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SAN JOSE, Calif.
It’s good to be the champ. In fact, Daniel Cormier can tell you that it’s actually great.
But even after winning the UFC light heavyweight title in May, Cormier remains pretty much the same guy. He drives a fuel-efficient Prius. He still lives in the same house in the decidedly un-hip city of Gilroy – the proud Garlic Capital of the World – where you’re likely to find him hanging out quietly with his fiancé and two young children.
And while it’s true that a whole new world of perks and opportunities have come along with his glitzy championship belt, the man known simply as DC says the most profound change in his life has been something that can’t be bought or given.
It’s a well-earned sense of relief.
“There is nothing lingering over me anymore,” Cormier said recently after a grueling workout at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose. “I feel complete. I never could have imagined that I ever would have reached this point in life. I couldn’t have written this out any better. I’m a very lucky guy.”
He also is a fighter, even at age 36, who feels like he’s still getting started.
Cormier (16-1) has no intention of letting the crown he just won slip from his grasp when he takes on No. 2 contender Alexander Gustafsson (16-3) in the UFC 192 headline bout in Houston on Saturday night. But while they are at the top of the marquee, the shadow of another fighter will be looming near the Octagon: Jon “Bones” Jones, who was stripped of the title earlier this year, setting the stage for Cormier’s reign to begin.
That’s why Cormier has a plan. He intends to blast through everyone else the UFC puts in front of him. He will wait patiently for Jones to finish sorting out his personal issues. Then, they can resume their blood feud inside the cage.
“I feel complete ... I couldn’t have written this out any better. I’m a very lucky guy." -- Daniel Cormier
“DC loves being the champ,” said Javier Mendez, the AKA head coach. “His lifelong goal has been to be the best and prove his greatness. He’s accomplished it. He’s on top. But now he’s on a quest to keep that title. DC wants to clear out that division and make the statement that it’s just him and Jon Jones. He knows that true validation won’t happen until he beats Jones in the cage.”
Until then, Gustafsson is first in line.
Whether it’s inside the Octagon or as a FOX Sports commentator, Cormier doesn’t pull any punches. And Cormier the UFC Analyst has not been shy when talking about how he is less than impressed with Gustafsson’s mixed martial arts resume.
“When you look at our body of work, and compare the guys I fought with the guys he fought, they’re just different levels,” he said. “I’m at a higher level. It’s as simple as that. I know I’m speaking an uncomfortable truth. But it’s still the truth. He’s going to lose to me.”
It will be up to Cormier the Fighter to back up those words.
Will Size Matter?
On Labor Day, Cormier was laboring. Hard. He went five rounds with a pair of sparring partners in a makeshift cage at AKA that has been squeezed into what once was a racquetball court. Two of his coaches who shouted out instructions wore “Break Bones” T-shirts – a not-so-subtle indication that while Jones might be out of sight, he’s never out of mind in the Cormier camp.
Still, the focus entirely was on preparing for Gustafsson.
Once again, former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez is a key training partner for Cormier. The rise of Cormier, Velasquez and Luke Rockhold, the No. 1 middleweight contender who will fight undefeated champ Chris Weidman for the title at UFC 194 on Dec. 12, essentially has made them AKA’s Three Kings. While the trio has vastly different personalities, their shared goal of making each other the best they can be has formed the foundation for one of MMA’s best fighter collaborations.
At this training camp, though, perhaps more important figure has been Ruslan Magomedov, a Russian heavyweight who also is fighting on the UFC 192 card. He has been simulating the 6-foot-5 Gustafsson for Cormier.
Although heavier and not as quick, Magomedov is just an inch shorter than the lanky Gustafsson. And the three rounds that Cormier and Magomedov sparred likely was a preview of what will unfold in Houston. The stocky, 5-11 Cormier spent the 15 minutes trying to elude Magomedov’s long reach – both on punches and kicks – to slip inside, punish the Russian with punches, and take him down.
Both Mendez and Cormier talk freely about what they are expecting against Gustafsson. It’s no secret. Hell, it’s Mixed Martial Arts 101.
Not only is Cormier giving up six inches in height to Gustafsson, but he also has a seven-inch disadvantage in reach. The Swedish fighter might go by the nickname of The Mauler, but he quite likely will be The Dancer in this fight, using his length to strike Cormier from a safe distance. Meanwhile Cormier, a former Olympic wrestler, will attempt to get the Swedish fighter down to the ground and – how do we say this delicately? – turn him into a pretzel.
“Gustafsson is at his absolute best when he uses his footwork to frustrate guys where they can’t really get to him,” Cormier said. “I anticipate him doing that against me. I know he’s going to try to use his length to outwork me. I think he’ll be content to make it a stand-up fight where he’s just trying to outpoint me. But the dirtier the fight, the better it will be for me. I’m going to make sure that I’m close enough to hit him, to grab him, to wrestle him, to maul him.”
If styles truly do make fights, then this has a chance to be a very good one. Cormier and Gustafsson couldn’t be more different.
“It’s going to come down to who can dictate the action,” Mendez added. “It’s going to be an inside-versus-outside fight. Gustafsson is really dangerous because if you let him hit you, he will knock you out. But the problem he faces is that DC is so well-rounded. He’s not easy to game plan because he’s not just a wrestler. He’s got everything now.”
Including the title belt.
Call Me Champ
Cormier has a hard time comprehending how much his life has changed since 2010 when he was first walked into the old AKA gym at a San Jose strip mall.
Back then, he was still coming to grips with the fact that he was never going to achieve a dream that had fueled his internal fire from a young age – winning an Olympic gold medal. Cormier wasn’t yet sold on MMA, which was just beginning to gain notice among mainstream sports fans. He was so broke that he lived at the home of trainer-manager “Crazy Bob” Cook, where Rockhold was another live-in guest.
Cormier, however, quickly recognized that MMA could offer him another avenue to be the best. He became the heavyweight champion for San Jose-based Strikeforce before jumping to UFC and dominating every fight ... until he ran into Jones last Jan. 3 at UFC 182. That title bout loss to his archrival, in a unanimous decision, was emotionally devastating for Cormier.
But fate had other plans for him. When Jones was suspended indefinitely and stripped of the title after his alleged involvement in a hit-and-run incident in New Mexico, Cormier was eager to redeem himself. He replaced Jones on short notice at UFC 187 on May 23, and submitted top contender Anthony “Rumble” Johnson with a rear-naked chokehold.
His rise was complete as the 205-pound belt holder.
“Not many guys,” Cormier said, “can say they were champion.”
And not many can also say they’ve reached the heights he has achieved as a television commentator. He’s the co-host of UFC Tonight on FOX Sports and provides a thoughtful presence during Fight Night coverage with a knack of speaking to both the diehard fans and MMA newcomers. When Rockhold defeated Lyoto Machida in a UFC on FOX bout in April, Cormier gleefully took off his suit jacket, raced down from the broadcast booth and cheered on his friend, cage-side.
“I’ve got some great bosses at FOX,” Cormier said. “They love that I’m fighting competitively. They love that a champion with a belt is the host of their show.”
UFC executives also have to love that Cormier has emerged as a leading face for the sport.
Ronda Rousey may be UFC’s dazzling crossover star who is making even non-sports fans pay attention. And Conor McGregor refuses to be ignored with the sheer audacity of every outrageous comment that he makes. But Cormier is something else entirely.
He is becoming an ambassador for UFC – a role he embraces.
“I’m just being myself,” Cormier said. “I’ve been competing at the highest level of wrestling since I was 15 years old. I’ve represented the United States on two Olympic teams. You learn how to carry yourself in a way that brings honor to yourself and your family. I appreciate the position that I’ve been given, and I never forget that people are watching closely how I act.”
Jon Jones: The Tie That Binds
If Gustafsson disagrees that Cormier carries himself with a proper decorum, he’s keeping it to himself. Maybe that’s because Gustafsson is known as one of UFC’s gentlemen fighters. Cormier goes out of his way to call him “a nice guy,” and there seems to be no animosity between the two. This fight is just business. But that still hasn’t stopped Cormier from needling Gustafsson about the quality of his record.
The Swede’s reputation largely traces back to one night in September, 2013. Gustafsson pushed Jones harder than any fighter before or since in UFC 165, bloodying him in a controversial unanimous decision loss that widely was considered the Fight of the Year.
But his last time in cage was shockingly different. Gustafsson was flattened in a first-round technical knockout to Johnson in front of his home country fans in January. And that’s why Cormier keeps talking about how he handled Johnson in their fight and reminding everyone that Gustafsson’s biggest accomplishment so far has been a defeat.
“It’s just interesting to me that he’s so revered for a fight that he lost,” Cormier said. “He reached legend status just by pushing Jon. All of the sudden, everybody thought Gustafsson was a world-beater, when in reality his signature wins aren’t very impressive. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy in MMA garner so much respect for doing so little. I don’t mean that as a dig. It’s just that Alex doesn’t have any big wins.”
Yes, that’s a dig.
By the way, Cormier is used to hearing slights directed his way, too. As in, he’s not the real champ. Jones arguably was the best pound-for-pound fighter in UFC. Until he’s beaten in the cage, many MMA fans will continue to view him as the true champion.
Not surprisingly, Mendez believes that is a ridiculously argument.
“DC won the title in the cage against the No. 1 contender,” he said. “Now he’s going to fight the guy who arguably gave Jones the toughest fight of his career, and he’s going to dispatch him. So how can you question what DC has accomplished? The answer is: You can’t. Jones obviously will deserve a title fight when he comes back. But what if his legal problems get in the way? We don’t know what the outcome is going to be with that.”
This much is clear: Mendez and Cormier are pulling hard for Jones. The sport, they say, needs him.
“I think Jon is doing the right thing by staying out of the spotlight,” Cormier added. “He needs to focus on his personal issues before he worries about anything else. He should fix Jon the person, then he can worry about fixing Jon the fighter. I want Jon to get himself together for himself, his family, and so he can come back and do what he was meant to do – fight. Why not have the two best guys fighting as many times as they can lock that door behind us?”
A Star, Who Trains To Compete
So, what does Cook think Cormier likes best about being champ?
“You mean besides everything?” Cook said with a laugh. “I think he’s still surprised by everything that’s coming his way. He never expected doors to just open up for him. But that happens all the time when you’re the champ.”
For instance, when the WWE pro wrestling circus recently passed through San Jose, Cormier got to sit ringside. And backstage, all the wrestlers lined up to meet him. At a high-end New York City restaurant where he and Velasquez dined recently, the owner surprised by them by saying their very expensive meals were on the house.
But in the gym, he’s the same old DC.
“He’s always been loud, so he’s no different that way,” Mendez said. Well, there is one thing. “We’ll be debating something and now he’ll say in a fun way: ‘Hey, who’s the champ? Enough said.’ So he’ll use it to win arguments.”
As for the trinket he won last spring, his title belt sits in a closet. When he’s done fighting, Cormier said, it will be time to put it on display and admire his accomplishment.
For now, there is more work to be done.
“I was put on this earth to compete,” Cormier said. “I’ve been competing on a high level for the last 21 years. I’m doing exactly what I was meant to do with my life. And this is for me until I can’t do it anymore.”
Mark Emmons is a freelance writer based in San Jose, Calif. Follow him on Twitter at @markedwinemmons.