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UFC’s Daniel Cormier used family tragedies to fuel his rise to light heavyweight champion

He’ll defend his title at UFC 210 and is running a wrestling program for kids

Every morning at 6:30, UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier travels about 20 minutes from Gilroy, California, to San Jose, California, to begin his training.

“It’s crazy,” Cormier said of his training schedule. “I do something in the morning at 7 a.m. Either running, hitting pads, sitting in the sauna. Then I train again at noon. Then I get a break until 7 o’clock at night. I train three times a day some days, two times a day some days. I look forward to Sundays when I have a rest day, where I just get up and I just chill with my family.”

The reigning champion will defend his title against Anthony Johnson on April 8 at UFC 210, a 13-bout lineup at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York, headlined by the rematch between Cormier and Johnson, the No. 1 contender.

Cormier said he feels great going into the fight and he’s done everything he needs to do to face Johnson.

“I’ve worked hard. I’m managing my weight. I’ve trained smart. I’ve covered all my bases, and I’ve dotted my i’s and I’ve crossed my t’s,” Cormier said. “All I can do out there is go out and show the world what me and my team at the American Kickboxing Academy [AKA] have been working on. I’ve gotta go out there and do what I’ve been trained to do. I do that, I’ll be fine. By the end of the night, I’ll still be the UFC champion of the world.”

The duo first faced each other at UFC 187 on May 23, 2015, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas for the vacant title. Cormier won with a second-round submission. A rematch was expected to take place on Dec. 10, 2016, at UFC 206, but Cormier withdrew because of injury.

The fierce rivalry between the two makes for one of UFC’s most highly anticipated rematches.

Cormier is an Oklahoma State University graduate with a degree in sociology, but nothing came easy for him. His father was murdered in 1986 by the father of his second wife on Thanksgiving Day. In 2003, his 3-month-old daughter, Kaedyn, died in a car accident. He later almost died from kidney failure during the 2008 Olympics while trying to make weight.

Now, Cormier runs a wrestling program for kids at AKA Wrestling Club. The two-time Olympian trains children ages 5 to 12. According to the club’s website, “All are offered the opportunity to participate on the Daniel Cormier-AKA Wrestling team if the student wishes to compete. Daniel’s program is currently ranked as one of the top youth wrestling programs in the state of California. He values family. He and his fiancé (sic) Salina Deleon are raising their 6-year-old son Daniel and their 5-year-old daughter Marquita. His life teaches a great lesson, to never stop fighting for the life you want no matter what is thrown your way.”

How do you feel about being the light heavyweight champion?

Unbelievable. It was a journey that I started in 2009, and the idea was to be the champion of the world. Now it’s been two years that I’ve been the champion, and it just felt like a dream come true. When you start doing something and then you accomplish the ultimate goal, there’s nothing like it. It kind of feels like a fairy tale, because never in my wildest dreams could I have thought that my career could have gone as long as it has done.

How did you get started in mixed martial arts?

After the 2008 Olympics, I took a year off and I was like, ‘Man, I’ve gotta do something.’ Because I was working a job at a local TV station in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and I started playing NBA 2K. I played NBA 2K9. Might have played 700, 800 games online in one year. I was ranked in the top 100 in the world. I was beating everybody. I was so good. I was like, ‘If I’m spending this much time on a video game, I know that I’ve gotta be doing something competitive, because I’m just trying to find an outlet to compete right now. Playing basketball games is not gonna do enough.’ My friend King Mo, Muhammed Lawal, he had started probably a year prior, and he’s like, ‘Man, you should try mixed martial arts.’ He was like, ‘I think you’d be good at it.’ I went up to California, trained with him a couple times and came off the American kickboxing chat and training with those guys there. I just was like, ‘You know what? This is what I’m gonna do.’ Three weeks later I was in the octagon.

What piqued your interest in wrestling?

Initially, the WWF [World Wrestling Federation]. I’ll tell you this: My mom took some old mattresses and she put them in our backyard for us to do the WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment]. We were trying it all. We were trying it all. My mom was like, ‘Please go burn some energy.’ We would wrestle in my backyard. Then one day the high school wrestling coach saw us playing outside, and he goes, ‘Why don’t you guys try wrestling?’ We were out there fighting, tussling. I live like 100 yards from the high school. I went in there thinking that I was going to be doing some WWE, but it was actually like referee position, being that you’re on your hands and knees and I’m like, ‘What in the world is this?’ I went. My parents really had never let me quit anything, so I fell in love with the sport.

Daniel Cormier punches Anthony Johnson in their UFC light heavyweight championship bout during the UFC 187 event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 23, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Who do you idolize in the wrestling, MMA, kickboxing worlds?

In wrestling, man, my idols were the best wrestlers in the world: John Smith, Kevin Jackson, Kenny Monday, those types of guys. I looked up to the champs. Bruce Baumgartner. I looked up to those guys. American champions. Kurt Angle, those types of guys. I always aspired to be like them. When I was in high school, I saw Kurt Angle win the ’96 gold and I saw John Smith win the ’92 gold when I was in eighth grade and I was like, ‘You know what? I want to be an Olympic champ.’ I was like, ‘I’ve gotta be an Olympic champ, because I want to feel what those guys felt.’ They were flying, they were carrying the American flag. They’re learning.

That moment, it was like, wow, these guys experienced euphoria. They will never be happier in this moment, because how can you be? That’s what I thought I was going to do. Then after the 2008 Olympics, I didn’t compete and I didn’t win, so obviously I never got that feeling. Then when I saw the fight and I was like, ‘Wow, I get another opportunity to change that.’ I experienced it when I became the UFC champion. Fighting my idols again, one of the greatest prizes of all time. The Randy Ortons and the Chuck Liddells. All those guys that have wrestler’s backgrounds and have reached the top of the pool.

How do you make time for family?

It’s tough. I do things like this, I pick up my kid from school so that on the way home I can talk to my son and my daughter. She’s not at school today. She only goes three days a week; he goes five.

How do you eat while in training?

I’ve got a nutritionist. His name is Daniel Lee, and he lives with me. He just feeds me all kinds of stuff. I’m from Louisiana, so I like his stuff. Red beans and rice, gumbo and all that. I can’t eat it between training and training camp. Dan, bless his little heart. He tries, he tries. He calls it healthy red beans and rice. What he does is he makes red beans and he puts chicken apple sausage in it, puts all the stuff in it, but he puts it over a bed of cauliflower rice.

I really do like your effort, bro, but don’t ever make me cauliflower rice and red beans again. I love that he tries to individualize it to me and who I am. I like steak. He makes a good filet with some avocado. Last night I had asparagus with some chicken. He also makes this really good, it’s not my favorite meal that he makes me, but he takes a long piece of collard greens. He’s learned how to wrap it like a burrito. He fries that with turkey. He cooks ground turkey with tomato and onion and all the right stuff. That’s pretty good. That’s one of those health moves that you can actually deal with. It ain’t red beans and cauliflower rice.

What’s been the hardest part of your journey?

The hardest part is balancing. It’s tough. Outside of the fighting, I do analyst work. I now fight at a smaller weight class than I did in the beginning. That’s tough, dieting and making the weight. In terms of athletically tough, the hardest thing I’ve dealt with was losing to Jon Jones on Jan. 3, 2015. I’ll never forget that.

Why was that so hard for you?

It’s tough because there was so much buildup. I felt like I was ready to become the UFC champion at that time. I wanted to be the guy that many consider the greatest fighter of all time. I thought that I was ready to get it done. Then with everything that had happened for him and I as buildup, with the fighting and the arguing.

How has family tragedy shaped you into the person you are today?

Well, when I lost my father, it was tough, obviously because I was young and also my stepdad, Percy, had been such a strong figure in my life. Through him and my mom and my family, they actually were able to elevate me and teach me that, with that law, you know you’re not going to see that person again, but know that you have a dad. A person that is really trying to care for you and nurture you and is going to be a guiding light for you in terms of how to be a man going forward. My mom and dad had divorced before that happened, so I had already spent four years with Percy as my dad, my stepdad. I learned all my lessons from him. Every part of being a man that I carry in my life now, that I try to pass to my boy, is going to be lessons I learned from my dad, Percy.

I had a very strong figure in my life to help me get me through that tragedy, but also to guide me in the way of hard work and commitment and everything else, because I wouldn’t have been that way. My dad got up at 7:30 every morning and went to work for the city of Lafayette. He cleaned bathrooms, he put chalk down on baseball fields. He did all that. When he would get off at 5, he would come home, he would take a bath, get dressed and go back to wash dishes at a pizza parlor for 15 bucks. Or he would take us with him to mow the grass at a cemetery to make money. I understood hard work at a very, very young age because I saw it day in and day out. That’s why I take my son to the gym sometimes, so he can see the work that I’m putting in, to know that nothing is ever going to be free.

My daughter, that was the hardest thing because there are no guidelines, there are no books or anything to read and you don’t know how to deal with loss of that nature. There is nothing that’s going to help you cope better when you lose something so precious and so dear. Then as I started to lean on the people closest to me — my ex-wife at the time, Robin, my coach John Smith, Kevin Jackson and Cheryl McCall, all my friends — I asked myself the question, ‘Is this going to cost you, or is this going to propel you and be a force of inspiration for you?’ That’s what it became.

Everything I did every day of my life going forward was for Kaedyn. For a long time, it was singular. She may have been the guiding force of everything I was doing, from the moment she passed in 2003 until 2011 when I had Daniel. She has always been my guiding light. As she is still today, her and Daniel and Marquita, for me and the rest of my family. Some people don’t recover from a loss like that, and I’m just lucky that I was able to take that energy and use it to actually encourage me to train harder, work harder, work smarter. Make sure that I can be a good father to my children that are here on this earth with me today. I always want to make her proud. Every day in my actions, would she be proud? I think so far the answer is yes.

How did you end up with kidney failure?

Well, that was a lot of mismanagement on my part. Not taking the weight very seriously, not dieting and being professional in my approach to the Olympic Games in 2008. Getting too big and then having to drop off massive amounts of weight. It was a life lesson. Now I have a lot of things in place to avoid those traps. More resources at my disposal, financially, even though the idea of the training center is it gave you everything you needed. I wasn’t mature enough at the time to seek out all the help that I needed to make this journey down to my weight class easy. Now I do that. I have a guy that lives with me for a month before every single fight to make sure the weight cut is as easy as possible. It’s tough. It was very tough.

Made the weight. I got on the scale at 211 pounds, 211.5 pounds. I had depleted myself so tremendously that my body couldn’t handle the loss of water and the strain that I had put on myself to get down to 211. They thought I was suffering from renal failure. It was very scary. I was in the hospital for days after that incident. Again, what doesn’t kill me will make me stronger, and I learned from that.

What motivated you to start your wrestling program for kids?

Just the fact that wrestling has given me so much. Gave me my education, gave me an opportunity to go to Oklahoma State and pursue a degree. It gave me an out. I know that without the sport of wrestling, I don’t know what I would’ve become. I could have just been another good athlete from Louisiana. There are so many people that just didn’t have opportunities, they’re at home. You can go to any park around the country in an urban area and somebody tells you about this guy that walks around, they’re like, ‘He was so good. He was the best that’s ever been in this area.’ Well, what happened? Well, the streets, wanting to make fast money, lack of opportunity. Same stories in every urban area in the entire country.

Wresting is just a great sport. The drive that it instilled in me, I could have been that fool. ‘Oh, man, you should have saw Daniel. When Daniel was a kid, he could play football, he could wrestle, he could do this. What happened to him?’ I wouldn’t know what happened because of the sport.

Do you feel that in the future, mixed martial arts will welcome more African-American fighters, other fighters of color or even women of color?

Yes, I do. I think that the more that we as African-Americans are at the forefront of the sport, the more influence we will have in the black community. Then more people will say, ‘This is something I can do.’ Right now, in terms of African-American women, Angela Hill stands out as the person that’s kind of leading the charge in the UFC in that sense. Karyn Bryant has been on TV for a long time. She’s a reporter and a studio host for the UFC on Fox Sports. You have myself and Tyron Woodley. Demetrious Johnson.

I believe that with that, we are able more now to reach more of the community. I really want that. I believe that in terms of fighters, you can go to any city and find kids that are willing to flat-out fight. We give them some skill, give them some training. It’s definitely a needed transition. Cain Velasquez told me that he looked up to Julio Cesar Chavez. He followed him as the champion of the world. It was real to him because there was someone that looked like him that had reached these unbelievable heights. I think when kids see myself and Tyron and Demetrious, they could feel the same way.

Have you and your fiancée set a wedding date yet?

Yes, we have. Salina and I are going to be married May 27 of this year. We’re less than 70 days away from her becoming Mrs. Cormier. I told her, I said, listen, ‘It might seem fun, but the name comes with a lot. It ain’t easy.’

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.