The sight of Daniel Cormier slumping in his chair, tears streaming down his cheeks, emotionally spent, is seared in the minds of all who were there to witness his reaction after the first – and only – defeat of his mixed martial arts career.
Cormier was handily defeated by Jon Jones, his bitter rival, a man he thinks sets a bad example for the sport, at UFC 182 in Las Vegas. On top of losing to the man he disliked so much, Cormier had to face the reality that there was a strong likelihood that he’d never reach his goal of being the unquestioned best.
In every athletic pursuit he tried, Cormier was among the best. Never, though, was he the best. And on that January night in 2015, closing in on his 36th birthday, he had to deal with the harsh reality that he may never reach the top of the mountain.
But on Saturday, a little more than two years from that night, the now-38-year-old Cormier has an opportunity to cement his legacy as one of the greatest MMA fighters in history.
Few have accomplished what Cormier has: World champion, No. 3 pound-for-pound, Strikeforce heavyweight Grand Prix winner, notable victories over elites such as Anthony Johnson, Alexander Gustafsson, Anderson Silva, Josh Barnett, Dan Henderson, Frank Mir, Roy Nelson and Antonio “Big Foot” Silva – all of which was accomplished after his 30th birthday.
Under different circumstances, he might be an iconic and beloved figure in the sport, fans counting down the days until he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
A second win over Johnson, whom he meets Saturday in the main event of UFC 210 at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y., for the UFC light heavyweight title, should erase all doubts about Cormier’s greatness.
He’s one of the nicest and most sincere people in the sport, but he has a strange relationship with the fans. He was booed lustily at a March 2016 news conference in which he appeared with Jones to promote their scheduled bout at UFC 200.
Jones, though, failed a drug test and that fight never happened.
And while Anderson Silva rightly gets praise heaped upon him for stepping up to face Cormier on 48 hours’ notice, Cormier’s contribution to saving that show is for some reason overlooked.
On Wednesday of fight week, a stricken-looking Dana White announced that Jones had failed a drug test and was being pulled from the main event against Cormier on what was billed as the biggest card in UFC history.
Silva, the legendary former middleweight champion, hadn’t been training, but stepped up on that Thursday and agreed to fight Cormier on Saturday.
It was a bad matchup for Silva, a middleweight whose weakness was clearly against powerful wrestlers. Cormier is a light heavyweight who is a powerful wrestler.
But Cormier also agreed to fight Silva, and that was an important part of the equation, as well. It was a no-win proposition for Cormier. Silva is arguably the most dangerous striker in MMA history, and is at worst among the top five.
The bout was a no-win proposition for Cormier. Win, as he was widely expected to do, and he would receive no credit. But if he happened to get caught by one of Silva’s strikes and knocked out, he would have never lived it down.
That part is lost on the fans who, for some reason, continue to dog Cormier.
Cormier has a lot to worry about against Johnson, who is one of the sport’s elite knockout artists and nearly finished Cormier at UFC 187 in 2015 when they met for the interim title that was created when Jones got into trouble with the law in Albuquerque, N.M.
Johnson’s overhand right may be the most fearsome individual weapon in MMA, and he caught Cormier with it squarely and dumped him on his backside.
But as he lay on the canvas as the crowd roared, Cormier realized something: He was fine. He’s one of the few who survived the vaunted Johnson right.
“When Rumble hit me, I fell, but it wasn’t like the lights were spinning or anything,” Cormier said. “I was aware of what was going on. I was in control.”
Johnson is one of the sport’s elite finishers, but Cormier survived the onslaught and went on to dominate the rest of the fight until choking Johnson out in the third.
Johnson said he’s a vastly improved fighter, but Cormier has a confidence borne of the fact that he was in the worst place he possibly could be – on the floor, felled by a Johnson punch and with Johnson rushing in with ominous intentions looking to finish – and he not only survived, but won.
“I’ve said it time and time again, but he hit me with his best shot and I still got up and I beat his ass,” Cormier said. “I’ve stood up to that. I know it and he knows it. What’s he going to do next? Does anyone really think he’s going to beat me over 25 minutes and win a decision. C’mon, man!”
In a career spent mostly against the best of the best, Cormier said he was only hurt once, in his only title defense when he defeated Gustafsson.
Gustafsson caught him with a knee and threw a left hook behind it. Cormier, then, was in serious trouble.
“That messed me up,” Cormier said.
That he survived that speaks to the measure of the man. He’s a fierce competitor and though he’s come up short at the wrong time – he didn’t win an NCAA championship, he didn’t win an Olympic medal, he didn’t defeat Jones in their title fight – no one has ever been able to keep him down.
He is as tenacious and determined as it gets.
He seemed a broken man at the news conference that night after losing to Jones. It was remarkable that he even showed.
Coming back and winning the title after that says more about him than any words ever could.
Despite the high-profile losses he’s had, Daniel Cormier has conclusively proven that he’s forever a champion.