It’s weird to think that Cain Velasquez somehow “thwarted” Daniel Cormier. They are teammates and friends after all. But people tend to forget that when the UFC absorbed the Strikeforce roster, Cormier had won the heavyweight grand prix. He was 2-0 in the UFC before he moved down a weight class so that he wouldn’t step on Cain’s toes. He’s fighting the heavyweight champion at UFC 226, but it should’ve happened three or four years ago.
Better without a cut
Despite the highly publicized dangers of weight cutting, there’s a reason fighters do it: it works. A good cut sacrifices some cardio for a ton of physical strength and size. When the UFC started, it was common to see top lightweights under 5′ 8″. Now, it’s uncommon to see any south of 5′ 10″. Standing a shade under 5′ 11″, it would seem that Cormier would be more suited to light-heavyweight.
Well, Cormier is one of those rare fighters who was better without needing to cut weight because of two distinct advantages. The first is that the stamina his body gains in weight is far greater than the stamina he expends by grappling heavier men. The second advantage is that heavyweights have horrendous endurance compared to any other class, so his clinch wrestling can wear his opponents down quicker.
Speed kills (at heavyweight)
When Brock Lesnar rampaged his way to the heavyweight title, the entire division assumed the dawn of the “super”-heavyweights had arrived. Fighters packed on muscle, hoping to get north of 250 lbs to stand a chance against the new breed. Then, along came Cain Velasquez and pooped all over that theory.
As it turns out, heavyweights are naturally strong and powerful so the valuable tools were speed and endurance.
Cormier was no ballerina at heavyweight, but his dart was quicker than anything his opponents had seen. When he darted in, heavyweight opponents were noticeably slower to backstep or counter. Combined with the hand speed advantage his short limbs gave him, he could lunge in with damaging shots before opponents had time to react. His fight against Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva is a terrific example of this.
When they met in 2011, Bigfoot was 16-2 and had just upset Fedor Emelianenko while Cormier was a surprise replacement for the other tournament favorite, Alistair Overeem. Instead, Cormier outstruck Silva from pillar to post and knocked him out in the opening round. It was a masterful performance, full of pinpoint overhand rights and left hooks punctuated with an uppercut that snatched Bigfoot’s soul. This was before a string of knockouts and a lack of TRT erased Bigfoot’s chin. Cormier did in one round what Mark Hunt couldn’t in five.
Being small in MMA has some notable disadvantages. Punching upwards drains stamina more quickly, and the need to cover distance leaves you open to counters. An opponent with a good jab or front kick can spell doom. But in return, they are generally stronger and more difficult to take down. As an Olympic wrestler, Cormier exploited these advantages to the fullest.
Because he’s so low to the ground, Cormier has a really easy time ducking under punches to get a clinch. But because he doesn’t hunch very far, it’s difficult to reliably uppercut him. Cormier has to spend more energy to punch upwards, but the blows naturally cover his chin. In return, his opponents leave their chin open when they punch down. His short but enormous legs let him ragdoll grown men. Because the UFC treats its fighters’ non-UFC highlights like the plague, you may think Cormier’s best slam was against Dan Henderson.
Not even close.
After crushing Bigfoot, Cormier came up against Josh Barnett in the grand prix finals. The “Warmaster” was one of the best submission wrestlers in history and spent the prime of his career as the #2 heavyweight behind Fedor Emelianenko. He didn’t even come close to beating Cormier. Despite being 248 lbs, Barnett found himself lifted and spiked in the same manner as Henderson several years later.
Alas, it’s too late to reclaim that form.
Cormier is closer to 40 than 30 years old and his footwork has gone from bouncing to plodding. His loyalty to his team has prevented him from becoming more dominant at heavyweight than he ever was at lightweight. The existence of Cain Velasquez may have thwarted the rise of the greatest heavyweight ever.
Truly a curse.