One Foot In Front Of The Other: The Patrick Cummins Story
February 13, 2014. Patrick Cummins stands at a coffee shop in California, just like any other day. He’s a 4-0 mixed martial arts prospect, a former college wrestler, now chasing his dream of competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He’s also a coffee shop attendant, trying desperately to pay the bills while chasing his dreams. He works the 3:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. shift every morning so that he can get off in time for 10 a.m. training at the gym. Today will be his last day on the job.
Cummins’ manager, Ryan Parsons, shows up at the door of the establishment, informing the front desk that he needs to talk to Pat. The manager insists that no personal affairs will be conducted on shift. Parsons smartly takes his car to the drive through where he knows he will find Pat working. Parsons informs Cummins that he needed to take a call, and that UFC president Dana White is waiting on the other end of the line.
One of the UFC’s biggest stars, the undefeated former Olympic wrestler Daniel Cormier, needs an opponent for the following weekend. The man he was supposed to fight, former champ Rashad Evans, fell to injury. White informs Cummins that the UFC wants him to step up and fight Cormier on 10 days’ notice. In the blink of an eye, Cummins goes from coffee barista to UFC co-headliner, leaving UFC fans around the world with one question:
Who is Patrick Cummins?
Lancaster, PA is a city of around 59,000. It’s the eighth-largest city in Pennsylvania, seated in the south-central part of the state. Its metropolitan area extends out for miles around the city and includes around 501,000 people. The suburban environment could be described accurately as “sleepy.” This is where Patrick Cummins grew up. His father was a principal in the Warwick district, where he attended school.
After playing soccer, football, wrestling, and track throughout his grade school years, Cummins decided during his senior year that it was time to focus on one sport. “My senior year of high school, after a crappy football season, I decided it was time to rely on myself and stick to wrestling,” Pat recalled. His older brother, Joey, had gone off to Penn State to wrestle, and Cummins decided to follow in his footsteps. Joey was a huge influence on Pat.
“He’s a good hard-working guy, and if it wasn’t for him I probably never would have went to Penn State,” Cummins said of his brother. The younger Cummins journeyed to State College after high school and decided to walk on to the wrestling team.
Small Fish, Big Pond
“I felt a little bit in over my head,” Cummins said of his early days on the Penn State wrestling team. He was surrounded by athletes he had watched dominate the state tournaments back in high school, where he had never made much of a significant mark. He admits to being “intimidated” during his freshman year, and that sense of not belonging stretched into his social life, resulting in frequent trips home in order to feel better. Freshman year gets the better of many students at Penn State, and he was no different. Cummins did find a mental release in creativity, choosing to focus on ceramics in 3D while he obtained a fine arts degree. His passion for art remains to this day.
During his sophomore year Cummins began to develop a different mindset. “I remember during my sophomore year, I consciously made the decision, ‘Okay, listen, if you’re going to spend all this time doing all this training, taking time away from academics, you might as well go 100 percent,’” he said.
With newfound determination, Cummins turned himself into a legitimate force at heavyweight. He dug into his obvious athletic talent, working harder than ever before. He went on to become a two-time All-American in his final two years at Penn State. Unfortunately, Cummins was unable to achieve his ultimate goal of winning a championship, as he finished as NCAA runner-up his senior year. The bitter taste of losing left him hungry for more.
“I wasn’t finished competing, I placed second at NCAAs and I still had competition in me,” Cummins noted as he recalls the immediate aftermath of his final season. Fellow PSU grad, two-time Olympian, and Cummins’ mentor Kerry McCoy urged him to continue wrestling, to try out for the national team. He dropped down to 96 kilos (211 lbs.) and earned a prestigious spot on the team. The Penn State walk-on turned NCAA runner-up now wrestled for the U.S. national team.
Cummins traveled the globe wrestling with the national team for roughly five years. During this time, he was a main training partner for star wrestler Daniel Cormier, the man he would one day step into the Octagon (the UFC’s signature cage) to face. He honed his wrestling skills, yet developed an interest in mixed martial arts. He looked up to UFC legend Randy Couture, a former wrestler who had successfully transferred his skills inside the cage.
He also began to be recruited as a training partner for fighters, beginning with former U.S. national team member Muhammad “King Mo” Lawal. Lawal’s coach urged Cummins to make the jump inside the cage, and after a period of time, he could not resist. “I’m throwing around all these great MMA fighters and I’m thinking you know what, I think I can do this,” the dominant grappler said. The competitive flame inside Cummins still burned intensely.
The wrestler decided to jump in head first. He moved out to California to train full-time. He decided to put all his time and energy into fighting, to do it “the right way.” Unfortunately, not many guys on the small-time circuit are too keen to step into the cage with a former U.S. national team wrestler. Cummins had a tough time getting fights. He wound up fighting only four times in almost three and a half years. At that rate it’s tough to pay the bills, let alone move up the ladder.
“The credit card bills started piling up, so I became one of those guys that got a job,” he said. “I didn’t know if I should be doing this anymore, if I can’t break through to where I want to be it doesn’t really make sense. I’m not giving it my all.”
Cummins wanted nothing more than to make his UFC dream come true. Circumstances made this dream seem increasingly unlikely. He worked the early morning shift at a coffee shop to pay the bills. He trained when he could, unable to get the most out of himself while burned out from long shifts. He battled his body and his demons. Doubt crept in.
“I was really close to the end of my little MMA career,” Cummins said of this dark time. How could an athlete justify continuing to chase his dream when he can barely make ends meet? Yet he stuck with it. He “put one foot in front of the other,” as he likes to put it, and just soldiered on through the tough times, hoping for a break.
In the Blink of an Eye
Then he got the call from Dana White. “It was crazy. It was definitely one of the most exciting moments of my life. Just the fact that ‘whoa, this is going to happen,’ it didn’t even register that it may be a little stupid to take a fight with a top-5 guy on 10 days’ notice,” Cummins said. “I get the call, and that night, I’m on live on Fox Sports 1 doing an interview with Dana White and talking trash to Daniel Cormier.”
Cummins was immediately thrown into a firestorm of media attention. Stories leaked of Cummins making Daniel Cormier cry during national team training sessions. Cummins goaded Cormier, attempting to get inside his head before the fight. “DC” responded by saying that he would make Cummins pay for his words. The two had been friends, but now found themselves bitter rivals on the brink of stepping into the cage to fight. Fans gathered behind Cummins, eager to support his Rocky story and hoping for it to all culminate in a big win. Unfortunately for Pat, this was real life, not some Hollywood fantasy.
Cormier entered as a nearly ten to one favorite. He had the benefit of a full-time training camp, elite coaches, and most importantly, MMA experience that Cummins severely lacked. “I was kind of set up for failure from the beginning. A win could have happened, but it just wasn’t meant to be at the time,” he said of the Cormier fight. Cormier knocked out Cummins in less than two minutes, sending the real-life Rocky back into obscurity, a hyped-up prospect brought back down to Earth.
Not Going Away
“It’s a different sport with a total different atmosphere and that’s an adjustment in itself,” Cummins noted after the fight with Cormier. Yet the loss reignited the passion for training and competing that had gone dormant. Cummins got back into the gym and worked harder than ever, determined to prove that he belonged in the UFC. “If you’re focused and you believe in yourself, you can make anything happen. That’s why wrestling is such a great sport. Hard work pays off. MMA is the same way,” Cummins said.
He did just that, pounding out Roger Narvaez in June 2014 with second round punches. He then put together one of the most dominant displays of grappling ever seen in the UFC with a dismantling of Kyle Kingsbury less than two months later. Kingsbury retired immediately after the fight. Cummins returned in December, taking on dangerous Antonio Carlos Junior in his opponent’s home country of Brazil. Cummins fought through deadly submission attempts to grind out a decision win, bringing his winning streak to three.
“It’s been great. But at the same time it’s what I’ve been expecting of myself. I wouldn’t go out there and say I can be the best if I didn’t really truly believe it,” Cummins said.
He now sits at No. 14 in the UFC light heavyweight rankings, staring at his biggest opportunity to date. He will take on the eighth-ranked Ovince Saint Preux, otherwise known as OSP, in Newark on April 18. This will be Cummins’ first top-ten opponent since the Cormier fight, and a win will likely see him enter into the division’s elite. Cummins has been training with a host of UFC veterans for the fight, including Mark Munoz, Michael Bisping, and Kendall Grove. He understands the importance of this fight, but is intent on making a statement.
“I want to make the fight ugly, get in tight, use the fence, and use my takedowns,” he said. “The number one thing will be pressure. I’m going to focus on myself and the game plan I put together, if plan A isn’t working then it’s onto plan B or plan C.”
The Next Step
Cummins sits a few weeks away from his next great opportunity. He has sought out challenges throughout his entire life, and has found them at every turn, often biting off more than many thought he could chew. Ultimately, he has proved that he belongs among the best in the world. On April 18, with 34 years of age, a wealth of competitive and life experience under his belt, and more left to prove, the former Penn State wrestler will step into the Octagon looking to take a step towards his ultimate goal: The UFC Light Heavyweight Championship.
“Just when you hit rock bottom, you’re at the lowest of lows, that’s when that opportunity comes,” he said. “The UFC call was proof to me that no matter what, you can always find a way to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward.”
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About the Author
After losing my father to cancer, I thought there was nothing THON could offer me that I didn’t already know. After four years, I found comfort in the familiar.
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