If somebody is not getting better, they are getting stale.

Although this concept seems obvious to some, it is shocking how many people never take the necessary steps to better their position. Whether it’s in a gym, an office or a farm field, there’s never a better time than now to start surrounding oneself with better people and processes to evolve into a better, more effective, more functional person going forward. Improvement is an ongoing process, and that wheel never stops turning.

The people that get this concept are always getting better. The people who don’t are the ones that are constantly bitching and moaning about all the things they think they are entitled to, but never want to put in the work to achieve.

Professional mixed martial artist Cody Donovan gets it.

Cody Donovan (Phil Lambert/The MMA Corner)

Cody Donovan (Phil Lambert/The MMA Corner)

Donovan has been training through a handful of different gyms for a long time. He earned his black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under good friend and UFC veteran Nate Marquardt, has improved his striking over the years under Trevor Wittman, and has joined the recently formed Elevation MMA team in Denver, but he is still seeking out the best to help him improve his game.

In August, during his second appearance in the Octagon, Donovan came into the cage after a first-round knockout of Nick Penner in his UFC debut. He was squaring off against Ovince St. Preux, a guy he had trained with in the past. Donovan started the fight in dominant fashion, but a freak occurrence happened to change everything for him. The fight hit the ground, and although the black belt felt safe there, St. Preux ended the fight before anyone knew what happened.

“I just made a mistake, a couple of errors,” said Donovan in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “I’ve gone back and watched it a few times, and if I watch the first two minutes of the fight, I’m really happy with what I see. I was connecting on my combinations standing. My footwork looks better than his. I was controlling him against the fence, started that whole grind process on the fence, which was the game plan, but I think I got a little impatient, maybe, and forced that takedown.

“Ovince is a freak athlete. He reversed me on that takedown and, rather than scrambling back up to my feet, I conceded to playing jiu-jitsu. I stayed on bottom, and we know that in MMA, particularly in the 205[-pound] division, you can’t be on bottom. He’s got long arms. He snuck one of his punches through and that’s all it took. It was a quick ending. I think he was winning that fight for maybe 20 seconds, and he won the fight. That’s a tough one for me, because I felt I was doing really well. The game plan was working, and there’s no room for mistakes in this game. One or two mistakes, and that was it.”

Donovan had the chance to wallow in his sorrows and go back to the same old, same old, but he instead made the choice to go right back to the drawing board and start getting better. He’s not the only Elevation MMA fighter that needed to get back to the drawing board. The last few months have not yielded the best outcomes for this Rocky Mountain super team.

“A lot of people have been talking about the tough streak we’ve had lately,” admitted Donovan. “We had me lose, Neil [Magny] lost, ‘Cowboy’ [Donald Cerrone] lost, Nate [Marquardt] lost, we had a bunch of guys lose. That sucks, man. It’s bad for morale. But, I think everything’s going good. We had a great practice today. Everybody’s real motivated. When that happens, you’re going to get one of two things. Either everybody’s going to bitch-up and jump ship, you know, and go to a different camp, or guys are going to be like, ‘We need to analyze what we are doing wrong and fix this.’ I think that attitude around the team has been solid. Everybody’s been training super hard, and I’ve been real proud of the guys and the effort and consistency that everybody’s putting forth.”

Hard work and improving morale are very important to Donovan right now, because he is next up to bat this Saturday night on a very highly anticipated UFC 167 card. Donovan will get his third shot in the UFC this year against a very game opponent, but not exactly the showcase match-up that was originally scheduled.

When the card was first announced, Donovan was set to face the highly decorated Abu Dhabi black belt gold medalist and undefeated MMA fighter Robert Drysdale for Drysdale’s UFC debut. However, on Oct. 28, it was announced that Drysdale was denied a license in his home state of Nevada for an elevated testosterone test. Donovan was quickly notified and the UFC already had a replacement, Gian Villante.

Villante was a college wrestling standout and All-American linebacker at Hofstra University, where he was a close wrestling teammate of current UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman. Upon graduating, he entered the world of MMA, where he eventually became the Ring Of Combat heavyweight champion and fought five times under the Strikeforce banner, prior to the merger. Villante is a very good fighter, deserving of his shot on the big stage, but Donovan still would have liked to fight Drysdale.

“I think it’s kind of complicated, you know?” Donovan said. “I have really mixed emotions on this one. On one hand, I had put my mind on fighting Drysdale, and that’s a tough fight, man. I don’t think anybody in the 205 division wants to be on the ground with that guy, but that being said, I think there are holes in a lot of other parts of his game, and Christian [Allen], Eliot [Marshall] and Leister [Bowling] developed a good game plan to beat Drysdale. I feel like we were going to go out there and beat him. I was very excited about that. Obviously, I was disappointed about not fighting him, but there was no time to mope. I was given a new opponent instantly, and I had to shift my focus to that opponent, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Villante first entered the Octagon last April, coming off a three-fight winning streak in Strikeforce. He lost his debut to none other than St. Preux, although it was a strange loss. In the first minute of the third round, St. Preux accidentally poked Villante in the eye, ending the fight, and it went to the judges for a rare technical decision. Although this wasn’t a complete loss by Villante, he has had trouble stopping opponents since entering Strikeforce. Regardless, Donovan is not letting his guard down on this one. He learned his own lesson against St. Preux.

“Gian Villante’s a tough dude,” explained Donovan. “He’s a scrapper. He’s got a lot of decisions, which means he’s not easy to put away. The guy lasts and fights hard, so all my focus now is going towards him.

“In a lot of ways, we’re kind of the same fighter. We’re both grapplers who prefer to punch. You watch his fights, it looks like he likes to punch a lot, as do I. I’ve never rolled with the guy, but I’m confident in my jiu-jitsu, and I think my jiu-jitsu is much better than his, and that’s a good thing, because in the Drysdale fight, my jiu-jitsu was kind of a non-issue. Like, I’ve spent my whole life getting a black belt, but I’m not allowed to use it against Drysdale. I’m glad I’ll be able to tap into my jiu-jitsu. I think it’s a more challenging fight, wrestling and striking-wise, but I’m okay with that. Overall, I think it’s a better match-up for me.”

Cody Donovan (Phil Lambert/The MMA Corner)

Cody Donovan (Phil Lambert/The MMA Corner)

Great match-up or not, Donovan knows the importance of constantly evolving and surrounding himself with the right people. Whether fighting Drysdale or Villante, he knew that he had to seek out additional help in getting ready for this one.

“I traveled a little bit for this fight,” said the Denver-based fighter. “I went to California and trained with some of my buddies out there, but that wasn’t because I was unhappy with Elevation. I was just really happy with the team I have out there, too, so I had to give a little bit of time to both.”

One of Donovan’s best friends is UFC heavyweight and former finalist from The Ultimate Fighter Brendan Schaub. Schaub got Donovan hooked up with his striking coach, Tony Jeffries, who is an English national boxing champion and Olympic bronze medalist from the 2008 games in Beijing. In addition to Jeffries, Donovan was able to work in rounds with Mark Munoz and company at Reign Training Center, Ryron and Rener Gracie at the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy headquarters, and with the boxing team at Box’n Burn. As with any great professional, Donovan is always looking for ways to sharpen his sword.

“It’s tricky with fighting, because with martial arts, you want to be loyal,” said Donovan. “You get in with a group, and you don’t want to ‘betray’ that group for another group. But, as a fighter and a martial artist, there is a certain amount of selfishness that has to be there. Iron sharpens iron, bro, and if you want to be a stud and you want to be the best, you have to train with the best. Spartans didn’t get to be the best by training with some weirdos. Spartans were training out there with other Spartans.

“In my career, I’ve been so blessed, because of Nate Marquardt. Nate got me in with the best right away. My first-ever MMA training partners were Joey Villasenor, Keith Jardine and Rashad Evans. I didn’t even know who they were, and those were my first training partners. I’ve been so blessed in that respect. When I see guys training where they’re the biggest fish in the room, where they’re not getting beat up, they need to move. If you’re not getting your ass kicked every day, you need to move. If you’re the guy who’s winning every round, you’re not going to last long.”

Well, Donovan has put in the time, put in the work, and is always evolving his game, seeking out coaches and training partners that help push him to the next level. All the while, he still remains close to his home team and coaches and the people that have always supported him. As for Villante, he had better be prepared to be on the receiving end of a much-improved Donovan, which is a scary thought.

“I’m going to go punch him in the face,” Donovan stated. “I’m going to go out there. I’m not going to make any of the mistakes I made last time. Sometimes, it takes a loss to wake you up. As much as I hate losing, everything happens for a reason. I’m a firm believer in God’s plan and all that stuff, and I was supposed to lose to Ovince. It was supposed to sharpen me and get me to a point where I’m not making stupid mistakes. You’re going to see a sharp fighter, both offensively and defensively, and for 15 minutes, I’m going to go out there and try to break this guy. That’s it.”

Donovan would like to thank his wife, first and foremost. She’s a trooper that puts up with his attitude when he’s dropping 30 pounds. He also wants to thank all of his coaches and teammates, and all of his family and friends that have supported him along the way. Follow Cody on Twitter: @DonnyBrookCody

Top Photo: Cody Donovan (Phil Lambert/The MMA Corner)

About The Author

Dan Kuhl
Interview Coordinator