The storybook ending had already been written for two-division UFC champion Daniel Cormier.
With the burden of never having beaten Jon Jones seemingly lifted by his dramatic knockout of heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic in July, Cormier had finally reached the doorstep of MMA immortality as just the second UFC fighter to hold two world titles simultaneously. His new membership into the G.O.A.T. discussion had him on pace for a perfect exit plan.
Cormier (21-1, 1 NC) was set for a pay-per-view windfall in late winter against Brock Lesnar, upon the expiration of his USADA suspension, and then a self-imposed retirement in March on his 40th birthday. The only thing that might add an additional trip to the Octagon for Cormier was the possibility of a third fight with Jones, who returns Dec. 29 from his own reduced drug suspension in a rematch against Alexander Gustafsson.
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But the unpredictability of mixed martial arts typically means plans of any kind must be written in pencil. Once UFC found itself without a suitable headliner for Saturday’s third trip to Madison Square Garden, Cormier answered the call for a short-notice heavyweight title defense against red-hot Derrick Lewis (21-5, 1 NC) in the main event of UFC 230.
The fight certainly presents Cormier with a well-paying, high-profile gig against a limited opponent who enters the fight just 28 days removed from a dramatic knockout win at UFC 229 against Alexander Volkov in which Lewis absorbed more than 70 head strikes in nearly three full rounds. DC is confident enough in his chances to accept the fight without the benefit of a full training camp.
Yet even Cormier would be fooling himself if he didn’t acknowledge the chance he’s taking by rushing back, especially after he had been saying all summer he would need to rest the remainder of 2018 in order to heal a right hand he injured against Miocic.
The lovable Lewis, nicknamed “The Black Beast,” may be sorely lacking in the department of stamina, and told reporters as much after UFC 229 by admitting he’s not ready for the five-round title distance, but that one dimension to his game makes him as dangerous as anyone in the sport. And whether Cormier wants to allow himself to think about it or not, one right hand from Lewis could outright ruin his perfect exit strategy from the sport.
During his recent media day at the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas, Cormier attempted to downplay the idea that he could lose everything in one night.
“Not really because if I lose to Derrick, then who is to say I don’t go, ‘Hey, I’m gonna go defend my light heavyweight title. Now you can’t take it,'” Cormier said, in reference to the UFC’s plan to strip him of the 205-pound title when Jones and Gustafsson enter the cage at UFC 232 for the vacant crown.
“Maybe that adds a whole other part to the equation. You can’t take both of my belts if I lost that one, right? So do I really have that much to lose if I have a second one? Look at it like that. I am the light heavyweight champion until those guys fight, but if the heavyweight champion loses his title and I’m still the light heavyweight champion, then we have some conversations to have.”
The scenario Cormier laid out is a clever one but far from anything that can be called realistic; although, with UFC’s recent shuffling of title belts, you never know. Along with the possibility of a knockout loss to Lewis, there’s also the chance that an injury could spoil his best-laid plans, especially if he re-aggravates the right hand injury suffered against Miocic that originally was expected to keep him out for the remainder of 2018.
One thing that’s clear is Cormier deems Lewis a much easier opponent than Miocic, which is why he was willing to accept the fight after shooting down Miocic’s public angling for a rematch. In fact, DC told Luke Thomas of the “MMA Hour” one week before accepting the Lewis fight that he couldn’t even close his right hand and make a fist, likely as a reason not to entertain Miocic as a last-minute foe.
It’s a diagnosis Cormier ran back during the recent media day in Las Vegas in which the champion downplayed the severity of his injury by saying it wasn’t broken and was just a jammed finger.
“I’ve been punching and I’ve been sparring the last few weeks, and I feel ready to go and feel great,” Cormier said. “I’ve been wrestling and grabbing, and for me to be able to do that let me know that I’ll be OK.”
Although he admitted money was part of what made him willing to accept the risk, Cormier revealed he had allowed UFC to use the seduction of headlining Madison Square Garden, the self-proclaimed “World’s Most Famous Arena,” to sway him.
“When they called me and asked me to do the fight, I’m kind of a sucker for history,” Cormier said. “They go, ‘Daniel we are going to give you X amount of money to fight so and so at Madison Square Garden. Do you remember when Muhammad Ali fought at Madison Square Garden? Mike Tyson fought there too. This place has hosted some of the greatest fights in history. Can you imagine your face on the side of the Garden?’
“That shit means something to me, and they trick me like that sometimes. I want to fight at the Garden! It’s a lot of money, too, obviously, and breaking down the style matchup, I think it’s a fight that I can get ready for in a short amount of time but I get to main event the Garden!”
Cormier has reiterated constantly that he’s far from overlooking Lewis and touted the Houston native’s streak of nine wins in 10 fights, including recent victories over top contenders Volkov and Francis Ngannou, as reasons to call him a deserving candidate for a title shot. He just doesn’t believe Lewis’ style gives him that much of a shot to win.
“Sometimes success leads to an obstacle that may be a little bit too big to conquer, and I think that this is the one that he is going to struggle with,” Cormier said. “He’s a good fighter but he’s a self-proclaimed brawler, and that usually doesn’t get it done against the kind of fighter I am.
“When I watch Derrick fight, I know he has a ton of heart, but that only takes you so far and you need so much more. I think I have that much more.”
The craziest part about Cormier’s gamble is that if he should lose to Lewis or get hurt, it’s very possible that his bitter rival Jones could end up stealing his payday against Lesnar. Jones, upon his recent return, has also been vocal in saying he would have nothing to gain in a third fight against Cormier.
Still, Cormier is willing to roll the dice and bet on himself, even if that means dealing with the anxiety that comes with it. The idea of entering UFC 230 with two title belts and potentially ending 2018 with zero isn’t enough of a scare to drive him away.
“There’s anxiety every time I fight, but that doesn’t matter,” Cormier said. “You’ve gotta remember, to think, ‘Oh man, it could all be gone in no time.’ Last July I had zero [titles] — I lost [to Jones at UFC 217]. And then they said, ‘Here you can have it back [after Jones’ failed test].’ I mean, really. I had none. I had no titles. From 2009 to 2013, I had no UFC titles. For about a month in 2017, I had no UFC titles. Not having a UFC title isn’t new to me. It’s just now I have them in abundance. I’ve got two.”
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