The two fights that lie ahead of the heavyweight champion will stand as the difference between a status shared amongst him and several other legends and a place in history that nobody else can touch.
January 20, 2018, was the day that Daniel Cormier truly proved without a shred of a doubt what type of man he is.
UFC 220’s co-main event offering had just concluded and the overwhelmed victor was on his knees with his head bowed in the centre of the octagon. The fight he had just won wasn’t overly eventful. Volkan Oezdemir had just found out exactly how right DC was when he told him that there are levels to this game.
The champ didn’t seem to be emotional because of any great difficulty he had in that two-round affair, but instead, it was because he knew that the last time he stood inside a UFC octagon he had experienced his lowest moment.
UFC 214, in its direct aftermath, was hailed as the triumphant return of Jon Jones – the magnetic, daring and supremely talented young man who rose above adversity to finally vanquish his longtime rival in brutal fashion.
And we all clapped and exclaimed with joy about how the hero of the story had returned and taken back the belt he had never lost. It was almost poetic.
But what if this isn’t Jon Jones’ story? And what if the narrative we thought we were safe in assuming to be correct has been warped and misinterpreted from day one?
Not once in the history of mixed martial arts have we seen a fighter faced with two fights as important as these.
With his retirement now an inevitability and his days in the sport numbered, Daniel is making his final strides towards the pair of outings that could stand as the difference between a legacy as an icon and an undeniable status as the greatest fighter to ever lace up gloves.
The stakes have never been higher. It’s a truly unique situation.
For so long I found myself fully onboard, backing the seemingly predetermined path of greatness being walked by Jon Jones.
It was an easy sell and even now in his prime years, there is still the sense that he is destined to retire without a single blemish on his record.
The rise of Jones was very easy to get behind. Becoming the youngest UFC champion in the promotion’s history, the manner in which he handled some of the greatest fighters to ever do it was unprecedented, it was stunning. The matchmakers lined these legends up and Bones knocked ’em straight back down again.
With UFC 182 came Daniel Cormier and with him, one of the most interesting dynamics to ever exist between a pair of rivals in sporting history.
It was easy for the world to pin DC in the role of the villain. Beside the young, tall, attractive and lean figure of Jon Jones he stood at a chubby 5’11”, an older, more adult figure, making the kind of remarks your dad would dish out.
Where Jones was an instant hit, Cormier was a slow-burn but as time went on, we all learned a very important lesson.
Everyone was on Jones’ side at first. At the time it was completely understandable.
You wanted to see him achieve his destiny and become the greatest to ever do it. Who doesn’t want to see that? Who doesn’t want a hero to look up to?
So DC was relegated to a figure that a lot of people within the MMA fanbase had a problem with and the date that his rematch with Jones was originally scheduled for, UFC 200, was a big reason for that.
Let’s roll it back for a moment because Cormier’s history as an athlete is truly something to behold.
After a glittering career as both a high-school and collegiate wrestler, he was drafted into the US team for the 2004 Olympics but just missed out on medalling by the narrowest of margins – losing to Khadzhimurat Gatsalov to leave him just shy of the podium in fourth place.
Next time around at the 2008 Olympics, his dedication and skills as a natural leader saw him selected as the captain of the American team – a huge honour, all things considered, but kidney failure in the leadup forced him to withdraw from what should have been his proudest moment.
MMA was his next calling in life. At 30, many surely would have told him that he was too old to make the transition into the multi-faceted sport but within no time, DC was striking with and beating up some of the finest heavyweights to ever do it, such as Josh Barnett, Antonio Silva, and Frank Mir.
Unbeaten before losing out to Jones for the first time, he finally met his match. And it would’ve no doubt been a bitter pill to swallow for Cormier but just like the Olympics in 2008, I’m sure he knew full well that hard work and perseverance would be the only way that he could overcome this latest obstacle.
So he took the time and used it. Jon’s problems with the law saw him stripped of his title and with him out of the picture, Daniel was able to work on establishing his own legacy as a UFC champion.
So he tested himself against the hardest puncher in the sport, Anthony Johnson, and familiarized himself over five rounds with a man whose physique resembled his great rival in Alexander Gustafsson.
He wasn’t sitting there feeling sorry for himself. Every time he mentioned the words ‘Jon Jones’, you could see that there was an intensity there that is rare in this sport.
UFC 197 was the event that was set for Cormier to exact his revenge. He now looked twice the fighter he was when he first fought the former-champ and this time, he had the belt around his waist and the experience that comes with defending it successfully.
No one had ever gotten a second shot at Jones. We had no idea how much DC and his team had taken away from that first meeting and how much of that they could impose on a Jon Jones who hadn’t fought in almost a year-and-a-half.
Then, just three weeks out from the biggest fight of his life, disaster struck again. Cormier was forced to pull from the fight, citing a foot injury.
These things happen but with a fight of this much emotional significance, it would have no doubt been another difficult speed-bump to overcome. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for the bout to be rescheduled – this time for the promotion’s historical landmark show, UFC 200.
Jones showed up and fought on UFC 197 without Cormier, instead, facing Ovince St-Preux in the night’s main-event. And while it was a dominant win, it wasn’t exactly amazing. Now a lot of reasons may have caused that, the late opponent switch, the awkwardness of OSP in general, but sitting ringside – DC seemed fired up.
UFC 200 would have to do.
Ahead of probably the most anticipated rematch we had seen in years, both men were clearly dying to get a hold of each other by the time fight-week came about but once again, things had a way of turning on their head in an instant.
On July 6, three days out from the fight’s date, Jones was pulled from the contest after a doping violation. Speculation aside, Cormier once again missed out on his opportunity to put things right in his own mind.
But again, he carried on. Taking a fight with the legendary Anderson Silva on short-notice, notice that can be counted in hours, DC was booed by the fans for showing up and grappling the most feared striker in the sport’s history. As distraught as he clearly was, he got the job done and while it wasn’t pretty – many wouldn’t have taken a fight with just hours left to prepare.
After decisively beating and effectively easing Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson into his retirement, finally, the time came around when he could get his hands on Jon Jones once again. UFC 214 was the show and the eventual fight was a fantastic one.
Both men had their moments for sure, but it was Jones who was able to come out on top, this time finishing DC with a barrage of strikes that I personally found to be among the most brutal endings to a fight I’ve ever watched.
Joe Rogan interviewed the emotional and possibly concussed Cormier directly after the bout and you can see it all just add up on the face of the then-former champion. It was a genuinely heart-wrenching moment, a moment in which the supposed rivalry that existed between Daniel and his greatest foe ceased to be a rivalry.
For all the shortcomings and freak instances of bad luck the man had experienced in the years before, this was to be his legacy – a side-role in the rise of Jon Jones.
But, of course, Jones wasn’t through with his issues just yet. After failing yet another USADA anti-doping test, this time for traces of turinabol, the whole circus ran back over for what seemed like one time too many and Cormier was reinstated as champion.
So when we arrived at UFC 220 and he collapsed to the ground in the wake of his win over Volkan Oezdemir – it seemed as though he was finally ready to move on from his rivalry and accept his resumed role as champion.
At the same time, though, he was never willing to allow anything to cloud his view on what happened on the night he fought Jon for a second time. Speaking to the media in the fallout of UFC 220, he gave his thoughts on the second Jones fight and how it sits in his mind.
“July 29th I was in the octagon and I know what happened. I don’t hide from the result, I know what happened and I lost a fight. That’s my reality.
“But what do I do when I lose a fight? What do I do when I have anything bad happen to me? I get up, I dust myself off and I get back to work. That’s all I can do.”
And that’s exactly what he did, following up his defeat of Oezdemir with a stunning first-round knockout of the most-decorated heavyweight champion in the history of the UFC, Stipe Miocic.
Say what you want about his time at light-heavyweight, but the DC that plies his trade at heavyweight looks to be even better and now, after successfully defending his belt against Derrick Lewis at UFC 230, running it back with Miocic could be enough to see him leave the octagon as the undisputed greatest heavyweight of all-time.
After too long spent in the role of the villain in his unique relationship with Jon Jones, Cormier has stepped out in recent times and has slowly won the fans over. He’s a phenomenal fighter, a likeable personality, a father, an excellent commentator and above all else, he stands as the perfect opposite to the image that Jones is presenting.
Where Jon was once the one with the love of the fans behind him, I’d argue that DC now represents the light to Jones’ dark, the yin to his yang and depending on the person, the protagonist to the antagonist that the 205lb champion is slowly morphing into.
It might be a long-shot, but if Cormier can best both Stipe Miocic and Jon Jones before finally retiring, it will be the greatest redemption story the sport has ever seen.
A figure of ridicule after his truly vulnerable moment in front of the cameras at UFC 214, now, the fans are slowly warming to the man who will serve as UFC 241’s headlining attraction. If he can pull off these back-to-back wins – his legacy will forever be defined by his ability to overcome adversity.
Whether it was the Olympics, injuries, a brutal defeat to a rival or even the simple restraints of his advancing age, Cormier will be undeniable if he can pull this off.
Two fights could well lie in front of him if the stars align and while I’m not in any way saying that I’d be confident in betting on him doing it or that the odds aren’t incredibly long – to claim the heads of Miocic and Jones would be even more astonishing than people realise.
If DC can overcome Stipe for a second and final time, setting up the clash with his greatest foe, perhaps reevaluate who exactly deserves your support more because, in Daniel Cormier, we are blessed to have the finest example of what a mixed martial artist should be.
It’s going to be a sprint to the finish-line of this future Hall Of Famer’s career and thankfully, it all gets underway on Saturday night at UFC 241.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena