'Nerves' got to Daniel Cormier in UFC debut

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Before his fight Saturday, Daniel Cormier scoffed at the notion of "the UFC jitters."

For those unfamiliar with the concept, it goes something like this: A fighter enters the UFC touted as a hot prospect. He has an impressive list of wins and/or a collection of title belts. Then he shows up for his UFC debut fight, is overcome with nerves, and puts on the type of performance that leaves fans wondering what all the fuss was about.

Cormier didn't think this would apply to his Saturday night fight against former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir. After all, Cormier was a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic wrestling team, an NCAA All-American at Oklahoma State, and had racked up an impressive 11-0 record (with eight finishes) in his brief MMA career.

But after a sluggish performance in a unanimous decision victory over Mir at the HP Pavilion, Cormier now believes the fabled UFC jitters are quite real.

"I've had a very long athletic career," the 34-year-old Cormier said at Saturday night's post-fight news conference. "I've competed at the highest levels of all my sports and I always kind of laughed at [UFC president] Dana [White] when he said 'the jitters.' I was like, with my career, compared to this, there's no chance I'm going to [have the jitters]. But then I was nervous."

[Daniel Cormier: Dropping to 205 will be a 'team decision']

Like many before him, Cormier had a fair deal of hype heading into his debut fight. The San Jose transplant has been considered a champion in the making for much of the past year. His star turn in the sport came during the Strikeforce heavyweight Grand Prix tournament. Inserted into the tournament semifinals as an alternate, he scored a knockout win against Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva – who challenges Cain Velasquez for the UFC title on Memorial Day weekend – then tossed around former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett like a rag doll for five rounds last May to claim the tourney title.

Yet even with such credentials, Cormier couldn't shake off the nerves as the bout with Mir approached.

"I was so nervous today," Cormier said. "It's almost like, you want it so bad, you want to do so well, and it's just kind of, kind of laying in a little bit. I didn't fight the fight I wanted to. ... More than anything I felt tired. I usually never feel tired in a fight. I felt great, I can go long, and you know, in this fight I was very tired and I think it was my nerves."

Of course, this is all a matter of perspective. Cormier completely shut down a former UFC champion en route to winning 30-27 on all three judges' scorecards. That's not exactly a small accomplishment.

But Cormier's bout came toward the end of one of the most spectacular cards in UFC history – eight of the first 10 fights on Saturday's card ended via knockout or TKO, tying a record for the most such finishes in one event. The previous bout, a thrilling knockout of Nate Diaz by hometown favorite Josh Thomson, tore the house down and left the crowd wanting more.

[Also: Benson Henderson defends UFC title, wins over girlfriend with proposal]

So when Cormier stuck with a clinical, tactical performance, using a strong Greco-Roman clinch to neutralize a taller and heavier opponent, the fight fell flat. Cormier, who is one of MMA's most down-to-earth and straightforward people, didn't pretend to be happy with the result.

"That's something I really don't like," Cormier said, acknowledging the occasional jeers of the crowd. "I like to put on exciting fights. I want to put on fights where people enjoy it."

Cormier's already looking at the fight as a learning experience. He was overly respectful of Mir's ground game. Mir has feared jiu-jitsu skills, so Cormier chose not to take the fight to the ground, despite the fact his wrestling is one of his strongest points. Cormier realized he's going to have to mix it up if he's to get over the hump and clear the final hurdle.

"I think I made some mistakes in my training camp," he said. "I can't not wrestle. … I've got to be able to take the fight everywhere. I trained the whole time without wrestling. And it limited me. I've got to get better in jiu-jitsu, so that I'm comfortable with everything."

This leads to the question of where exactly Cormier goes from here. Despite disappointment in Saturday's performance, the fact remains that Cormier's past four wins include two one-sided victories over former UFC heavyweight champions and a knockout of the next challenger to Velasquez's title.

But therein lies the rub. Cormier and Velasquez are good friends and training partners at San Jose's American Kickboxing Academy. They're not inclined to fight if they don't have to. So should Cormier stay at heavyweight and continue winding toward a potential collision, or go down to 205?

[Also: Josh Thomson delivers huge win over Nate Diaz in return to UFC]

Cormier made one thing clear: Either way, he doesn't think Saturday night's performance merits a title shot just yet.

"Even if they said you're going to fight Cain Velasquez next, I don't think [Saturday's] performance warrants me a title shot," he said.

Beyond that, it's a matter of going back to the drawing board.

"We'll get together and figure it out," Cormier said. "If Dana says 'If your intention is to get down to 205, you need to do it now,' then I guess that's what I have to do. It could be a big decision. ... I can fight right away at heavyweight, but if I need to cut down, that's going to take some time."

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