LAS VEGAS -- The most impressive flight coming out of Sin City on Saturday night didn't originate at McCarran International Airport.
Rather, it occurred in the Octagon at the MGM Grand Garden, early in the third round of Daniel Cormier's light heavyweight UFC 173 co-main event bout against Dan Henderson.
In a battle of former Olympic wrestlers, Cormier shot for a single-leg takedown. Henderson resisted, but before he knew what hit him, he was launched halfway back home to Temecula.
After Henderson hit the mat, Cormier followed him up and nearly got in a rear-naked choke. He didn't succeed there, but he finished the job later in the round, getting the victory at 3:53 of the third.
Henderson wasn't the only thing soaring Saturday night. So did Cormier's career.
This list of credentials the 35-year old native of Louisiana and resident of San Jose has accumulated in a relatively short period of time is mind-boggling. The American Kickboxing Academy fighter:
*Has lost a single round in his 15 fights (against Josh Barnett, on one judge's scorecard).
*Won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament despite starting the tourney in the alternates bracket.
*Holds victories over four former champions in three weight classes: Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva (Elite XC heavyweight); Barnett (UFC heavyweight); Frank Mir (UFC heavyweight) and Henderson (PRIDE and Strikeforce light heavyweight; PRIDE middleweight).
Yet, despite building up an impeccable résumé, Cormier has picked up his detractors along the way. Maybe it's because Cormier has a highly visible side gig as a FOX Sports 1 UFC commentator and he's not afraid to state blunt opinions. Maybe it's because some mixed martial arts fans have an inherent bias against wrestling.
Saturday, Cormier's haters instantly seized on the notion he was fighting an opponent significantly smaller in Henderson (no one was complaining about Henderson's size three years ago, when he weighed in at 207 and defeated heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko), and that Henderson is 43. There's some validity to this. But Cormier also ragdolled a larger opponent in Barnett for 25 minutes in the finals of the Strikeforce Grand Prix in 2012, and never came close to getting outmuscled as a heavyweight.
He made the drop down to light heavyweight, of course, because his training partner and friend is the current UFC heavyweight champ, Cain Velasquez. With an ultimate goal of winning a UFC title, dropping down to light heavyweight was a safer bet than waiting to see if Velasquez loses his title, which doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon.
Saturday's fight was billed as sort-of title eliminator. Jones is expected to rematch Alexander Gustafsson, with the winner of the Cormier-Henderson fight to get the winner (Kind of. UFC president Dana White had hedged Henderson getting a title shot if he had won).
A potential wrinkle came up on Saturday, as the UFC put out the news that Gustafsson had signed a new contract, and along with it, a bout agreement to meet Jones on Aug. 30 at a site to be determined. They also casually mentioned the hang-up is that Jones hasn't agreed yet, and that they're looking to sign Jones to a new contract.
No disrespect to Gustafsson, but Cormier is hoping by the time he steps into the Octagon to challenge for the title, Jones will still hold the gold.
"I want to be the champion," Cormier said at Saturday night's postfight news conference. "That's why I started fighting. I'm 35 years old. I'm not a kid and I can't wait too long. But it means something to beat Jon Jones. I know we all praise Alexander Gustafsson for what he's done. He's a great fighter. It means a little bit more to beat a Jon Jones. Look at what Chris Weidman beating Anderson Silva did. If it had happened to anyone else I don't think it would have had the impact that it did. So I would prefer Jones to be the champion."
Cormier, for his part, seems content to wait and see how things play out with Jones and Gustafsson instead of taking another fight in the interim. These scenarios can go both ways: Sometimes the fighter sitting out gets hurt. Sometimes things happen in the interim to change plans. And sometimes it actually works.
Either way, Cormier is willing to let the chips fall where they may.
"At a point where you look at your résumé, I've earned the title shot," Cormier said. "I've got five top-ten wins. I'm undefeated. I haven't lost a round, I haven't lost a fight in two weight classes. I won the Strikeforce Grand Prix. I fought Bigfoot after a year-and-a-half in the sport. My résumé speaks for itself. This is my fifth fight in the last 15 months."
Jones has dominated nearly everyone he has faced in his MMA career, fighters with a wide variety of styles. But he's never fought a wrestler with anywhere near the credentials of Cormier. And last night, Cormier looked like he's beginning to pick up Velasquez-style wrestling, always pressuring, never letting up when the fight hits the mat, and then working for the finish.
Cormier would face an uphill struggle on the feet against Jones, but if he can get Jones to the mat? All bets are off.
"That's a tough hill to climb. There's no just beating Jon Jones. I have to have my best performance, knowing that I was fighting for a title I would train to have my best performance. I just think that styles make fights and him and I match well and we haven't really seen him on his back for an extended period of time, but, if I get on top of him I guarantee I can hold him down and get some offense off him."
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoyleMMA
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- Daniel Cormier
- Dan Henderson
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