For the past 25 years wrestling has been the biggest part of Daniel Cormier’s life.
Starting out as a kid hitting the mats, Cormier’s grappling prowess was recognized at an early age before he worked his way to one of the top wrestling programs in the country at Oklahoma State University. Unfortunately at the same time Cormier was peaking, a guy by the name of Cael Sanderson — one of the most successful wrestlers in U.S. history — was also in his weight class and it stopped him from ever winning an NCAA title.
So Cormier went up in weight and on two occasions made the U.S. Olympic wrestling team, the second time around as captain. As if fate was striking down Cormier again, his weight cut during the 2008 games in China backfired and he was pulled from the event as a preventative measure due to his health issues.
Now six years later and after launching a very successful campaign as a top MMA fighter, Cormier returned to the mats for one final match last weekend at the UFC Fan Expo where he took on fellow Oklahoma State Cowboy Chris Pendleton in an exhibition match, which would mark the end of his wrestling career.
My career’s come full circle. I guess it’s a symbol of finishing that last chapter and moving onto the next chapter of my life. I can feel it now that there was still something back from wrestling that I needed to get rid of and now I move on and commit myself 100-percent to MMA
— Daniel Cormier
For two periods, totally six minutes, Cormier hit the mats like an old pro and while he went down to Pendleton early, the Olympian battled back and got the win in the end outscoring his opponent 12-5. While the stage wasn’t nearly the same as the Olympics would have been six years prior, Cormier said with his wife and kids sitting on the mats nearby and a crowd of maybe just a couple of hundred onlookers, he was as nervous as he’s been for any competition.
"It felt crazy. I was so nervous and then Chris takes me down and he’s up 3-0, it was kind of scary and I don’t like to lose, it was crazy," Cormier told FOX Sports after the match.
"I was behind so I had to bring a little more pressure and to Chris’ defense I took him out to a party last night that I hosted. He’s much better than he used to be, much, much better than he used to be. Stronger, faster, much better wrestler today than when we last trained together."
When the match was over, Cormier unlaced his shoes and left them in the center of the mat, which signifies that his wrestling career was officially over. This was the best way to say goodbye to a huge part of his life and turn the page on a new chapter where Cormier hopes to bring home another type of gold in the new sport he loves so much.
There’s no doubt Cormier will always be heartbroken that he didn’t get to fulfill a dream to bring home an Olympic medal, but being able to say goodbye to wrestling on his terms meant a lot to him. This was the best way possible to leave everything on the mat one final time.
"That’s it, that’s the last time I’m going to step on the mat. It meant a lot to me to wrestle in my last competition. In the Olympics I didn’t get to compete and I didn’t want to end my career in a hospital bed in China. I’d much rather get one more match in and end it on the match," Cormeir said.
"I think it was a good finish. It wasn’t the Olympic games, but now that I’m in the UFC and to do it at the UFC Fan Expo, means a lot. My career’s come full circle. I guess it’s a symbol of finishing that last chapter and moving onto the next chapter of my life. I can feel it now that there was still something back from wrestling that I needed to get rid of and now I move on and commit myself 100-percent to MMA."
First things first before he starts training for his next bout, Cormier will undergo knee surgery to repair some lingering damage that’s been haunting the fighter for several years. As it turns out, Cormier has actually been fighting the entire time on a knee that was performing at well less than 100-percent.
While the full extent of the surgery is still to be determined, Cormier knows he’s not going for a full ACL replacement that would put him out for the better part of a year. He’s begrudgingly willing to go under the knife, but not in any way that will make him miss meaningful time in the Octagon that would be spent winning world titles.
"My orthopedic surgeon is still figuring out exactly what he wants to do because I’m not into a full ACL reconstruction. When guys start doing that they start putting in cadaver (ligaments), they start doing all kinds of stuff that I’m not really into. I have to get with my doctor to see exactly what he wants," Cormier said.
"If I’ve had this injury as long as he’s saying I’ve had this injury, could you imagine me fighting at 100-percent? That means that I’ve never fought at 100-percent in my entire mixed martial arts career. That’s unfortunate and lucky that I’ve been able to have the success that I’ve had to this point."
Once the surgery wraps, Cormier will turn his attention to rehabilitation while paying extra close attention to the UFC 178 main event between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson because he will be facing the winner. Cormier doesn’t mind which of them holds the belt once the dust settles and the smoke clears, but it’s clear he would like to be the one to dethrone Jones after his dominant run through the division.
Either way with his final wrestling victory added to his resume, Cormier is confident the next accolade he will achieve has a gold belt attached to it with the letters UFC brightly shining in the middle.
"My next time I get my hand raised," Cormier said, "will be in the cage against Jon Jones."