Strikeforce: Daniel Cormier’s Wrestling Style And Why It Is So Uniquely Suited to MMA

About midway through the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix semi-final between Daniel Cormier and Antonio Silva, Silva attempted something perplexing when he attempted to shoot…

By: Coach Mike R | 11 years ago
Strikeforce: Daniel Cormier’s Wrestling Style And Why It Is So Uniquely Suited to MMA
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

About midway through the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix semi-final between Daniel Cormier and Antonio Silva, Silva attempted something perplexing when he attempted to shoot a straight double leg on Daniel Cormier. Cormier, like any freestyle wrestling world bronze medalist possesses excellent takedown defense, but Cormier’s case is special and Silva’s misguided take down attempt was particularly futile.

Daniel Cormier happens to be the king of the go-behind. He can proficiently shoot singles and doubles, but these are not the skills that brought him close to amateur wrestling’s summit. Daniel may be the best ever at stuffing opponents down and spinning behind them, in fact, he became a world medalist and Olympian based mostly on this distinct ability. Though “going behind” may sound dismissively primitive and it certainly is not the foxiest ways to succeed at wrestling, its effectiveness is undeniable. In an MMA bout, Cormier’s incredible go-behind skills pose a big problem for any opponent, particularly those who want to take him down. This could lead to big problems for Josh Barnett, his opponent in Saturday’s Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Final this Saturday on Showtime.

SBN coverage of Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Cormier

Continue reading after the jump for a closer examination of Cormier’s wrestling style and an argument as to why his brand of wrestling may be even better suited for mixed martial arts than Olympic competition.

Daniel Cormier is one of the few truly elite wrestlers I have seen whose choice of a go-to move happened to be the very first move every wrestler learns. On every youngster’s first day in a wrestling room, a coach will invariably explain that where a person’s head goes, his body will follow. If one is to pull an opponent’s head down to the mat, then his body will also drop, and if an opponent drops to shoot, the response is to sprawl and stuff the head, either allows for the first take down most wrestlers can successfully execute, the go behind. There is no takedown more rudimentary, and few, if any, were ever as good at it as Cormier.

He was so good at it that he used it to take down the greatest college wrestler of all time. This is Daniel wrestling Cael Sanderson in the 2001 NCAA 184 lb. finals. (It is interesting to note that in the match immediately before this, Josh Koscheck won his NCAA title and in the match immediately after Mark Munoz earned his national championship) Wrestling does not get any simpler than this. Cormier catches Sanderson leaning forward, snaps his head down to the mat, cross-faces and rotates behind for a take down. This move can be seen repeatedly at any junior varsity wrestling tournament throughout the nation, and here Cormier uses it on folkstyle wrestling’s biggest stage and against its biggest star.

On many a wrestling room wall is a poster listing the 7 basic skills of wrestling: penetration, lift, back arch, back step, motion, positioning, and changing levels. This is wrestling on an ontological level. Every single wrestling movement reduces to one of these skills. A great coach once taught me that of all these 7 skills, the most important was positioning. If a wrestler can maintain perfect position, he can never be scored upon. By extension,a wrestler who continuously maintains position only needs his opponent to lose position once to win a match. This is wrestling’s version of the “three yards and a cloud of dust” philosophy; he who makes fewer mistakes wins. Daniel took this philosophy to heart. He would beat extremely good wrestlers with an approach both brutal and basic: staying in position throughout a match, when an opponent lowered his head to shoot or he pulled it down by relentless pressure, he would stuff it and and go behind.

I suspect that Daniel’s wrestling style harkens back to his origins in Louisiana. Louisiana does not have much of a wrestling culture, and those Louisianans that do end up coaching wrestling most likely lack a high level of technical sophistication. Coaches can experience success without technical sophistication by teaching rigid adherence to sport’s foundational principles, and I suspect that Daniel’s early wrestling coaches did just this. Cormier took a bare-bones approach to wrestling, added SEC football scholarship-level athleticism with an intense love of the sport and rose to wrestling’s stratosphere: two Olympic berths and a world bronze medal.

This is not to say that Cormier’s approach was without technical merit when just the opposite is true. Though going behind a prone opponent seems like such a mundane matter, it requires technical involvement and the application of a variety of methods. Here is a small sampling of the many methods used by Cormier.

This is Daniel, back in his days as Oklahoma State’s 184 pounder, wrestling Iowa standout Jessman Smith. Jessman takes a shot and Cormier immediately catches him in his short offense. Cormier initiates the go behind by first pulling Smith forward onto his knees.

Next, Cormier places his head “in the hole”, dropping the head behind the opponent’s arm far enough that the back of the head is in the ribs. Placing the head on the other side of the opponents arm prevents that arm from being raised to block the go behind.

Pressuring in with the back of the head actually improves the angle and shortens the distance between each wrestler’s hip. Daniel finishes with his arm around Jessman’s far hip.

The next two go behinds feature Cormier wrestling FILA 2006 wrestler of the year, Georgi Gogshelidze (GG). GG is also holds three World championships medals (one silver, two bronze) and possesses an Olympic bronze medalist as a Georgia (the country) representative. GG won a World championship for Russia in 2001 as well.

Here, Daniel finds himself with a front chestlock on GG. The Georgian is face down on the mats and looking to defend any offense by the American. Cormier lifts and poises to throw GG – but as a means of misdirection. When GG concerns himself with defending the throw, Cormier quickly steps back and spins behind.

In a second go behind against GG, Daniel again has the chest lock. GG refuses to flatten out and walks backwards to defend. This time, Cormier uses his knee the same way he uses his head against Smith in the college GIF above. The knee comes up and blocks the upper arm, while Cormier’s weight shifts just right to set up the go-behind.

The knee prevents GG’s arm from raising to block just long enough for Cormier to secure a butt drag and pull himself around for the takedown. This series is evidence that Cormier’s simple tactics can work on a very high caliber wrestler on the international stage.

However, Daniel has other tricks in his books beyond the head/arm block.

On the right is the finals of a U.S. Open where Cormier is wrestling Nik Fekete. I find it particularly impressive that Nik achieves a Russian control tie with both hand on Daniel’s arms and Cormier manages to shuck him all the way to the mat with the arm being “controlled”. This demonstrates remarkable power.

Daniel Cormier bolstered his offense with good throwing and tripping ability, as has already demonstrated this in his mixed martial arts career against some of his lower level Strikeforce competition.

These techniques put Cormier’s incredible explosiveness on display. Here are two for your enjoyment (admittedly, the second is a finish to a shot, which erodes the point of this piece a bit, but I couldn’t resist inserting it).

Unfortunately, the confines of Cormier’s skill set are what probably prevented him from standing on top of an Olympic podium (that and some weight issues). While he dominated his weight class domestically for what seemed like forever, and spent several years as one the top five wrestlers at his weight in the entire world, he ultimately came up short against his most skilled opponents, particularly those with the words “Russia” or “Iran” written on their backs. These wrestlers were good enough to score on his impressive defense, and Daniel’s inability to reliably convert leg attacks on the world’s very best left him without the means to put the necessary points on the scoreboard.

This was certainly the case against Russia’s Khajimurad Gatsalov, possibly the greatest of all time in the 211 pound weight class, in the Athens Olympic semi finals. Here Gatsalov hits a superb knee-pull single off a collar tie on Cormier.

Losing in the Olympic semis is not shameful, nor is losing to a wrestler of the caliber of Gatsalov, but those fans of Cormier the wrestler are left with the keenest disappointment of all, the disappointment of near success. Daniel was very close to ultimate wrestling success; he had enough talent to beat anyone in the world, and to his credit he had actualized most of it. Unfortunately, when it was all said and done, he simply lacked the pure point scoring firepower to consistently create his own offense against the world’s best, and this kept him from world or Olympic gold.

When Daniel Cormier walks into the cage against Josh Barnett you will see much of the same skills you saw with him on a wrestling mat, but I believe that his array of skills are even better suited for mixed martial arts than freestyle wrestling. Daniel’s skillful trips and throws allow him to bring a fight to the ground without the risk of lowering a level and shooting. Without the need to shoot he will not get out of position and disrupt his world class takedown defense. Finally, Cormier, maybe as much as anyone in the entire world, possesses the ability to turn an opponent’s offensive wrestling into take downs of his own. The difference, now that he is in a cage, is that now that Cormier has the offensive firepower that he always needed to consistently score big and win. This firepower packed away in his tightly clenched fists.

Finally, my prediction for the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Final: Cormier by decision

Mike Riordan is a high school wrestling coach, unsuccessful division one collegiate wrestler, and student of the sport of wrestling. He contributes to Bloody Elbow on matters of collegiate and Olympic wrestling.

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