Olympians applying skills to new arena

Rhadi Ferguson, in white, already was an established world-class athlete before stepping into a cage. Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

It has been more than six years since Rhadi Ferguson represented the United States in judo at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, and chances are the Coconut Creek, Fla., native -- now 35 -- will never compete at the Olympics again.

Still, that doesn't make him a former Olympian. That term doesn't even exist, in Ferguson's opinion. As far as he's concerned, you're either an Olympian or you're not.

"There's no such thing as a former Olympian," Ferguson told ESPN.com. "Once an Olympian, always an Olympian. That can never be taken away."

Such is the attitude Ferguson (2-0) will take into the cage Friday when he meets fellow light heavyweight Ion Cherdivara (1-0) at the "Strikeforce Challengers 13" event in Nashville, Tenn.

Including Ferguson, the Strikeforce cage will have served, in a span of little more than a month, as home to four men who have competed in the Olympics. Former U.S. wrestler Daniel Cormier (6-0) will face Devin Cole (18-8-1) on Friday, and on Dec. 4, Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland (both former wrestlers) fought at "Strikeforce: St. Louis." Other notable Olympians in MMA include Randy Couture, Herschel Walker and Ben Askren.

If there is one distinct advantage an Olympic background gives a fighter, it may be the competitive mindset. In listening to Cormier and Ferguson, one thing becomes clear: Professional fighting is not the most difficult challenge either has taken on in his life.

"It's an attitude and it's within our rights to feel that way," said Cormier, who also competed in the 2004 Summer Games. "I had to go around the world and wrestle the best guys in a lot of tough environments. I went to Russia and wrestled a grown man. I didn't wrestle a kid from Missouri University or Rutgers University. I wrestled a grown man from Russia, Iran, Pakistan. It's a lot different.

"It's like, I know another guy isn't going to take me down because I've accomplished everything there is in the sport of his choosing. That's why I get the respect I do at [American Kickboxing Academy], from guys like Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Josh Thomson, Cain Velasquez. I reached the pinnacle of the sport they chose and competed in their entire lives."

It can be depressing. Understand this: If you're 26 and you don't make it, you're prime is over by the next Olympics. Let's say you're a 13-year-old gymnast and you get cut? Hey, buddy, it's over.

-- Rhadi Ferguson on qualifying for the Olympic team

At the 2004 Olympic Trials for judo in San Jose, Calif., Ferguson was 29 and trying, for the last time, to secure a spot on the U.S. team. He previously had attempted to do so in 2000 but came up short.

In one of the final matches to determine whether he would make the team, Ferguson suffered a groin injury and lost, setting up a do-or-die situation, in which he had to win his final two. Immediately after the defeat, he followed his coach, Lloyd Irvin, to the restroom, where Ferguson collapsed in pain.

With his student lying on the floor, Irvin delivered what Ferguson refers to as the "best movitational speech no one's ever heard of." Ferguson walked back out to the mat soon after, forcing himself not to limp, and won his next two matches.

"It can be depressing," said Ferguson, on trying to make an Olympic team. "Understand this: If you're 26 and you don't make it, you're prime is over by the next Olympics. Let's say you're a 13-year-old gymnast and you get cut? Hey, buddy, it's over.

"And while you're training for the Olympics, life is happening around you. Yours is literally on hold. Kids, marriage, house, finances -- the sacrifice is so big, people can't even fathom it."

The pressure of getting one shot every four years can make the injury layoffs and roster cuts that MMA fighters endure seem like easy pills to swallow. At least that's the effect it has had for Cormier and Ferguson. Both say they are completely calm in the days leading up to their fights and have no serious fear of being cut from the Strikeforce payroll or of losing their next bout.

It's a comfort Cormier says can be enjoyed by more wrestlers who transfer to MMA -- but hopefully, after they've at least attempted to make a U.S. Olympic team.

In 2001, Cormier was approached by DeWayne Zinkin, who manages the careers of several well-established UFC and Strikeforce fighters, about competing in the sport. He remembers telling Zinkin he would like to finish what he started in wrestling and compete in the Olympics, but concedes that the financial advantages of jumping to MMA were very tempting.

Eventually, he passed on the MMA opportunity until after his wrestling career was over, and he's thankful now that he can look back with no regrets. Because although MMA has become a passion for him, Cormier says nothing compares to representing his country in 2004.

"I think guys need to wait and go ahead and pursue the dream they set as a kid with their dads to go to the Olympics," Cormier said. "Nothing will compare to the Olympic experience. When I watched Cain Velasquez fight Brock Lesnar, there were, what, 10,000 people there? [Actual attendance: 14,856] When we walked into the Olympic Games, there were 100,000."

Not every Olympic athlete has found success in MMA, but those who have certainly bring a unique perspective to the sport.

It's a bond that, according to Ferguson, will never disappear.

"I just want to say it's a privilege and a pleasure to be on the same card as Daniel Cormier," he said. "I knew him back at the Olympic training center. I even have an autographed picture of him on my wall at home."

Brett Okamoto covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at bokamotoESPN.