LAS VEGAS — Khabib Nurmagomedov, the UFC lightweight champion, was wandering through a hallway at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, last year when he spotted a familiar face.
“You need to talk to me?” Nurmagomedov asked.
Nurmagomedov beamed. Cormier had become something of a father figure to him and helped lead him to become arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
The best, he said, repeatedly. He helps everyone here, Nurmagomedov said, nodding to a crowded gym floor where numerous fights of all levels worked feverishly alongside the champion.
We all respect him so much, Nurmagomedov said. As the reporter turned to leave, Nurmagomedov broke into a huge grin.
“Don’t tell him I said good things about him,” he said. “Only bad. Tell him I said only bad.”
Cormier has come to the end of the line in what has been a magnificent career. A year later, the biggest difference is that Cormier is the former champion and will challenge Miocic for the belt in a rubber match in the main event of UFC 252 at Apex.
Win or lose, he’ll go down as one of the greatest fighters as well as one of the greatest ambassadors of the sport in MMA history. He’s 22-2-1 with a no-contest as he approaches his career finale. Even at 41, he’s ranked sixth in the UFC’s pound-for-pound list and is the No. 1 ranked heavyweight.
D.C. remains a fierce competitor who hates losing so much he once cried in the Octagon after dropping a bout to fierce rival Jon Jones.
He’s a widely respected and beloved figure within the MMA community, but Mendez doesn’t expect much of a different reaction if he comes up short against Miocic in his career finale.
“He won’t handle it well,” Mendez said. “Let’s not even think that way. Let’s hope he does what we expect and goes out on top. I believe he will, but if he doesn’t win, he’s going to be devastated. He’s a guy who is all about winning and it’s not going to be easy for him to accept anything other than that.”
Because he loves to compete, it’s been hard for him to walk away from the sport he’s largely dominated in the last 10 years. He’s one of only four fighters to hold two UFC titles concurrently and he rates high on the list of the greatest fighters of all-time.
Mendez said, in his opinion, Cormier will be remembered as one of the five best fighters in history when his career is done.
Cormier, a two-time U.S. Olympian and the captain of the 2008 Olympic wrestling team, understands he still has more to give. But he’s at peace with his decision to walk away now.
“I feel confident in that,” Cormier told Yahoo Sports when asked if Saturday’s bout would be his last. “I feel good about it. I feel good about knowing I’ve done everything I need to do. I’ve got the most attractive fight out there for me, a third fight [with Miocic], a fight that matters and a fight that is for the heavyweight championship.”
If he wins on Saturday — and at the MGM Grand Sports Book, it’s even money — he’ll be one of the few to walk away on top. There would be a number of big-money fights for him if he opted to continue, but a win over Miocic in their rubber match would mean he’s accomplished everything that he wanted.
If he won, a fight with highly regarded knockout artist Francis Ngannou would be in demand. So, too, would a third bout with arch rival Jon Jones, only this time for the heavyweight belt.
Cormier, though, seems content to move on to the next stage of his life and walk out on his terms.
“There’s always going to be somebody else; there’s always going to be somebody else,” he said. “There’s always going to be a guy who comes next, and you’re going to get paid money for it. Those things don’t stop. Ultimately, you have to decide if you’re going to be OK with where you stand. I take a lot of this from [former welterweight and middleweight champion] Georges St-Pierre.
“Nobody got to do what Georges did. He walked away as a champ, and because he walked away as a champ, he constantly fields offers for him to come back. It feels good to be wanted and needed, but it’s good to know that you make the decisions.”
Cormier talks training at 41 amid a pandemic
Cormier, who is living in a rented home away from his wife and children in an attempt to avoid giving them the coronavirus, said it’s no longer as easy to prepare the way he once did.
Even though his talent is still there, that’s the one thing that he said may keep him from returning if he wins on Saturday. In addition, there are compelling personal and business reasons for him to stay retired.
“This training camp has shown me that for me to train effectively, for me to train as I did when I fought Alexander Gustafsson or Rumble Johnson or Jon Jones way back in 2015-16, it’s almost unrealistic to sustain that,” Cormier said. “It’s so hard and there are so many things that are on my mind. I’ve got a new baby coming in a month-and-a-half. I’ve got my children. Obviously, I’m older. There’s a number of things that I think about that I didn’t at 35 years old.
“It makes it hard to be in training camp for three months, three, four months and the sacrifices that come with it, especially in the times that we live in now, with the pandemic. I’m in contact with people now, because I have to go to the gym. I have to go and train. I have to, or I can’t win a fight. So now, I can’t even live with my family. I’m staying at a different house from my wife and children because I’m coming into contact with different people because I’m training to fight. It’s a lot of sacrifice. I don’t know if after this one, becoming the heavyweight champ again, I’m going to be willing to do that again.”
He’s pushing now, though, because righting what he sees as a wrong is so meaningful to him. He knocked out Miocic in the first round of their first fight, and was controlling the first part of their second fight.
He abandoned the plan he’d worked on with Mendez and started to go for that second KO. This time, he vows no such thing will happen. He’s already told Miocic to bring his wrestling shoes, and grins when the topic of the smaller 25-foot cage is brought up. The smaller cage is more conducive to someone who wants to wrestle.
But Mendez said he expects no major changes other than more adherence to the plan.
“He got away from the plan and if you watch the fight again, you can hear us screaming at him from the corner,” Mendez said. “He’s done that before, getting away from the plan. He was feeling good about things and he decided to try to go for the knockout. He felt he could knock him out again.
“Stipe dug deep and made an adjustment and hit him with a great shot. But DC is the fighter he is because he’s never satisfied. He wants to be the best. He wants to be the champion. And so he’s got a tremendous amount of motivation going into this knowing everything is at stake.”
More from Yahoo Sports: