Ain’t it funny how life works? In 2008, Daniel Cormier wasn’t at a crossroads following the Summer Olympics in Beijing; he was at a dead end. His wrestling career done, the next step was a mystery.
“I just knew that I needed something competitively,” Cormier said. “After the Olympics, I tried to retire and it didn’t work.”
Enter mixed martial arts, an outlet that “was something new and something that truly excited” the Louisiana native. But by the time he turned pro in 2009, he was 30, and he would have to be moved faster than the usual MMA prospect.
That wasn’t an issue for Cormier, who was never afraid of hard work, especially when he had a rising star and future champion with him in the American Kickboxing Academy gym in the form of Cain Velasquez.
So while the learning curve was steep, Cormier took it on. Today, well, he can take it from here:
“When I started, I didn’t know that nine years in I was going to be UFC champion,” said “DC,” who forgot the part about him not just winning one UFC title, but two, and holding them both at the same time.
“I could have never dreamt to have this experience,” he said. “It just really shows that with a lot of hard work and commitment, anything can happen. Because I was at my lowest when I left wrestling, not getting to compete in the Olympic Games. And now I’m on top of the world.”
On Saturday, he puts a stamp on that “top of the world” stuff by headlining UFC 230 against Derrick Lewis in the iconic Madison Square Garden in New York City. It’s a huge shift from July 2017, when he suffered a second defeat to Jon Jones (one later overturned to a no contest) and lost his 205-pound title. Then, Cormier’s entry in the MMA history books would be as a promising heavyweight contender who dropped to light heavyweight, won a title, but could never get by Mr. Jones.
"This is a guy who believes in himself and believes in that one punch ability to the point that he doesn’t quit whenever he is getting absolutely beat up and that makes him super dangerous."
Fast forward, and after getting his title returned to him after the no contest verdict for the Jones rematch, Cormier looked better than ever in successfully defending that title against Volkan Oezdemir in January of this year. Then he moved back up to heavyweight, where he had never lost, and shocked the world by knocking out Stipe Miocic in the first round. Now Cormier’s history book entry isn’t just changed, it’s changed to the point where the list of all-time greats has his name on it.
“Beating Stipe Miocic was massive and it means so much to what I leave behind, my legacy in fighting, my legacy in combat sports,” Cormier said. “Not many guys can truly say that they’ve done what I’ve done. To be at the highest level in two major sports and to have that shining moment to sit on top of the cage with both belts, you try to put yourself in those places and it never can really be experienced until you’re experiencing it. It was fantastic.”
Next up is Lewis. Yes, it’s a short-notice fight and yes, Lewis is a sizeable underdog. But how can anyone with Lewis’ power and his 9-1 record in his last ten bouts be dismissed? Cormier certainly isn’t overlooking him.
“I think Derrick Lewis is a fun guy,” said Cormier. “I think he’s a big, strong, powerful guy, a great athlete. Derrick Lewis is a success story. He had a lot of personal issues when he was younger and he turned himself around. I just don’t think he’s good enough to beat me.”
That’s Cormier’s wrestling mentality surfacing once more, and while some think that he’s a relative newcomer to the division, 13 bouts at heavyweight pre-Miocic proves that he’s got more than his share of experience throwing hands with the big boys, and the way he describes it, the best version of DC is at heavyweight.
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“I’ve never lost a round in this division,” he said. “In my first 13 fights I was undefeated. One judge gave Josh Barnett one round. That was the extent to which I lost in the division. I’ve been in there with everybody. I fought Jeff Monson when I had seven fights, I fought Bigfoot Silva with eight fights, Josh Barnett with only nine fights. I was beating these guys when I didn’t really know how to fight yet. I believe my resume speaks for itself.
“Being at heavyweight has allowed me to keep my power,” Cormier continues. Knocking out Stipe, that punch, I’ve landed that a number of times. I hit Alexander Gustafsson with that punch 60 times in one fight. I hit Jon Jones with that punch 25 times in one fight and they generally can take it and the heavyweight champ of the world couldn’t. So I think I’m carrying much more power when I fight at heavyweight. Not only that, but there’s the confidence in knowing that I’m faster and, in most cases, I know I’m out training these guys. There’s one guy that can out train me at heavyweight and that’s Cain Velasquez. I watch him every day, so I know the foundation of how to train for a championship fight from him.”
And to think, Cormier is closing in on his 40th birthday in March, an occasion that he insists will mark his exit from the sport. Whether that holds remains to be seen, because we all know that fighting and retirement don’t get along too well. But in the meantime, enjoy Cormier, because he’s enjoying his last mile in the game in his own unique way.
“I’m gonna go and take his head off,” he said of the Lewis fight. “I can literally say I love manhandling people. Look at what I did to Dan (Henderson). I really care about Dan Henderson. I had been looking up to him since I was a kid, but when they close that Octagon door, I tried to rip him apart. And that’s what I’m gonna do to Derrick Lewis. It’s the only way I know how to fight.”