Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch breaks down the multi-faceted game of UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, one of MMA’s true pound-for-pound greats.
Why does Daniel Cormier receive so little respect from the MMA community? Someone explain it to me, because I swear I don’t get it.
On a personal level, Cormier is the very picture of a standup guy. Earnest and driven, Cormier possesses easy charisma and endearing confidence. Hailing from Louisiana, never a state known for its top-notch wrestling schools, Cormier nonetheless excelled as a wrestler in his youth. In college, he made the most of a style built on little more than rock-solid fundamentals, only falling short in his superb senior year run to the greatest collegiate wrestler of all time, the legendary Cael Sanderson.
Cormier is a natural leader. He was named team captain at the 2008 Olympics. Today, working alongside some of the best fighters in the world at San Jose’s American Kickboxing Academy, Cormier has once again gravitated to a leadership role, coaching up-and-comers and established fighters alike in the wrestling room. Cormier is known for groan-worthy dad humor, and a generosity of spirit that belies his ferocity in the cage. Perhaps no single moment demonstrates that better than when Cormier approached an emotional Luke Rockhold after his championship win at UFC 194 and effortlessly picked his limp 200 pound friend up off the floor before embracing him in a bear hug.
Honestly, how can you not love this man? I, for one, will never understand it.
But we are not here today to discuss Cormier’s good nature. UFC 210 is right around the corner, and Cormier will make the second defense of his title in the main event, squaring off in a rematch with the man against whom he first won the belt. Anthony Johnson is a force of nature, a knockout artist like the light heavyweight division has never seen before. Since returning to the UFC in 2014, only two men have managed to survive his punches and kicks. One of them was Daniel Cormier. Only one man has beaten him. That was Daniel Cormier too.
Today, we will look at the fascinating fighting style of the UFC light heavyweight champion, a good man, and a great fighter. Somehow, fans will find it in themselves to cheer for Anthony Johnson–a man who pled no contest to charges of domestic violence in 2009, who was arrested on battery and stalking charges in 2012, and who was investigated for yet another charge of domestic violence in 2014–over Daniel Cormier, who speaks kindly, gives generously, and fights like no other. I don’t know where those fans priorities lie, but I cannot countenance them.
But if you suspect that you will find yourself among their number, if you find yourself rooting against Cormier as so many have throughout his UFC career, then maybe this will help. Let’s take a good look at the techniques and strategies that make Daniel Cormier a pound-for-pound great in the cage, and the mindset that makes him a worthy champion.
LEARNING TO PRESSURE
From 2009 to 2013, Daniel Cormier was a heavyweight. And he was a damn good heavyweight, too, despite his short stature (5’11”) and reach (72.5″). One assumes that Cormier, who suffered life-threatening renal failure at the 2008 Olympics due to irresponsible weight cutting, started fighting at 265 for the sake of his health. We can also assume that, upon entering the UFC, Cormier ultimately decided to slim down in order to avoid running headlong into his teammate Cain Velasquez, who was heavyweight champion at the time. But though Cormier’s titanic strength and power are magnified at the lighter weight, heavyweight was probably the more forgiving division.
Cormier’s opponents may have been heavier at heavyweight (go figure), but they were significantly slower. Anthony Johnson is about the same height as Frank Mir with about the same wingspan, but he is fifty pounds lighter, and much swifter. It was unbelievably impressive when Cormier sent all 250 pounds of Josh Barnett flying through the air, but it was also much easier to get a hold of his hips than, say, Alexander Gustafsson. Antonio Silva, the most massive man Cormier has ever fought, is not only an inch shorter than Jon Jones (with four fewer inches of reach), but also immeasurably slower and less nimble.
Cormier danced circles around these behemoths. Despite fighting some of the best big men in the world, he was very rarely put in trouble, and never lost a round. So when DC dropped to 205, his speed and agility were no longer enough to make up for his diminutive frame. He needed to adjust his game–and he has.
Pressure was the answer, but this created a whole new set of problems. Even as a wrestler, Cormier was not particularly aggressive. Pressing forward and continually engaging has never been his angle, and it took some work to adjust. When Cormier fought Jon Jones, the first man long enough and skilled enough to really force him onto the offensive, he found himself in countless 50/50 exchanges, not losing clearly, but not winning decisively either. Worse, the strain of ceaselessly moving forward and attacking proved too much for the man who had always been more comfortable stinging away from the outside. Forced to chase after Jones, Cormier ended up putting pressure on himself, and faded badly going into the championship rounds.
But when Cormier fought Alexander Gustafsson, things had changed. Clearly he had spent time in the gym preparing himself to apply nonstop pressure. Likely he made use of a few pointers from training partner Cain Velasquez, arguably the best pressure fighter in heavyweight history. The fight was still hard for him. Gustafsson is one of the two best out-fighters at 205, and he peppered the champion with straight counters and uppercuts at every opportunity. Frequently, however, Cormier was able to create sequences like this.
1. Cormier sidesteps to keep himself between Gustafsson and the center of the cage.
2. Stepping forward, he preempts the jab of Gustafsson by covering his left hand.
3. Pulling his weight back, Cormier launches a leaping left hook. Gustafsson blocks.
4. But Cormier uses that weight transfer to deliver a thunderous overhand right.
5. As Gustafsson stumbles into a jog . . .
6. . . . Cormier takes a shortcut and meets him back in the center of the Octagon.
7. Keeping up the pressure, Cormier again paws at Gustafsson’s hand. Gustafsson pushes Cormier’s lead down . . .
8. . . . and fires a jab over the top–but DC lets it glance off his arm as he pulls his head to the left . . .
9. . . . and buckles Gustafsson’s knee with a counter low kick.
10. He quickly follows with a tapping inside low kick.
11. And then pats down Gustafsson’s hand . . .
12. . . . to deliver a lunging lead right over the top.
Compared to his battle with Jones, Cormier showed marked improvement as a pressure striker. He not only made the most of his openings, but actively sought to create them. He used his left hand to corral Gustafsson into the powerful right, and punished The Mauler for committing to strikes by chopping away at his legs. Cormier also constantly trapped Gustafsson’s hands to deny his counters, a tactic reminiscent not only of great boxers like George Foreman and Sandy Saddler, but also of the MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko. You could also just think of it as the least friendly game of patty-cake ever played. Gustafsson still came away from the fight looking like the better boxer, and he even matched Cormier’s wrestling (a heroic feat in and of itself), but he simply could not out-fight Cormier, who kept the pressure on from the first second to the last.
But here is where Cormier runs into problems, and where Rumble will find his opportunities. DC may have become infinitely more comfortable pushing the pace and pressing the attack, but technically he is still miles behind the Henri Hooft-trained challenger.
You see, pressure fighting requires one of two things: 1) a granite chin and the will to expose it, or 2) excellent defense. Cormier has the former, but he will never be safe relying on durability alone against Johnson, easily the hardest hitter in his division. To protect himself fully, Cormier would need to make use of smart head movement as he moves into the pocket–and unfortunately, Cormier’s defensive skills need work.
Here is a method that Cormier used time and again to avoid the strikes of Gustafsson.
1. Cormier, within striking distance, spots Gustafsson throwing a long jab.
2. Attempting to parry, he begins pulling his head back to create distance, and sees Gustafsson’s right hand coming.
3. In response, Cormier leans even further back, throwing out his left arm to deflect the punch.
4. As he follows through on his defensive motion, Cormier briefly abandons his stance, bringing his feet close together. Risky.
Against Gustafsson, the results were mixed. Cormier managed to deflect many of The Mauler’s straight right hands by keeping his right arm outstretched as he pulled away. And he certainly removed his chin from the path of Gustafsson’s trusty uppercut–so things aren’t all bad.
But overhands–the kind that Anthony Johnson loves to throw–are a tricky beast. Consider the arc of this punch, which takes a looping, parabolic path to its target. Everyone knows that uppercuts are the solution to a fighter who ducks. The uppercut comes up from below to clip the chin of a hunkered down opponent. In much the same way, and overhand is perfectly designed to hit an opponent who moves his head in the opposite direction. An overhand is essentially an inverted uppercut, and it can easily pass over the outflung arms that Cormier uses to deflect straight punches. So long as the opponent is willing to commit himself fully to the strike–and Rumble is–the overhand is a deadly response to a fighter who tends to pull his head back to avoid damage.
1. Cormier stands on the edge of boxing range, ready to defend a strike from Johnson.
2. Johnson throws out a jab, and Cormier throws out his hands to deflect, already starting to pull away.
3. Leaning back puts his chin right into the path of Johnson’s clubbing overhand, and because he has also thrown his feet out of position in his desperation to escape . . .
4. . . . his legs are practically ripped out from under him by the force of the blow.
These are the kinds of openings that Rumble can and will exploit at UFC 210. Cormier is a willing striker, and by no means a bad one, but his style is built too much on improvisation. If Cormier can stay low and move toward Rumble as he slips, riding the punch to its starting point rather than meeting it at its terminus, he can avoid the worst of Johnson’s offense. Up to this point, however, he has struggled to execute the kind of defense that an aggressive fighter needs to keep himself conscious.
Now, Anthony Johnson did not allow Cormier to apply much pressure at UFC 187, primarily because he himself was constantly coming forward. Despite his falws, however, Cormier has undeniably become much more comfortable in the pocket. He is now willing to stand right on the end of and inside his opponent’s effective range, which means that he will always be flirting with Rumble’s power, but he can also effectively respond. Trading punches with Rumble would be ill-advised, but Cormier uses this shortened distance to counter strikes, not with strikes of his own, but with wrestling.
When Cormier and Johnson first met at UFC 187, it was DC’s wrestling that carried the day. Though Cormier has been a full-fledged mixed martial artist for many years now, I imagine few were surprised that he relied on his wrestling against such a dangerous striker. Cormier’s list of wrestling credentials is about as long as any in the UFC, with numerous medals in the World Championships, the Pan American Games, the prestigious Ivan Yarygin Cup, and the NCAA’s Division I National Championships, in which Cormier was an All-American. Add a few very nearly missed Olympic medals to the list, if you like.
But Cormier was not much of a takedown artist during his wrestling career, at least not in the way we usually view takedowns in MMA. Explosive shots from long range were never Daniel’s forte. Instead, as brilliantly explained by Bloody Elbow’s Coach Mike Riordan, Cormier was the kind of the go-behind. He specialized in stopping takedowns, and then countering them to score points, usually by quickly and efficiently spinning to his opponent’s back. With chokes on the table, there are obvious advantages to this skillset in MMA. Unsurprisingly, Cormier has three rear naked chokes on his record.
But against MMA fighters, most of whom are actually not particularly interested in tying up with a world class wrestler, this skillset does not make for a perfect foundation. In the UFC, Cormier’s knack for go-behinds can feel sort of like an excellent counter puncher competing a jiu-jitsu tournament.
Nonetheless, Cormier is a perfectly well-rounded fighter, and his colossal strength doesn’t hurt. With his new focus on pressure fighting, Cormier has fine-tuned his wrestling game for MMA. These days he is much more likely to duck under a punch and latch onto his opponent’s legs. Though this rarely results in an immediate takedown, Cormier’s pitbull tenacity enables him to maintain control for long periods of time after intiating the clinch. And in that range, the subtle techniques that made him a brilliant counter wrestler allow him to take over.
Anthony Johnson felt the wrestling of Daniel Cormier immediately after scoring his impressive knockdown. Flinging himself into a right hand as Cormier backed into the fence, Johnson found himself punching air as Cormier attacked his legs. Johnson proved difficult to take down–at first–but Cormier’s brilliant wrestling allowed him to turn every clinch into a dominant position. When Johnson, tired and discouraged, entered the third round against a still-fresh Cormier, it was DC’s trusty wrestling that set him up for the finish.
1. With Rumble pinned against the fence, Cormier drops for a double leg takedown.
2. Johnson counters by widening his base and sagging his weight down on the back of Cormier’s neck.
3. Rather than stalling out, Cormier switches his own base, planting his right foot and turning his hips toward Johnson’s.
4. Cormier pops his hips and throws his right arm over Johnson’s back, beginning to angle around Johnson’s legs.
5. To complete the motion, Cormier posts his right hand. Note that Johnson cannot reach back to stop the angle, as Cormier keeps his head stuffed into the back of his armpit to block it.
6. Cormier pops out and neatly takes the back as an exhausted Johnson looks hopelessly at his corner.
Much is made of the strength of Daniel Cormier, and for good reason. I have mentioned his power several times myself in this piece, because you simply don’t lift a 260-pound Josh Barnett into the air, or send Alexander Gustafsson into an aerial cartwheel without considerable brawn. However, Cormier is also a fantastically technical wrestler. In the tie-ups he makes beautifully efficient adjustments, using his strength but never muscling anything that he doesn’t have to. The key to Cormier’s victory over Rumble was his ability to turn every single clinch or takedown attempt into something meaningful. Yes, Johnson was able to rebuff him a few times, and even scored a momentary takedown of his own in the third round. But just as it would be foolish for Cormier to kickbox with Rumble, the challenger is lost if he attempts to tangle with Daniel Cormier within the skillset that first brought Cormier to the world stage.
THE MIND OF A CHAMPION
And so we come back around to where we started, to Cormier’s personality and spirit. We all remember when Cormier was knocked down in the first minute of his last fight with Johnson. The right hand which sent him stumbling to the canvas–the same right hand which has turned out the lights of a dozen other fighters–did not stop him. If anything, the knockdown gave him focus, and in the blink of an eye Cormier was back to his roots, wrestling Johnson to the cage and mauling him on the ground. Somehow, Cormier found the will to win after suffering the first knockdown of his career, to the hardest hitter he had ever faced.
Most men are defeated the moment Anthony Johnson lands the big shot. But in a sense, Anthony Johnson defeated himself when that shot failed to put Daniel Cormier away. DC did not falter. He did not lose hope, or get desperate. He stayed sharp, and he fought back. For a man like Rumble, who has faltered just about every time his opponent survives the early onslaught and pushes back, this was the death knell. This was the best version of Anthony Johnson the world had ever seen, but through a potent combination of technical skill and sheer doggedness, Cormier turned him right back into the novice powerhouse who was submitted by Rich Clementi at UFC 76.
Can Rumble knock the champion out? Absolutely. He has knocked him down once before, and he has the opportunity to learn from his mistakes, to approach his opponent with more patience and poise this time around. But where other men stayed down, Daniel Cormier got back up. It is difficult to overstate just how important that kind of drive is in a fistfight. Cormier has been knocked down now in two of his last three fights, but mental toughness often trumps mere physical durability. This is a kind of toughness that Anthony Johnson has never possessed, and it is the foundation of Cormier’s success.
So give the man respect. You think he’s arrogant, or whiny, or entitled? Fine. I think you’re dead wrong, but you are certainly entitled to your opinions. But for those of you who fail to recognize the essential greatness of Daniel Cormier the fighter are lost in the woods. For his sake, you’d better hope that Anthony Johnson does not share your sentiment.
For more on Cormier-Johnson and the most meaningful fights of UFC 210, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.