When Daniel Cormier walks into the octagon for the first time this weekend, it will be a step up in competition. That's how reasonable folks who follow mixed martial arts will likely view the UFC debut of the former Strikeforce star. But Cormier sees it differently.
It's not that Cormier considers Frank Mir, the two-time former UFC champion whom he'll fight Saturday night in San Jose, Calif. (8 p.m. ET, Fox), a step down from what he dealt with on the way to winning the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. And the two-time U.S. Olympic wrestler is not weighing his nascent MMA career against his golden list of accomplishments from when he was wearing a singlet. No, Cormier simply believes that nothing he sees in the UFC cage will be as formidable as what he comes face to face with every day. In the gym.
"I've always said that if I train with No. 1," Cormier (11-0) told SI.com the other day, "then it takes care of everybody else down the ladder."
Every fighter speaks highly of teammates from the gym, of course, but Cormier is not being unrealistically boastful. The 34-year-old's main training partner at American Kickboxing Academy is the clear alpha male among heavyweight fighters, UFC champion Cain Velasquez.
"Listen, there is no confidence like I feel," said Cormier. "I know that when I step into the cage, I've had the best preparation that I could ever have. There is not a guy in the division who's as tough as Cain Velasquez, and I get to train with that guy on a daily basis. The guys that I fight aren't nearly as tough as him. They don't work as hard. They're not as driven. They're not as focused. They're just not as good."
Typically, Cormier and Velasquez go hard at each other in sparring sessions three days a week. That schedule has been reduced a bit in preparation for this fight, with Mir being a southpaw and Cain fighting from a conventional stance. But the teammates train in wrestling and jiu-jitsu together every day, and Cormier goes through daily workouts alongside cardio machine Velasquez. And they do spar. Boy, do they spar. "Twice a week, a total of six rounds a week, we go at 100 percent intensity," said Daniel. "We try to take each other out."
As if those regular sessions with the champ weren't enough to boost a fighter's confidence, there's also this: "It's a war. It's a battle. It's a good thing. I won't fight anyone tougher." That's not Cormier talking about training with Velasquez. That's Velasquez talking about Cormier.
"Wow, that's an awesome compliment," Cormier said after hearing his friend's words read to him. "I've being saying that about Cain for a while, and to hear him say the same about me, it says a lot about the improvements I've made to push him to the point that he feels like that."
You mean, it hasn't been anyone's fight right from the day back in 2009 when Cormier first walked into the AKA gym? At the time, Cain was undefeated and rising in the UFC heavyweight ranks, but Daniel was coming off his second Olympic Games. He didn't toss Velasquez around a little?
Cormier laughed at the suggestion. "No, it was humbling," he recalled. "It was humbling every single day. There was never a day when I felt like I was getting the advantage, like I was winning. I was always getting beat on, man."
Perhaps the most humbling lesson of all came on the mat, where Cormier discovered the difference between Olympic or NCAA wrestling -- Cormier was Division I national runner-up to legendary Cael Sanderson in 2001, while Velasquez was a two-time All-American -- and MMA wrestling. In Mixed Martial Arts, every move must be made while mindful of the possibility of being punched or kicked.
"Even in my best area, the wrestling, Cain was taking it to me pretty good," said Cormier. "You go from being the man -- in wrestling, I was the man for a very long time in my weight division -- to coming to a new sport and fighting the best guy. He showed me right away that it was a different sport."
There is one aspect of this weekend's fight which the hundreds of hours Cormier has spent with Velasquez have not helped prepare him. Velasquez doesn't talk much; Mir sure does. His mouth is as formidable a part of Mir's game as his submissions. He may not have the comic timing of a Chael Sonnen, the venomous flair of Josh Koscheck or the bizarre stream-of-(un)consciousness of Nick Diaz, but Mir speaks softly with glib certainty.
He asserts superiority over an opponent not as a matter of opinion, but as a fact. He's rolled this way not just in the lead-up to fights but afterward, too. Even after losses. "It's the weirdest thing," Cormier acknowledged. "He makes you think he believes it. But he can't really believe it. It's probably the most frustrating form of trash talk, where the guy is belittling you. That's what Frank does better than anyone else in the world."
Cormier claims to not be affected by the talk, but he sure sounds intent on turning Mir's words against him. Ever since hearing an interview in which Frank assessed him by saying he "doesn't really have much finishing ability," Cormier has added a new twist to the manner in which he characterizes Mir (16-6) as a fighter who folds when things aren't going his way.
"If I can't finish fights, then he shouldn't get finished, right?" said Cormier. "So if he does get finished, it'll be because of him. I'm going to fight him hard, and I want to see him check out. I want to give him an out, a moment in the fight when he decides, 'Whoa, I've taken enough of this beating. Enough, I'll live to fight another day.' That's kind of how I see this fight going. OK, Frank, I won't finish this fight. You'll finish it."
That is not something, Cormier acknowledged, that he ever says or even dares to think when he's in the gym sparring with Cain Velasquez.