Daniel Cormier likes to tuck his shirt into his trunks when he makes his way to the octagon for a fight. He realizes he looks like a dork. When he’s out in the real world, he wears blue jeans and white tennis shoes. He drives a Prius to the gym everyday. He has two kids whom he dotes over to anybody who asks, the prototypical dad who has given up worrying about how square he looks. He focuses on practicality and comfort. One time, after a big fight, he talked about how he couldn’t wait to get home to mow his lawn. He smiles so genuinely when fans approach him that you’d swear he’s known them his whole life. In fact, if you tell him he’s great, he thanks you in a way that suggests you’re probably wrong.
There is almost nothing menacing about Daniel Cormier.
Yet beneath the plaids and polos, Cormier, the UFC champion who will defend his heavyweight title this Saturday night at UFC 230, is a monster of historic proportions. He is the kind of monster who can take on a pound-for-pound GOAT like Anderson Silva on two days’ notice and smash him into parts. The kind who can ragdoll an MMA legend like Dan Henderson, knock out a power broker like Stipe Miocic, and tap out an assassin like Anthony Johnson. He’s also fight-game ephemera. At 39 years old, Cormier has vowed to conclude his fighting career by the time he turns 40 on March 20, 2019. That means, if he is true to his word, he has maybe two fights left.
All of this is why, when the UFC couldn’t find a big attraction to headline Saturday’s pay-per-view at Madison Square Garden, they called The World’s Most Dangerous Everyman and dangled a heavyweight title defense against massively powerful Derrick Lewis. Even with a big bout looming against Brock Lesnar, the ever-sensible Cormier weighed the risks versus the rewards of taking on the 260-pound Lewis on short notice. Then he shrugged his shoulders and asked, “Why not?”
“Look, the thing is, I’ve always done stuff like this,” he told me on Monday, with the rationalizing voice of an accountant. “I fought Anthony Johnson on a month to win the title. I fought Dan Henderson on six weeks. I fought ‘Bigfoot’ Silva on five weeks, with four weeks of training. I just went and fought after training for a month. These are things I’ve always done and I think because I’ve done them, the idea of it wasn’t as daunting as it would be for someone who’s never experienced it.”
This is the kind of thing Cormier can do: He can take an inconceivable set of circumstances — like jeopardizing his title reign, his big pay day with Lesnar, and perhaps even his trilogy fight with Jon Jones — and make his decision to roll with it sound reasonable.
Cormier is more than just a fighter — he’s a commentator too, working the booth for Fox Sports’ UFC broadcasts. One of the reasons he’s emerged as the best color commentator in combat sports is that he loves making sense out of the eternal chaos of the fight game. Why? Because even though Cormier holds titles in the two of the most unforgiving weight classes in the UFC — light heavyweight and heavyweight — he refuses to believe he’s better than anyone who is not trying to hurt him. He looks the public in the eye and speaks in plain language. He wants to make you — the viewer, the fan, the seeker of fighterly truths, the kids he coaches in wrestling — understand what it’s like. He’s an otherworldly talent, but more intrinsically, he’s down to earth.
That’s the way he prefers it. Outside the cage, Cormier, who has gone 21-1 with one no contest since debuting in MMA nine years ago after a decorated career as an Olympic-caliber amateur wrestler, actively wards off his own exceptionalism. Having seen his own father murdered when he was 7 years old, it matters more to him to be a providing father, husband, and coach.
All of which is horribly out of tune with what the UFC covets in a champion. Conor McGregor is the ideal promotional character: He talks shit and convinces people to dole out money to see him fight. Cormier is different. He’s the conscience of the UFC. He is the unaffected voice of reason, the recentering of logic, and the closest thing we have to ever getting into a fighter’s head.
“I think he is real and relatable to other fighters,” his broadcast partner Jon Anik says about him. “Maybe that’s because he doesn’t have 6 percent body fat. But mostly I think it’s because he is a coach at his core and the type of coach you want to run through a wall for.”
This isn’t to say that Cormier doesn’t have a mean streak. He does and always has. He is a master troll when it comes to his rival, Jon Jones, the one man he’s never been able to beat. When Jones came back from a suspension and beat Cormier at UFC 214 to reclaim the light heavyweight title — only to test positive for banned substances and get the belt stripped yet again — Cormier didn’t apologize when the title defaulted back to him. Instead he called Jones a fuck-up and a cheat. Cormier has continued to hold the 205-pound title through Jones’s continued absence, smiling ear to ear the whole time.
Going back to their first encounter at UFC 182 (when Cormier lost in a decision), he hasn’t been able to beat Jones in the cage, but he has made it clear that he has bettered him in every other way. For the better part of three years, Cormier has been subtweeting Jones in every way possible.
For instance: Jones wanted to jump up to heavyweight and become a dual champion; Cormier did it first. Jones, who grew up in Endicott, New York, wanted to headline a show at Madison Square Garden; Cormier is booked to do that Saturday night. And it was Jones who wanted a fight with Brock Lesnar; Cormier and Lesnar are tentatively slated to fight at some point in early 2019. Cormier may never get another chance to face Jones in the octagon, but he still thinks about it.
“Competitively, yes — competitively there is [the desire to beat Jones]. I’m not saying that doesn’t lie within me,” he says. “I do want to fight him, and I want to fight him at 205 pounds, because I feel like I need to right the wrong of that fight. To bring him up to heavyweight, a weight class he’s never fought in before yet that I’ve fought 14 fights in, it wouldn’t seem like I’d be doing it as equally as he beat me. I would want to beat him where he beat me first, and then if there was ever a chance to run it back again, then heavyweight would be in play. But I think that would have to be after I beat him at 205.”
As luck would have it, Jones is in New York this week as well, only he’s not in town to fight. Instead it’s to signal his return, as he and Alexander Gustafsson are slated to fight for the “vacant” light heavyweight title at UFC 232 on December 29 in Las Vegas. Cormier is being stripped of his second belt to keep the 205-pound division moving while he fights Lewis and Lesnar at heavyweight.
“It bothers me, but it hurt my feelings a lot more whenever it was first brought up,” Cormier says again, as if he can’t help but appreciate the practicality of the decision to strip him of his title. “The reality is, the organization has to try and move forward. And I get that. The fact that they were like, ‘Hey, if you go back down you get the first title fight,’ that was a big thing to me. That meant that regardless of whatever they were doing, I’m still very much in that title conversation.
“As of right now, though, I’m still the champion. I’ve said this before: If I lose this weekend, then shit — I’m not just going to go quietly and say you guys can just have the belt. If that happens, we have some real conversations to have.”
Which brings it all back to this weekend’s fight with Lewis, an event that will earn Cormier seven figures regardless of the result. But for Cormier, it’s never just about the fight — the past and future are always in play. Lewis is the body he’ll encounter on Saturday, but fighting at Madison Square Garden was the lure: The last time Cormier competed at the Garden was back in 2003 when he was representing the United States in wrestling. At lot has happened in the intervening years. Cormier lost his three-month-old daughter, Kaedyn, in a tragic car crash around that same time. He saw his Olympic dreams shattered in 2008 when — as the captain of the U.S. team — his kidneys failed during his weight cut. He never got to compete, and that devastated him.
Yet it was the pain of coming so close to something and not accomplishing it that Cormier says fuels his greatness in MMA. It’s why he sees the puppet strings in the fight game and is more interested in talking about them than controlling them. And it’s why he seizes opportunities when they are presented to him, even when the risk seems greater than the reward. Like McGregor, Cormier happily commits the cardinal sin of looking past a fight to the next one, if only because he’s most comfortable from a perch where he can see the whole picture.
“I have my plan,” he says. “I still want to fight Brock Lesnar afterwards, and I’m going to. This was just a chance to fight, and whenever I got offered the fight, for what they were paying me and the chance to do some historical stuff. You get to main event Madison Square Garden, you’re the first guy to defend the heavyweight and the light heavyweight title. Like, I know you’re a double champion, the second to do that [behind McGregor], but you’ll be the first one to actually defend them both, not defend one. All that stuff, I was like, you know what, man? I think I’m going to do this.”
Beyond that, if all goes to plan, after he fights Lewis and Lesnar — and probably Jones, because there’s no way Cormier will let his vow to retire get in the way of avenging himself against his greatest rival — the realest fighter/commentator in the UFC might segue over to the realm of pro wrestling. In recent weeks, the WWE has called, hoping to bring Cormier aboard the commentary team. As a fan of pro wrestling who has been marking out since his childhood in Louisiana, Cormier said he pinched himself when he got on the phone with WWE lead announcer Michael Cole.
“I think it’s so great,” he says. “The WWE is a great organization that I’ve enjoyed my entire life. So to have an opportunity to work with them would be amazing. That’s something I’m definitely going to look at when I’m done. The UFC is my home. I love working for the UFC. I love working on the color side. I love everything about working for the UFC. So I just need to make sure that, whatever I do with anyone else doesn’t really interrupt that. The UFC is always where I want to be.”
But for how long? Five months? Longer?
“I still think it’s over when I turn 40,” he says. “Especially now with the timing of this [Lewis fight]. This is perfect. See, I was going to have to wait for Lesnar. With this fight right now, I can fight this one and then fight Lesnar around February, because he’s eligible back in January, and I’m in business. I’ve got two more fights in my career. I’ve got two more massive fights; I don’t know what else I need to try and chase.”
It’s a sensible plan to get out at age 40, to mow his lawn and drive his Prius to his coaching gig with the little kids in San Jose,and on weekends talk about fighting (or pro wrestling) from a desk. It’s just the kind of thing Cormier likes. An ordinary life.
He just has to get through the last hurdles of his extraordinary one.