- Brett Okamoto, ESPN Staff Writer
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Leading up to the Strikeforce World Grand Prix final on May 19 in San Jose, it would be easy for heavyweight Daniel Cormier to scoff at Josh Barnett’s wrestling background.
Really, Cormier could scoff at just about anybody’s experience level when it comes to the wrestling mat. Twice, he was a member of the U.S. Olympic team and in 2001 he placed second at the NCAA Championships.
In contrast, Barnett opted to leave the amateur circuit for the professional wrestling scene. He’s competed in "worked" wrestling matches off and on for the better part of his career.
When asked to describe how they’re backgrounds in the sport of wrestling compare, Barnett joked, as he often does, “I cut better promos and I’m more adept at jumping off the top of a cage.”
Cormier, though, quickly interrupted on a more serious note.
“I think when you guys call him a professional wrestler, some of his opponents have listened to that,” Cormier said. “In order to do all that stuff he does on the ground, he has to get you down. This dude’s a wrestler first.
“I think that’s what people misunderstand. People say, ‘Oh, you’re fighting a professional wrestler.’ No, I know better than that.”
The wrestling community has a reputation of being close-knit, a generalization that certainly applies when watching Barnett and Cormier interact.
“One thing wrestlers have over mixed martial arts guys is they know their history,” Barnett said. “Even the guys that are jerks, everybody comes up to you, shakes your hand and tells you who they are. You know your lineage.
“In MMA, there are a lot of kids who run out and don’t know nothing. They couldn’t tell you what Pancrase is. It’s not as if you should worship [past generations], but you should know your past.”
Of course, that means Barnett is well-aware of everything Cormier has accomplished. With 19 submission wins in his MMA career, Barnett has every right to be confident in his grappling skills when the two meet this month, but his first love was still amateur wrestling and he recognizes Cormier as one of the very best.
“I’ll tell you, there’s a part of me that’s envious,” Barnett said. “The experiences he had wrestling in college and the Olympics, I think it’s awesome. I think it’s absolutely fantastic. Amateur wrestling, bar none is the best sport out there.”
It's interesting the two understand wrestling so well, as it's in many ways the sole equalizer in determining the champion of this Grand Prix.
Barnett has competed in MMA since 1997. He’s held title belts in multiple organizations and competed against the who’s who of the heavyweight division for years. Having him fight a 9-0 Cormier is, on paper, a colossal mismatch.
The difference for Cormier has been and may continue to be his wrestling excellence. While it’s not in him to dismiss Barnett’s participation in pro wrestling, he believes his path through the amateurs ultimately outweighs everything.
“My coaches told me the other day it’s kind of weird I’m so calm with my level of experience,” Cormier said.
“When I’m in a fight, I’m confident that the skill I spent a lifetime gathering, which has been shown to be the most dominant skill in MMA, I can do better than anyone else. That, more than anything, makes me calm and confident.”