Daniel Cormier is a U.F.C. Champion, but He Must Beat Jon Jones to Feel Like One


Ever since Cormier first captured the U.F.C. belt, Jones’s presence has loomed large. It is a fog that seeps into every Cormier achievement. Cormier is seen by many fans and by Jones as an illegitimate champion. Cormier’s obsession with Jones indicates that, at least on some level, he feels the same. His coach, Javier Mendez, thinks about it, too.

“His legacy now is one of the greats who couldn’t beat the great,” Mendez says. “He couldn’t beat the great one. That’s what it will be.”

One Blow After Another

Cormier’s story began in Lafayette, La., in 1979. He grew up poor with his mother, stepfather and three siblings. He doesn’t remember much of his father, Joseph. That’s because, on Thanksgiving Day 1986, when Cormier was 7, Joseph Cormier was shot dead by a family member. It was the first in a long line of hardships in Daniel Cormier’s life.

When he was a junior in high school, a good friend was killed in a car accident. When he was a high school senior, his cousin died in one too. On Jan. 27, 2001, when he was a senior at Oklahoma State University, his close friend and roommate, Dan Lawson, perished in a plane crash that claimed 10 members of the university’s basketball team.

On March 6, 2003, Cormier and an ex-girlfriend, Carolyn Flowers, gave birth to his first child, Kaedyn Imri Cormier. Three months later, Kaedyn died in a car accident while traveling with friends.

On her gravestone, near the bottom, it reads:

In Kaedyn’s Honor

2003 Pan Am. Champ

2003 World Championship 5th Place

Through it all, Cormier had wrestling. When he was 10, a youth wrestling coach invited Cormier and a cousin to his team’s practice after happening upon the two scrapping in the street. Cormier spent his first practice getting ground into the mat but returned the next day.

Photo

Cormier wrestling in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens against Alireza Heidari of Iran.

Credit
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

He dedicated his life to the sport, but was never the best in the world. He finished fifth at the 2003 world championships. In 2004, he competed in the Olympics in Athens, but left empty-handed after losing in the semifinals and the bronze medal match.

In 2008, he was chosen captain of the Olympic wrestling team in Beijing. Cormier had finished third in the 2007 world championships. He was expected to leave China with a medal, maybe even gold. Then, disaster.

Cormier used to walk around at 235 pounds, then drop to 211.5 pounds at weigh-ins solely by dehydrating. At the 2008 Olympics, he made weight, then began rehydrating. Usually, the process was easy: He would weigh in, and while rehydrating, he would get cramps, then vomit and relieve himself. And then he would be fine. But this time, he got too heavy, and had to cut too much weight too fast. While he was vomiting, the cramps were more painful than he had experienced before.

Then, his legs stopped working.

His kidneys were failing. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, held overnight and pulled from competition.

“It feels like death,” Cormier says now. “I literally thought I was dying.”

He never competed in wrestling again.

“I let my team down. I let U.S.A. Wrestling, my coaches — all the people who had put so much time and energy into actually getting me there, to not compete?” Cormier says. “I let my country down.”

This is the story Cormier tells when asked why he turned to mixed martial arts: He resigned in something like disgrace, and he was fighting for something like redemption. But there’s another, simpler version of events, too.

“I was lost without competition,” Cormier says. “I was a lost man.”

Back in 2002, Cormier received a call from a man named Dewayne Zinkin. Zinkin had founded a sports management company the year before with his partner, Bob Cook. Zinkin thought Cormier was a great prospect for a new sport: mixed martial arts.

“After you’re done,” Zinkin said to the wrestler, “call me.”

Fighting is a sport littered with retired wrestlers lost without competition. Cormier was no different from them. In 2009, broke, fat and depressed, he picked up the phone.

Against a Behemoth

Cormier rocketed through the M.M.A. ranks. He garnered the nickname “King of the Grind,” never lost a round and soon was one of the best heavyweight fighters in the world. So was his training partner, Cain Velasquez. Fans clamored for the two to fight, but Cormier and Velasquez had grown as close as brothers.

“They’d never fight each other,” Mendez says. “That bond they have is unique.”

Six years after the weight cut ended his wrestling career, Cormier dropped to 205 pounds, to the light heavyweight division, placing him directly in the path of Jon Jones, who had also surged to the top and cemented himself as one of the greatest mixed martial arts fighters of all time.

M.M.A has all kinds of fighters, but Jones is different.

Photo

Cormier lifting Jones during their fight in Las Vegas in 2015.

Credit
Steve Marcus/Getty Images

He is 6 feet 4, with a 7-foot wingspan, and his long arms and legs allow him to dole out punishment from across the cage and lock in chokes and submissions from anywhere. In a sport as brutal as fighting, he is more violent, and more creative in his violence, than anyone else. His only loss was a disqualification. He conducts a terrifying symphony of kicks, punches, spinning elbows and body slams that leave some of the best fighters bloody, helpless, or both.

“Jones beat eight guys in a row, and I think five of them were U.F.C. champions. It’s ridiculous. Like, seriously!” Cormier says, unable to hide his admiration. He starts listing the defeated on his fingers. “Shogun, and Rashad and Rampage,” he says. “And me.”

On Jan. 3, 2015, after a lead-up that included a stage-clearing brawl and vulgar back-and-forth caught on camera after a joint ESPN interview, the two finally fought. Jones won.

It wasn’t just that Jones beat Cormier, but how. Going into the fight, the Olympian had never been taken down. Less than a minute into the match, Jones caught a Cormier kick, tripped him, and sent him crashing to the mat.

Jones was huge, unbelievably strong and tireless. He outwrestled the Olympic wrestler.

“I outgrinded him,” Jones said in an interview after the fight.

“I don’t like Daniel Cormier. I don’t respect Daniel Cormier,” he continued. “I hope he’s somewhere crying right now. I’m sure he is.”

Cormier was. He broke down walking back to the locker room, and wept in the arms of Velasquez. Many believe Cormier just couldn’t handle losing. But he says that’s not why he wept.

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Dana White of the U.F.C. standing between Cormier, left, and Jones at a news conference last year.

Credit
John Locher/Associated Press

Cormier says the Jones fight was a repeat of the 2008 Olympics. He should have done better, but he let his team, and himself, down, and facing them after the fight was too much to bear. For Cormier, this is easier to stomach than the alternative: that he simply lost to the better man; that fighting in the same class at the same time as the greatest fighter of all time is something like a tragedy, outside his control.

Then, on April 25, 2015, Jones was arrested in Albuquerque in a hit-and-run and charged with leaving the scene of an accident. The U.F.C. stripped him of his belt, and Cormier beat Anthony Johnson, who had been designated No. 1, a month later to become the U.F.C. light-heavyweight champion.

Jones was later reinstated. A rematch with Cormier was scheduled for July 9, 2016. But two days before, Jones was pulled from the fight. A drug test administered by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, or Usada, turned up two estrogen blockers, which are commonly used when athletes are cycling off steroids. He was suspended for a year.

Jones pleaded ignorance, citing over-the-counter male-enhancement pills. Usada concurred but kept the suspension in place.

“On the evidence before the panel,” it wrote in a statement, “the applicant is not a drug cheat.”

Cormier doesn’t believe it.

“No one has really been able to keep that pace that I set, ever,” Cormier says. “And I know from people in his gym: I know I’m outworking him. I know I’m doing more. I know I’m training harder. I know I’m living better. And I’m like, ‘How did he do that?’ It just can’t be the age difference.” (Jones is 30.)

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