyweight title against Brock Lesnar or to reclaim the lightweight belt that will be stripped for inactivity in December. And then? “Yeah, I’m going to be coaching for a while,” he says. “I enjoy it.”
There are many reasons why. Just being around the sport, for starters. “At practice, sitting on the floor while the kids are drilling, moving around, I’ll be like, this is amazing,” he says. “No b——-, man.” More than anything, though, Cormier relishes the relationships. As proof, he scrolls to a recent text thread with Gomez. It was around 10 p.m., the other night, Pacific Time. After a brief exchange about the sophomore’s weight, Cormier smiles and passes over his phone:
CORMIER: Go to bed!
GOMEZ: Will do coach
Article written by Alex Prewitt #SportsIllustrated