Let’s start off with a bit of honesty: Louisiana is pretty bad at wrestling. The state boasts the name “Sportsman’s Paradise”, and that may well be true, so long as a man’s sport isn’t the world’s oldest.
Coming from Lafayette Louisiana, Daniel Cormier really defied the odds when he became a national-caliber prep wrestler. By his high school graduation in 1997, Cormier had found his way onto every meaningful All-American list: Fargo, Asics Tiger and NHSCA. In 1995, he even represented Team USA in the FILA Cadet Greco-Roman World Championships, where he placed third. Before he even stepped on a college mat, Cormier could claim the title of the greatest wrestler in the history of the Pelican State.
When Cormier did enter the world of college wrestling, his success continued immediately. Wrestling for legendary coach Steve Lampe (inventor of the iconic wrestling move the “Peterson”) at Colby College, he won a junior college national championship in 1998 at 190 pounds, then won another in 1999 at 197 pounds, alongside 157 pound teammate Corey Hill.
The following year, Cormier jumped from junior college straight into a starting role in NCAA Division I superpower Oklahoma State’s star-studded lineup. In his first season on college wrestling’s highest level, the Louisianan wrestled so well that he earned the third seed in the 184 pound weight class at the 2000 NCAA National Championships, where he advanced to the tournament’s quarterfinals, only to suffer two straight upsets and finish one match short of All-American honors.
In his final year of eligibility at Oklahoma State, Cormier came within a few points of winning college wrestling’s highest prize. Once again the third seed at the 2001 NCAA Tournament, he caught fire and torched his side of the 184 pound bracket with two pins, a technical fall and a major decision. After pinning future Olympian Andy Hrovat in the semifinals, Cormier moved on to face Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson in the finals.
As history would have it, Sanderson became the only undefeated four time national champion ever on the NCAA Division I level, and in their 2001 finals match, Cormier represented just another tally on Sanderson’s way to 159 straight victories. Among Sanderson’s four finals opponents, Cormier proved the toughest by far, even scoring a third-period takedown on the Iowa State wrestler to pull within a point. Ultimately, however, the skills of college wrestling’s greatest ever were too great, Sanderson won 8-4, ending Cormier’s college career.
Below we have Sanderson and Cormier’s 2001 NCAA finals match. It’s interesting to note that in the match immediately before, Josh Koscheck won his national championship, and in the match after, Mark Munoz won a title as well.
Immediately after college, Cormier hit the ground running in freestyle wrestling. The cut to 184 during the previous two years must have proved particularly harsh, as he immediately jumped to the now defunct 213 pound (97 kg) weight class for international competition. The added weight did not seem to slow him down at all, and he quickly showed immense promise on the Senior level.
Cormier developed rapidly into one the top freestyle wrestlers in the nation. At his first two World Team Trials, in 2001 at 97 kg and 2002 at 96 kg, the former Oklahoma State Cowboy finished third in line for the spot on the World Team. On Cormier’s third try, in 2003, he claimed the right to represent the USA at the World Championships in New York.
Once Cormier grabbed hold of the top spot in the USA at 96 kg, he refused to relinquish it. In 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007 Cormier represented his country in the FILA Senior World Championships, while in 2004 and 2008 he made the United States Olympic teams. At his very first World Championship in 2003, he established himself as a force on the international stage, advancing all the way to the tournament’s quarter finals before falling to Iranian superstar and past World Champion Ali Reza Heydari, 6-3. Cormier would finish in a respectable fifth place.
Roughly a year later, at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Cormier made it all the way to the semifinals, where he fell to one of history’s greatest in Russia’s Khajimurad Gatsalov. After that loss, Cormier fought back to the bronze-medal match where Iran’s Heydari again defeated him in overtime 4-2, even though Cormier had the 1-0 lead at the end of the bout’s regulation time.
That’s right. According to the prescribed 2004 rules, the combined scores of the two wrestlers had to reach a certain threshold to avoid overtime. Heydari likely played it safe, knowing he would get extra time to wrestle as the second period drew to a close, and Cormier scored his first point because the Iranian broke his grip in the ordered clinch after the first period, but it must stick in Cormier’s craw a bit that under any sane ruleset, he would have won an Olympic bronze. (I’ll also add that Cormier scored the first point in over to go up 2-0, but it was not sudden-death overtime).
Though his first Olympics didn’t go his way, Cormier immediately geared up for another four-year cycle, setting his eyes on Beijing. After his disappointment in Athens, he turned right around in 2005 and became one of only a handful of Americans to win the Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix in Siberia, the toughest wrestling tournament on Earth outside the Olympics or World Championships.
The sort of triumph Cormier experienced at Yarygin would not replicate itself at the following two World Championships, where he took fairly early exits. In 2005, the eventual bronze medalist from Kyrgyzstan, Alexej Krupniakov, upended Cormier in the second round. The next year, at the 2006 World Championships he departed in the first round, losing once more to his old nemesis Heydari.
During this time, Cormier started raising the first warning signs for the impending disaster with his weight. At the 2006 Uzbekistan Independence Cup in Tashkent, he flew all the way to Central Asia only to sit on the sidelines after arriving at the scale too heavy. Then at the 2007 Dave Schultz international, Cormier didn’t even bother trying to make 96 kg, and instead just wrestled at heavyweight.
Fortunately, Cormier weighed in under the 96 kg limit at the 2007 World Championships, and there he had his career’s finest performance. His only loss at the tournament came in the semifinals, this time to another Iranian named Saeed Abrahimi. Cormier went on to claim a bronze medal, the only world-level medal of his career.
Finally, in 2008, all of Cormier’s sloppy weight-management choices came home to roost after he had to forfeit out of the Beijing Olympics when his kidneys failed from the dehydrating weight cut. The saddest part about this was the fact that Cormier could have beaten any of the wrestlers in his weight at those Games. Cormier had a previous win over the silver medalist, Kazakhstan’s Taimuraz Tigiev, and beat bronze medalist Khetag Gazumov at the 2005 Yarygin. Making matters even worse, perennial Russian 96 kg kingpin Gatsalov didn’t even compete in Beijing due to an injury. By forcing himself to lose weight irresponsibly, Cormier truly missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime at the 2008 Olympics.
Some time ago, I wrote a lengthy piece on Cormier’s wrestling style, but I’ll provide an abridged version here.
Cormier wrestled with an incredibly simple, totally unflashy style predicated mostly on good position and the fact that nobody in the Western Hemisphere seemed able to take him down. This is not to say he was boring; he managed to score plenty of points in his matches, largely through a knack for getting behind opponents whether through situations he initiated or through his air-tight defense.
There were times when Cormier deviated from his steady diet of “go-behinds” to produce something with a bit more of a wow factor. When he wrestled vastly inferior opponents, he always had the potential to pull off something spectacular, like against this Japanese opponent Kiyotaki Kodaira.
Even when facing elite competition, Cormier showed excellent upper-body wrestling, and the capability of hitting a big throw when the situation called for it. Here he hits a nice knee-block toss from double unders against World Champion and two-time Olympic medalist Georgi Gogshelidze.
Cormier’s takedown defense on the mats seemingly has translated to the cage, as he never has yielded a takedown in a fight. Of course, few of his opponents have even bothered trying to bring him to the ground. Conversely, when he needs to, it seems that the two-time Olympian has little trouble getting take downs of his own, usually set up through outstanding pummeling work, while aided by his compact build and low center of gravity.
Factgrinder Final Analysis
From 2003 to 2008, Cormier only lost one wrestling match to a domestic opponent: an injury default to Dean Morrison in the bronze medal match at the 2003 Yarygin Grand Prix. At four Senior World Championships and the 2004 Olympics, he only lost to Iranians and wrestlers from former Soviet countries. Had Cormier wrestled in the 1970s or 80s, an era of ten weight classes and an intact USSR, I have little doubt he would have won several World and Olympic medals, and probably at least one gold.
As things stood, in a wrestling landscape with seven international weight classes and a slew of former Soviet countries in the field, Cormier still earned one World Championship medal, and put himself in good position to win another at the 2008 Olympics. If Jake Varner won a gold medal competing in the murderous field at 96 kg at the London Games, Cormier definitely could have done the same thing at the same weight in Beijing.
I think of Daniel Cormier’s wrestling career the way most people remember the political careers of long time senators or congressmen who run on a presidential ticket and lose. They may have achieved more than just about all their peers in their particular field, but the unfair world we live in defines them by that one big thing that they never accomplished.
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