Cormier motivated by tragic past as Strikeforce heavyweight title looms
Daniel Cormier Jr. wants his father's attention and he wants it now.
The 14-month old toddler is defiantly throwing his toys, one by one, under his dad's chair as Cormier struggles to make out what the reporter is asking him over his son's gibberish-fueled tirade.
"He's 26 pounds already. He's huge," laughs Cormier (9-0), who takes on Josh Barnett (36-5) in the finals of Strikeforce's Heavyweight Grand Prix on Saturday in San Jose, Calif. (10 p.m. ET, Showtime). "We were at a sponsor's house the other day and he jumped off this ledge. The guy told me his older son doesn't even do that yet."
A proud papa indeed, but what's so striking about Cormier is how present he is despite a past riddled with heartbreaking storylines. One of the most wrenching happened nine years ago, in the midst of Cormier's preparation at Oklahoma State University for his second Olympic wrestling bid. That's when Cormier got the call no parent ever anticipates.
Cormier's 2-month-old infant daughter, Kaedyn, was with her mother visiting family that brutal Texas summer when her car's air conditioning stopped. She strapped Kaedyn properly into a baby seat in her best friend's car, and it was rear-ended by an 18-wheeler only a few minutes later. Kaedyn was the only passenger not to survive.
Former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal roomed with Cormier during OSU's summer sessions and was with him at the time.
"All of a sudden his face changed and he started to cry. It's just one of those unbelievably awful moments that you never forget," said Lawal, who recently signed with Bellator Fighting Championships and TNA pro wrestling. "It's amazing how he was able to go on to the Olympics like he did, but I think his strong mental state is what gives him an edge over the 99.9 percent."
Today, the 33-year-old Cormier can talk about the tragedy openly. As a professional athlete, telling the story repeatedly over time has allowed him to reach a place of acceptance with what happened.
"For a long time, it was very hard for me to comprehend how something like that could happen," said Cormier, who began seeing a sports psychologist shortly after the accident. "But my mother constantly tells me that God will never give me more than I can handle and I believe her."
With Cormier, this adage has been tested again and again. Growing up in Lafayette, La., about 130 miles outside of New Orleans, Cormier felt profound loss for the first time at age seven.
Cormier's father had divorced his mom a few years prior and was with his new family on Thanksgiving when he got into a heated argument with his second wife's father, who shot and killed him in self defense. This loss was much easier to process, said Cormier, simply because he was young and had already learned to live without his absentee father.
"He was there for us sometimes, but my stepfather, Percy Benoit, was the one who actually raised me from age three," said Cormier. "I wish I hadn't lost my dad at such an early age, but I had a father and he took care of me."
However, a year after his father's death, Cormier's grandmother, one of his main caretakers, also died.
"That sucked because she was in my life every day," he said. "She had cancer and even as a young boy, I understood that I wasn't going to see her anymore."
Cormier's escape was watching pro wrestling on television. Today, his voice bubbles over with excitement as he recalls the undying love affair between his all-time WWE favorite, Randy "Macho Man" Savage, and Miss Elizabeth.
At age 10, Cormier could be found in front of the television, clicking between the analog channels, trying to decipher grainy images from a WWE pay-per-view through the static.
"If you turned it to just the right spot, you could get the audio," he said. "No real picture. Just static. But you could listen to it."
Years later, shortly after Cormier placed fourth at the 2004 Olympics, the WWE invited him to a couple of shows in Oklahoma City. Looking to recruit the 2001 NCAA runner-up, the WWE invited Cormier backstage, where he sat and watched the matches right behind the announcer's table and even shook Vince McMahon's hand. But fourth place was too close to an Olympic medal to stop, so Cormier declined their offer.
In 2008, five years after he'd lost his daughter, Cormier traveled with his team to Beijing for the summer games, but was pulled from competition by Olympic officials a day before his first match.
Wrestling had always been the easy part, said Cormier, but making weight was a messy war with his own body. Rather than lose weight gradually, Cormier often sweated out 20-30 pounds of water weight before competition to the point of dehydration.
"I'd hurry to my room and drink something like soup to get my stomach expanding," he said. "Then I'd get sick and vomit and poop -- I was just getting sick from all the liquids I was pouring into me. But if I weighed in at four, around six or seven o'clock I'd start to feel better."
Cormier's purging routine caught up to him at the worst possible time, as he stepped off the Olympic scale in front of officials.
"When I went to rehydrate myself, my body started doing weird things," recalled Cormier. "I was throwing up everywhere. I started cramping really bad. Then, I couldn't walk."
Cormier was diagnosed with kidney failure and couldn't get cleared to train for an entire year, which ended his amateur wrestling career. Luckily, he got the opportunity to train with the American Kickboxing Academy in 2009 and after a number of back-and-forth trips from Oklahoma, moved to San Jose in 2010 and joined the team full-time.
Cormier's weight issues have followed him into mixed martial arts. Cormier, who weighs in around 235 pounds, regularly faces opponents 30-50 pounds heavier than him and his five-foot-eleven stature is below the average height for the division. Barnett, a former UFC champion, is six-foot-three, weighed 261 pounds before his semifinal win over Sergei Kharitonov last September and has thighs like tree trunks.
Many have offered Cormier the advice to whittle down a bit to the 205-pound division (he wrestled at 211.5 pounds), but the 2008 debacle still haunts him.
"It's scary because I saw something on this football player in Tulsa who was boxing and he got severely dehydrated, started cramping, started getting the same [symptoms] that I had, and died," said Cormier. "Listen, I'm a clear thinker and I know that I carry some extra fat and I could probably get to 205 if I needed to. But it would have to be a total lifestyle change. I just can't do it the wrong way anymore."
At the moment, it doesn't sound like Cormier's looking for any changes, On March 4, baby sister Marquita joined Daniel Jr. and his parents in San Jose. At his AKA gym, Cormier has surpassed even the loftiest expectations of his coaches, emerging from his wrestling facade as a surprisingly heavy-handed striker. Cormier has close relationships with Lawal and Strikeforce middleweight champion Luke Rockhold, who, along with another rotating teammate, call themselves "The Four Horsemen" after the popular 1980's pro wrestling alliance helmed by another Cormier favorite, Ric Flair.
"He's a leader, a helper, he has a sense of humor and likes to play pranks," said Lawal, who reunited with Cormier at AKA last year. "But when it's time to get serious and be a coach or a competitor, that switch flips."
So impenetrable is Cormier's psyche, he's hardly noticed that he'll be the David to Barnett's Goliath on Saturday. Size is an inconsequential detail when you've been conditioned to overcome and win your entire life. Like mom says, God never gives you more than you can handle.
"All the things I went through; it's what drives me nowadays. She's my motivation," said Cormier. "I compete for people who have lost with me. I think that's why I can compete as well as I have been to this point because I see things in perspective."