When the fight was over, in the short lull before the selling of the next fight began, Daniel Cormier was alone in the center of the canvas with his eyes closed. His arms were raised, holding his own head, and he was beaming. Bruce Buffer was bellowing his name. A beat later during an interview, grinning and overwhelmed in the midst of a response to a question that doesn’t really matter, he would say “I never knew what I could become. But tonight I got the answer.”
Daniel Cormier, who jogged to the ring wearing his mandatory branded T-shirt over a long-sleeve T-shirt and tucked into his warm-up pants; who is somehow actually the head wrestling coach at Gilroy High School but donates his entire salary to his assistant coaches; who Lucas Bourdon has appropriately dubbed “The Daddest Man On The Planet,” knocked out Stipe Miocic and found the answer he’d always hoped for. Maybe just as importantly, he avoided having the question hang forever.
Cormier was already the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, but that title would have always come with something of an asterisk. That asterisk looks like whatever Jon Jones would look like if he were punctuation sneering at your accomplishments forever. Now Cormier is also the Heavyweight Champion, only the second person to hold UFC belts in two different weight classes simultaneously, and only the fifth to win two, period. (The other names are Conor McGregor, B.J. Penn, Randy Couture, and Georges St. Pierre; this is rarified air.) Cormier achieved this feat at 39 years old by unloading a tight, crushing right hook from the clinch into the jaw of the first person to ever to successfully defend the UFC Heavyweight title three times. It is an unimpeachable accomplishment.
“What can I do to ensure that every time that people talk about the greats, they mention Daniel Cormier?,” he asked over training footage in the UFC’s prefight hype video. “For me, to become a two-division champion, it means legacy. Legacy stays forever. Everything else fades away.” It’s not until you consider the scope of “everything else” for Cormier, and how easily it could have faded away, that any of this takes on any real meaning. It is hard to understand what it must be like to be one of the best athletes alive. It’s a lot harder to grasp what it must be like to be one of the best athletes alive and come up just short of being the very best, time and time again.
After winning two junior college wrestling national championships, Cormier moved up to NCAA Division I competition at Oklahoma State but was upset in his junior year before achieving All-American status. In his last year at school, his run toward a national championship ended in the finals when he landed there at the same time as Cael Sanderson. Cormier was game, but Sanderson went 158-0 in all his other matches and this one was no different.
For years during his international career, Cormier was on par with the world’s best, but a bronze at the FILA Wrestling World Championships in 2007 was his most successful result on a full international stage. At the 2004 Olympics he finished fourth, just out of the medals. In 2008 he was poised to make a run through a field he had a real chance to beat, but during the weight cut to 96 kg his kidneys went into failure, and he was forced out of the Beijing Olympics. He would not have a chance at another.
Cormier transitioned to mixed martial arts as a heavyweight, but was already over 30 by the time he had his first professional bout. Still, he was a authentic World-Class Athlete™ in a sport that does not attract large numbers of them to its heavier divisions. He absorbed skills like 30-year-old novices are not supposed to, and made things like ragdolling 265-pound former champion Josh Barnett look unnaturally easy.
In his first 13 fights he went undefeated against the likes of Barnett, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, Frank Mir, and Roy Nelson. None of those fights were even close. In Strikeforce he won a Heavyweight Grand Prix, but in the UFC, the top of the heap was his friend and training partner Cain Velasquez.
Faced with the prospect of having to go through Velasquez to win a belt, he chose to abandon the weight class entirely.
He returned to the dangerous practice of cutting weight, which had already damaged his kidneys and cost him his Olympic dreams, to get down to 205 pounds.
What he got for his loyalty was Jon “Bones” Jones.
However you feel about performance enhancing drugs, or the bureaucracy and inequity of athletic drug testing, or the relationship between an artist and their art, there is no denying the sublime talent of Jones. He is the best light heavyweight in MMA history, and if you’re willing to put all those previously mentioned factors aside, it is not difficult to position him as its greatest fighter period. He is a fighting genius supervillain, and he is Daniel Cormier’s arch-nemesis.
Jones could have easily been constructed in a lab to be Cormier’s foil. He’s tall and lithe, to Cormier’s squat endomorph, his limbs appearing from somewhere on the distant horizon to destroy opponents from revolutionary angles. At 23 years old in 2011, he was already defeating Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in his 14th fight to become the UFC’s youngest-ever champion. He flaunts a casual disdain for … just about everything, really, trolling opponents, fans, and regulatory bodies alike. And at least in two fights, the second of which has now been nullified by a positive drug test, Cormier could not beat him.
Their first meeting, in January 2015, was competitive, but it was clear that Jones was on another tier, and as the fight wore on he even outwrestled Cormier, as though to prove a point. Their second meeting, in July 2017, was wonderful, with Cormier making adjustments and pushing Jones like no one but Alexander Gustafsson had, looking like he might have finally unlocked the puzzle. In the third round, though, Jones took advantage of Cormier’s tendency to predictably duck to his right, which Jones and his team had noticed years earlier, and flattened him with a left head kick. Cormier was, in every way, crushed.
When it was announced that Jones tested positive for the anabolic steroid Turinabol, at least his second failed PED test and most recent in an ongoing series of disgraces, the result was changed to a no-contest. The belt was returned to Cormier, but given the uncertain length of Jones’s ban and the lingering uncertainty about the heavyweight division, Cormier was still left with more questions than answers. It appeared that the window to resolve them was closing. But then came Miocic.
Cain Velasquez’s body fell victim first to Fabricio Werdum and the altitude of Mexico City, and then to its own deterioration. Medical issues have kept him inactive since July of 2016, which was only his second fight since pummelling Junior dos Santos in October of 2013. Cormier cleaned out the non–Jon Jones portion of shallow light heavyweight ranks, beating Gustafsson, Volkan Oezdemir, and Anthony Johnson twice. Miocic, meanwhile, won six in a row at heavyweight, all in dominant fashion, and in the process set the record for title defenses. A superfight between the two champions made sense for everyone, and gave Cormier a chance, maybe his very last, to earn the legacy he had always hoped for.
He seized it. He might have been remembered as The Man Who Couldn’t Beat Jon Jones and maybe he will still be. But now fans will also have to remember a stout, 5-foot-11, 39-year-old plodding forward to exchange with a 6-foot-4 pin-up from a firefighter calendar who has knocked out a string of giants built much closer to the upper heavyweight limit. They’ll remember him using his suffocating clinch to shift his left arm from a collar tie to an underhook to open up space for that right hand to smash Miocic’s chin. They’ll remember him following up to hover over the champ and pistoning down brutal coffin nails until the referee was forced to step in. They’ll remember him shouting and wandering around the cage in euphoria like a round, impossibly dangerous Jim Valvano, looking for someone, everyone, to hug.
They may or may not remember that afterward, Cormier would cut a pro-wrestling promo on the mic, and Brock Lesnar would enter the ring, and there would be pushing and theatrics. Cormier has said that he wants to close his career by March of 2019, when he turns 40. He’s both a huge fan of professional wrestling and a long-time acquaintance of and trash-talking rival with Lesnar, who wrestled in the same circles in college. While Lesnar is, on paper, not much of a competitive threat at this point, he is still a draw and a pay-per-view with the two of them could make them both a considerable amount of money in a sport that criminally underpays its talent. And why not? Now that they’ll remember him standing in the cage and grinning ear to ear, taking it all in in his first moments as UFC heavyweight champion, there’s nothing left for Daniel Cormier to prove.