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Daniel Cormier uses Olympic pedigree to rise up Strikeforce ranks

Undefeated Cormier excited about Saturday’s bout against veteran Jeff Monson

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Daniel Cormier, left, and former NFL great Herschel Walker, right, spar earlier this year at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif.

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United States' Daniel Cormier reacts during the men's Freestyle 96kg final bout against Kyrgyzstan's Alexey Krupnyakov at the World Wrestling Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, Friday, Sept. 21, 2007.

The man competing in tomorrow’s Strikeforce: Dallas card who is most likely to hold a major heavyweight championship belt in two or three years might not be any of the four fighters in the much-publicized Grand Prix tournament.

Some would argue that distinction belongs to Daniel Cormier, an up-and-comer who meets Jeff Monson in the second bout on the main card, which Showtime airs via tape delay at 10 p.m. on the West Coast.

“It’s a tough division and an uphill battle for me, but if I continue to work as hard as I have and hone my craft, then I don’t see why I don’t have a chance,” Cormier said. “I’m real committed to my long-term goal.”

Cormier (7-0) isn’t the typical mixed martial arts prospect. He’s 32 years old and only started training in the sport a year-and-a-half ago.

His background, however, helped the transition go smoothly. Cormier is a two-time Olympian, competing for the United States wrestling team in the 2004 and 2008 games. The former Oklahoma State wrestler finished fourth in the 2004 Olympics and was the team captain in 2008.

“I was watching fighting when I was still competing in wrestling,” Cormier said. “I’d watch it at a coach’s house and he kept telling me I should do it. At one point, my manager also tried to get me to do it in 2001 after my college career, but I wanted to keep competing in wrestling.”

When Cormier felt the end of his wrestling run coming, he called his manager and said he wanted to look into becoming a professional fighter. Cormier became set on the idea after one training session at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif.

Cormier felt a connection with some of the facility’s top fighters, including UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and former top welterweight contenders Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch.

“I was sort of gym-hopping to see where I would train, and I went to AKA first,” Cormier said. “It was the best place hands down. There are so many wrestlers in that gym, it felt like home.”

As soon as Cormier arrived at AKA full time, his coaches threw him in as Velasquez’s main sparring partner. Velasquez was preparing for a UFC 104 bout against veteran Ben Rothwell that everyone billed as his toughest fight yet.

“It elevated me so fast,” Cormier said. “I had to get better to even last a round with Cain.”

Velasquez knocked out Rothwell in the second round to improve his MMA record to 7-0 and won two more fights after to earn his championship belt.

Monson (42-11) could easily be Cormier’s equivalent to Rothwell. A victory would mean Cormier’s eighth straight to start his career and would conceivably put him within a fight or two of a title shot.

The 40-year-old Monson is a 14-year veteran of the sport. He’s had two stints in the UFC, the last of which ended with a UFC 65 loss to then-heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia in a championship fight. Monson’s first run in the UFC started even before Zuffa, the company headed by the Fertitta brothers and Dana White, purchased the promotion.

“I think he’s extremely durable and still relevant at this point of his career,” Cormier said. “He’s a tough fighter. His biggest strength is his grappling ability. That being said, I’m not afraid to go to the ground with him. If I was afraid, I think it would be an injustice to myself because of all I’ve done in wrestling.”

Most of Monson’s losses have come against MMA’s elite like Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin and Josh Barnett. He’s on another resurgence as of late, winning his last eight bouts.

But Monson isn’t anticipating his experience rearing itself as an edge over Cormier on fight night.

“He has wrestled in two Olympics and he’s traveled all over the world, and those are big events, so that’s experience, too,” Monson told Strikeforce’s official website. “It might not be an MMA fight, but you’re competing against the best in the world on the highest stage.”

Their profession is about all Monson and Cormier have in common. As a well-spoken Olympic athlete, Cormier holds a sterling reputation.

Monson, meanwhile, is known for his outspoken anarchist views and a 2009 vandalism case after ESPN The Magazine ran photos of him spray-painting graffiti on the Washington state capitol building.

“It’s not my place to judge him,” Cormier said. “I just don’t really care what he does with his time outside of his training. I just hope he becomes a fighter on fight night. He’s got to live with what he does at the end of the day and it seems like he does that. I don’t hold anything against him.”

Cormier said not only facing Monson but sharing a card with some of the top heavyweights in the world made this the biggest opportunity of his career. In the two headlining Grand Prix fights, Alistair Overeem meets Fabricio Werdum and Brett Rogers challenges Josh Barnett.

Antonio Silva and Sergei Kharitonov are already in the second round of the Strikeforce heavyweight tournament, but Cormier is predicting Overeem and Barnett fight in the finals.

“I can’t pick a winner, because I think Josh Barnett is better than everyone else, but I think Alistair Overeem is top-notch, too,” Cormier said. “It’s difficult to beat him.”

Whoever comes out on top of the tournament won’t have much time to celebrate. At this rate, the champion might have to start preparing for Cormier.

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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