Last August, I went to Washington State for the Omak Stampede, a bizarre and eminently unforgettable event where riders, most of them members of the local Colville Confederated tribes, ride horses down a terrifyingly steep grade, prior to swimming them across a river to the bank, then sprinting into the arena.
People are regularly maimed during this affair, including horses, and nobody seems to mind, except the occasional PETA types, who can't do jack shit about it because it happens on Indian land. Throw in tons of cheap beer and a big-time rodeo, and you have what amounts to a pretty good time in Omak, or anywhere else, really.
With time to kill, I was informed that none other than Daniel Cormier was holding a wrestling clinic for kids at a local school. What transpired was hilarious, in addition to being a top-notch instructional.
With some twenty kids sprawled out on the mats, Cormier gave them some world-class lessons on the art of controlling opponents and thinking several moves ahead. He was at ease in teaching mode, and regularly shifted into giving random campers a kibitz or two for poorly executed moves, or simply looking dorky. They loved it. One kid, a heavy sweater, disappeared after a ten-minute break and lurked back on the mats, freshly clad in a new shirt.
"I saw you changed shirts," quipped Cormier, stopping in the middle of a leg ride from which his hapless demonstration-aide could not hope to escape. "Don't think I didn't notice that." Everyone laughed, and Cormier, after a couple of seconds, let loose a wry smile. He was just letting them know he was on top of it like that.
That pretty much summed up Cormier on the spot -- even when mired in the physical, he's still noticing everything going on around him, and that absolutely defines his fighting style. For in his three-round decision of Frank Mir, Cormier showed a kind of uncanny tactical smarts that has all the hallmarks of the kind of next-level fighter that only comes along every couple of years.
Take, for example, his stifling clinch work.
Cormier, despite giving up 22 pounds, manhandled Frank Mir with ease, stuffing him against the cage at will. When letting go of his monstrously strong tie-up, he'd explode quick shots, raking Mir's midsection readily, then wrap him up in a flash. Or in grappling transitions, how he'll hit a lightning-fast duck-under and sneak in an uppercut from the blind side.
Another neat trick he does is pinning a guy's wrist to get hand control, and then explode into an uppercut on his undefended face. It's those kinds of brilliant linkages between grappling and striking that often make the difference between a good and a great fighter, and it's stunning how comfortable Cormier has become in the stand-up phase of the game, with a mere 11 fights. Despite being 5'11, usually a horrific disadvantage for a heavy, he makes it work for him, using quick head movement, angles and solid footwork to flit in and out of range.
Though Cormier didn't get the knockout he surely wanted, the future brightened considerably for him with his UFC debut, but with a considerable caveat. He's not likely to fight for the heavyweight title as long as buddy Cain Velasquez holds the belt. That has generated considerable talk of Cormier dropping down to 205 to challenge Jon Jones for the light-heavyweight belt, and it's one hell of a fight.
But the problem is, it could be pretty hard for Cormier to make the weight.
Yeah, we know he was an Olympic wrestler and a past master of cutting poundage, in ways that most people could never imagine. But given that he was 235 for Mir, and thickly built, and had such trouble making 211 for the Olympic team that his kidneys failed and he couldn't compete.
Now, for MMA, he'd have a day-plus to rehydrate before competing, but that's still another six pounds from a weight he couldn't make five years ago. But let's say he can make the weight cut. Against Jones, he'd be facing the game's master of spatial management. Jones dictates range better than anyone -- including Anderson Silva -- who at least manages to get taken down now and again.
Cormier would be giving up six inches in height, and 12 inches in reach.
It would be a fascinating proposition, especially if Cormier was able to force a clinch on Jones and use his marvelous wrestling, which might be the only wrestling better than Jones', at least at light heavy.
That's why I'm going to keep rooting for Cain Velasquez to stay champ. Because given Jones' dominance of late -- and I don't expect next week's defense at UFC 159 against Chael Sonnen to change that -- he is in dire need of meaningful challengers. Cormier, with his quickness, acuity and creative mind, might be the exact kind of guy to push Jones to places he's never been.
And that's one hell of a place we'd all like to see.