Daniel Cormier Comes Full Circle in Strikeforce Finale

Duane FinleyContributor IJanuary 9, 2013

There are few fighters with more buzz surrounding them at the moment than Daniel Cormier.

The Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner's impending arrival into the UFC fold has created a stir throughout the MMA community, as speculation over potential opponents or a possible drop in weight class continue to swirl. The increased attention and excitement for the next chapter of his career are certainly flattering to Cormier, but the former Olympic wrestler's focus is locked on the here and now as he prepares to face Dion Staring this Saturday night in Oklahoma City.

While critics and fans alike are looking ahead to his eventual Octagon debut, Cormier's sights are set on finishing the last piece of business he'll conduct inside the Strikeforce cage. The fight will mark the AKA-trained fighter's curtain call in an organization which allowed him to establish himself as a mixed martial artist.

In a strange but fitting way, the fight will provide the 33-year-old an opportunity to bring his time in the Hexagon full circle. The former Oklahoma State wrestling standout made his professional debut under the Strikeforce banner in Tulsa, Okla. back in 2009, and Saturday night's tilt with Staring has Cormier looking to close out his time with the promotion in impressive fashion. 

"It's crazy," Cormier told Bleacher Report. "Not many people get to come full circle and I am one of the people who are lucky enough to get to do that. I would have never thought things would have gone as they have so far. Walking into an arena in Tulsa back in September of 2009, me and Gary Frazier, two guys who were both 0-0, went in there and swung for the fences. It looked like a street fight and it was crazy. For me to go back to Oklahoma, finish my time in Strikeforce and be at the point of my career that I'm at; I can't really explain how that feels."

Coming up through Strikeforce's Challengers series, Cormier quickly picked up the prospect label as his first five showings all resulted in victory. They were impressive performances for the Louisiana-native, and when the promotion put together the Heavyweight Grand Prix, Cormier was slotted as a tournament reserve.

After champion Alistair Overeem parted ways with the organization and transitioned into the UFC, Cormier stepped in to fill his position. In the Grand Prix semifinals, "D.C." made a thundering statement by battering Antonio Silva and scoring a first-round knockout.

The victory over "Bigfoot" put Cormier on the heavyweight radar, but his one-sided drubbing of Josh Barnett in the finals launched Cormier into the conversation of world's best. 

Leading up to their showdown in the finals, the two heavyweights threw down in a now-infamous "dance-off" which took place at the Fight Magazine party in Columbus, Ohio. It was an intense battle with the crowd on hand giving Cormier the victory.

Whether or not suffering defeat on the dance floor had anything to do with what transpired in the cage remains to be seen.

"I think [Barnett] was like, 'oh my goodness, this guy can fight and he can dance? What am I going to do?" Cormier joked. "Josh had some pretty good moves, though. For a big 'ole dude like he is, he has some pretty good moves. I was trying to win at every turn. I was trying to win in the dance-off, the media, the weigh-ins, the press conference; I was trying to win every single step."

Scoring the victory over Barnett only increased the momentum for Cormier's already-fast-tracked career. Prior to the finals, Strikeforce eliminated their heavyweight division and the fighters on the roster merged into the UFC. With the tournament complete, it appeared as if Cormier would join his colleagues, but it was determined both finalists would have to complete one more bout on their contracts before they could leave the organization.

While Cormier sat on the sidelines and watched proposed bouts come and go, he was excited to see the Strikeforce heavyweights finding success inside the Octagon.

"It was great to see those guys do well, because I always knew what we had over in Strikeforce was some of the best heavyweights in the world," Cormier said. "Those guys going over there and doing what they did pretty much validated that. Guys like Lavar and Werdum are doing great. I'm excited to watch them as I move forward and actually compete with or alongside them as I move into the UFC."

"It's about being professional," Cormier added, in regards to handling the frustration. "You just have to be as professional as you can. You have to work hard and no matter who I fight or when I fight, I just have to be prepared. I learned a lot about that from my wrestling career. We never knew who we were wrestling but we were always prepared to face anyone. That is exactly the approach I take in mixed martial arts."

The road to making his final bout in Strikeforce certainly came with a fair share of ups and downs, but on Saturday night, the fight with Staring will finally arrive. While Cormier is a heavy favorite, he refuses to overlook a game opponent.

Where no other fighters were stepping up to accept the bout, the Dutch-born Staring happily accepted. That being said, Cormier is also fully aware everything is on the line and his next step greatly depends on his success in Oklahoma City.

"It's a tough fight," Cormier said. "He's a guy that is a good stand-up fighter. Also, if you watch his fights in Europe, he has taken a lot of guys down. He's no slouch in the wrestling department. It's a tough fight, and I think it is going to be a good fight as well."

"You have to prepare for all of your fights the same way, because you never know who you are going to be fighting. Especially with all the injuries we've had in our sport this year. I understand what I have to lose. I'm very aware of it. No one is trying to hide it from me. A lot of times, people in a fighter's camp will try to keep everything sunny. But the people around me have been very clear in letting me know that all my dreams and all my aspirations go out the window if I can't get the job done on Saturday night."

"I'm going forward, setting a really high pace, and scoring some nice takedowns. I'm going to be mixing it up in the stand up and looking for the finish. Every second of this fight I'm going to be looking to finish. Fans can look forward to a high pace with a lot of action that hopefully ends in some sort of finish."

In the realm of preparation, the gym Cormier calls home is one of the most revered in the sport of mixed martial arts. The team at AKA is a tight-knit group made up of some of the world's best fighters and coaches. Where some gyms operate with an individual based mindset, at AKA the fighters are a family. They share in one another's successes and failures, but as of late, there hasn't been much to be down about as team staples Jon Fitch and Cain Velasquez each picked up career-turning victories.

"It was awesome to see them both win those big fights," Cormier said. "The craziest thing about watching your teammates and people you care about fight is you go back into the gym and you train harder than you may be prepared to train. When Fitch fought I was just starting my training camp and wasn't in the best shape. But after watching Fitch bust out that crazy pace on that guy, I went in there and trained like I was in the last week of fight camp. I got exhausted and had to take a day off."

There is no doubt Cormier's intensity is focused on the upcoming bout with Staring. With that being said, his awareness of what is at stake tells you this is man who fully understands how big the next step of his career can be.

He hears all the talk and realizes there will be multiple paths for him to travel should he so choose. But where other fighters talk about making it to the UFC and having the driving force which pushes them onward, Cormier finds his inspiration in a place closer to the heart. 

"I don't need those things to get motivated," Cormier said. "I have enough to motivate myself. I don't have to use pressure or expectation from other people to motivate me. If that is the only thing that motivates you then you are in trouble, man."

"Your motivation should come from your family and the other things in your life. Obviously the expectations are great, and I love it, but I don't need that to drive me. I get motivated knowing if I continue to win I can provide for my kids. I can provide for my family and everything keeps getting bigger. I get exactly what I want: bigger fights, bigger named opponents and to fight on the biggest stage there is."

"What matters the most to me is just making sure I am giving myself the best chance to win every fight I go into. Making sure that every time I step into the cage, I fight with all my heart and give the fans what they come to see. I want to put on exciting fights and let the fans know the best Daniel Cormier is getting in there. They won't see me out of shape and unprepared.

"I just want to make sure that when people pay their money to watch me fight in the cage or see me live that they are getting everything they expected and more."


Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.