Daniel Cormier is a smart guy. So he gets it. Cormier understands why a good-sized chunk of the UFC fan base doesn’t like him much, and maybe never will.
He knows people are more infatuated with the one-punch knockout power and speed of Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, his opponent in Saturday night’s UFC 210 light heavyweight title showdown. Cormier also believes the boos he often hears in arenas and the criticism on social media has more to do with fan frustration over the absence of troubled superstar Jon Jones than it does with him.
But here is what else Cormier knows: none of that noise matters. So what if he’s the UFC’s most unappreciated champion in its most star-crossed division? He still holds the title belt. And he plans on keeping it.
“Initially, the boos bothered me,” Cormier said. “But I’ve come to realize that it’s just part of the game. I can only control what I can control. People can love me or hate me. But they cannot deny that when I go into the cage, I fight hard. Most of the time, that’s enough to get my hand raised at the end. I sleep well at night because I know that I bust my ass, day in and day out. And I do the right things.
“This fight is just another opportunity to prove people wrong.”
This headliner bout, which was delayed from last December when Cormier (18-1 MMA, 7-1 UFC) suffered a torn adductor muscle in his groin, also is a monumental challenge. There is no other fighter like Johnson (22-5 MMA, 13-5 UFC) currently roaming the Octagon. Ever since Cormier submitted him with rear-naked choke in UFC 187, Johnson has been an absolute beast. He destroyed his last three opponents in knockout victories – the most recent lasting just 13 seconds.
Johnson leads the UFC in the unofficial category of: What the hell just happened!? Cormier, though, is not worried.
“Anthony is the boogie man,” he said. “People love the way that he fights. They love to watch him knock out people. They love that aggressive, striking style. But I do like beating Rumble because people make him out to be something that I truly don’t believe he is. I’m not afraid of him in any way, shape or form. There’s nothing about Anthony Johnson that scares me. You look at other fighters and it was clear they were terrified of Anthony. You won’t see that from me.”
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There’s a long tradition in combat sports of cultivating an image of being the villain or, to use the pro wrestling term, the heel. For fighters who traffic in brashness, they’re practically begging for the jeers . . . and pay-per-view orders. They don’t care what you think of them, just as long as you pay attention.
But the man simply known as DC is something else entirely.
He has overcome immense difficulty and heartache in his life. He represented the United States twice as an Olympic wrestler and is a devoted family man with two young children. By all accounts, is one of the sport’s best ambassadors. Yet in this era of “alternative facts,” many somehow consider Cormier a bad guy, or at least the undeserving beneficiary of Jones’ problems, which include a year-long suspension for doping that ends in July.
Javier Mendez, the head coach of the American Kickboxing Academy fight team, is among those who are mystified by Cormier’s detractors.
“DC is just an amazing guy,” Mendez said. “He’s everything you would want in a champion, and yet people still boo him. I don’t get it. If you saw him on an everyday basis, I promise you would change your opinion.”
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He cites one recent Saturday as an example. Instead of being at the gym, Cormier was coaching his youth wrestling team at a California state tournament.
“Who does that?” Mendez said, his voice raising. “Nobody does that! But DC does. That man remembers how people helped him get where he is, and now he gives back. People who don’t like him, they just don’t know him.”
It is remarkable to see one of the world’s best mixed-martial artists teaching wrestling moves to pint-sized kids during practices at AKA. Afterward, boys and girls will line up to shake his hand as parents wait outside for the chance to thank him for coaching their children. But in truth, Cormier says he receives far more than he gives by working with kids. He calls it his escape.
“Everything else falls by the wayside when it comes to my family and my kids,” said Cormier, 38. “This is who I am.”
If this leaves you thinking that Cormier isn’t focused on the cage, you would be mistaken. Mendez calls this Cormier’s best training camp ever. Instead of having surgery for his groin injury, Cormier elected to undergo cutting-edge, platelet-rich plasma therapy instead. The successful treatment allowed him to put the kind of grueling camp needed to meet Johnson.
“I’ve trained really, really hard for this fight,” he said. “I know how tough and durable and dangerous this guy is. So I have to make sure that I do everything right. It’s hard for me to put it in words, but I just feel like I’m ready to go get the job done.”
If we’re going to add to the reasons why Cormier isn’t one of the UFC’s cool kids, another explanation might be his fight style. He grinds down opponents. It’s not flashy, just effective. He describes his approach this way: Think of a deep pool of water.
“I’m down there, lurking,” he said. “I start pulling you by your ankles and then by your waist. The next thing you know, I’ll drag you down by the back of your shoulders. And that process takes time. I don’t knock people out in 15 seconds. That’s not me. It takes me a little bit longer to pull that guy into deep water. But once he’s there, I drown him. I understand that fans fall in love with the big moment. But in my fights, it’s not all about that big moment.”
Johnson nearly ended their first fight that way – dropping Cormier with a thunderclap right hand early in the first round. Cormier survived and went on to win, but Mendez can’t forget that shot.
“He launched DC – just launched him,” Mendez said. “It’s a good thing that DC was already on was way back when he got hit. Rumble is a special breed. If you stand in front of him, he will wreck you. He’s done that to everyone who has tried. But I don’t know if DC is going to want to avoid him. If he wants to stand with Rumble, he will stand with him. Now it’s not what I would want him to do, but DC is his own man.”
Cormier offers no insight into his fight strategy, other than to say he intends to punish Johnson even worse in this fight. But it’s clear that all the pre-fight talk about Rumble has gotten under his skin. One irritant was the official fight poster, which features a smaller Cormier in the foreground and a much bigger Johnson behind him.
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“It bothered me a little,” Cormier said. “The challenger looming over the champ to take what’s his. I get it. But I just think they could have put a little more creativity into the poster.”
Cormier always gets it. He knows Johnson has captured the public’s imagination. But he also thinks that he’s better. Something else he believes is that he will finally get a rematch later this year against Jones, assuming he’s reinstated, and have the chance to atone for his only UFC defeat.
But first, there will be a rumble with Rumble.
“A lot of times, you have these guys go on amazing runs and everybody pays attention to them,” he said. “That’s happening for Rumble right now. But at the same time, people are forgetting about what I’ve done.”
This is a chance to remind everyone, like him or not.