Daniel Cormier’s dilemma – former UFC champion faces difficult decision on retirement

Natasha Hooper
The Independent
Daniel Cormier celebrates his victory over Volkan Oezdemir: Getty
Daniel Cormier celebrates his victory over Volkan Oezdemir: Getty

The pursuit of greatness sometimes means prioritising legacy over pay-per-view events. That reality is slowly dawning on the horizon for Daniel Cormier, as he reconsiders his future in the UFC. Should ‘DC’ retire from the sport or put an end to his unfinished business once and for all?

The UFC veteran has risen through the ranks, becoming one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in UFC history. Originally an Olympic wrestler, Cormier made his professional MMA debut in Strikeforce in 2009 at the age of 30. Despite joining MMA relatively late in life, the 40-year-old has consistently delivered showstopping performances against UFC titans, like Roy Nelson, Derrick Lewis and Anderson Silva, to name a few. He is also one of just four UFC fighters to have held world titles in two divisions simultaneously, with Conor McGregor, Amanda Nunes and Henry Cejudo rounding out the list.

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Although Cormier is a wrestler first and foremost, the Louisianan can dismantle opponents with his steely jabs and constant pressure. His formidable endurance and ‘tough as nails’ approach contrast with his affable demeanour. His career progression in later life and warm nature in an era of constant trash-talking would make the perfect story for a Clint Eastwood movie, while they are already part of his crusade for the ‘Greatest Of All Time’ spotlight.

However, even the greatest fighters have a competition shelf-life.

Losses are part and parcel of the sport, and unless you’re Khabib Nurmagomedov, they are inevitable. Any loss can make a fighter question if it is time to hang up the gloves or make strategic changes to improve, and for Cormier, his two only losses have been career-defining moments. His long-standing rival, Jon Jones, delivered Cormier the first loss of his career: a unanimous decision defeat at UFC 182 in 2015. Similarly, Stipe Miocic finished Cormier via TKO last month and reclaimed the heavyweight title.

Cormier and Miocic first touched gloves a year earlier at UFC 226. Cormier delivered an iconic performance and knocked out Miocic in under five minutes of the first round. His rematch loss at UFC 241 was a significant blow that put into question his future mobility within the UFC.

Having a successful career and retirement is all about risk management. Georges St-Pierre is an example of a fighter who timed his retirement strategically and effectively. ‘GSP’ still trains and loves the sport, but concluded there were decreasing fighting opportunities where the pros outweighed the cons. For Cormier, the same predicament applies.

‘DC’ is only interested ‘big fights’ against his adversaries, Jon Jones and Stipe Miocic, to regain his light heavyweight and heavyweight titles. The potential trilogy fights would undoubtedly present lucrative pay-per-view opportunities, but a potential loss could significantly dilute the legacy of Cormier’s career.

Inevitably, the higher you climb, the further you have to fall, and Cormier is now at cross-roads where he can walk away – secure in his accomplishments – or throw all his chips on the table and gamble on one of the biggest fights in UFC history.

The complex balancing act between opportunity and risk should not be underestimated, as it is simultaneously the making and destruction of any fighter. The fighter mindset is the antidote for setbacks and essential for success. It can also be the poison that consumes fighters, then triggers their demise. Combat athletes are programmed to thrive in situations of adversity and conflict. Whether it’s a two-fight losing streak or extreme weight cutting, fighters will compromise themselves physically and mentally to fight. Strategically timing retirement goes against the grain of the mentality that fighters harness to win fights. This is something even Cormier must wrestle with if he wants to vindicate his losses.

No one can deny that athletic ability is necessary to achieve fighting success. However, MMA is fundamentally a mind-over-matter sport. The Octagon becomes the chess board where limbs are used as pawns, and the fighter’s mind becomes the chess player. MMA is the soil that cultivates a yin-and-yang relationship between the body and mind. Arguably, that is why there is a greater diversity of athletes in terms of age and build.

Cormier is at a point of synergy where his mental experience and physical performance have culminated and reached their peak. As he approaches 41-years-old, he will need to walk the tightrope that sees his psychological optimum balanced against physical deterioration. Whilst Cormier’s performance are strong (even in his UFC 241 loss to Miocic), it is only a matter of time before the equilibrium tips.

Nevertheless, there are athletes such as Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz whose fluctuating careers have defined their prominence in the sport and made them fan favourites. Their defeats have strengthened them as much as their wins. Fans love to experience the peaks and troughs of any fight career. However, Cormier is a different breed of athlete. Unlike Diaz, who is a rule breaker, Cormier finds integrity in following the rules. He wants to set an example, rather than challenge it.

Cormier is one of the few athletes whose fighting legacy transcends the Octagon. His career accomplishments have rippled into the sporting sphere and influenced rising stars. He has used pain – such as the death of his three-month-old daughter in a car accident in 2003 – as motivation to be the best he can be.

Cormier frequently gives back to the community and works for no fee as a wrestling coach at Gilroy High School in California. He is a figurehead at AKA training camp and is always on hand to support the gym’s fighting talent, which includes – among others – Nurmagomedov and former UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold. As a result, he is recognised by UFC president Dana White and MMA pundits for continually representing the sport in a positive way.

For Cormier, fighting has become a way of life that helps him connect to people. Unlike many other fighters, his legacy is defined by helping people as much as it is by fighting them. It’s safe to say that Cormier’s days left within the UFC are limited, but his impact on the sport will be felt for generations to come.

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