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Daniel Cormier's next challenge: Shaking Jon Jones' shadow with two championship belts

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Daniel Cormier’s UFC career has seen him challenge some of the greatest fighters of all time, and he’s got good reason for wanting to be named among them. (Getty Images)

When Daniel Cormier made his UFC debut in 2013, he was already one of the world’s best heavyweights. Arguably, he was No. 1. He’d won the Strikeforce Grand Prix, dominating the great Josh Barnett in a way Barnett had never been handled before.

He faced former heavyweight champion Frank Mir in his UFC debut and scored a one-sided decision victory. Had he chosen to compete as a heavyweight full-time in the UFC, he may be hailed today as the finest big man in the promotion’s history.

But after just one more heavyweight bout in the UFC, another lopsided win, this time over Roy Nelson, Cormier moved to light heavyweight. His training partner and close friend, Cain Velasquez, was the reigning UFC heavyweight champion and the two didn’t want to compete against each other.

That decision changed Cormier’s life dramatically, and still has an impact on him now. He’ll face Stipe Miocic on Saturday in the most significant fight on the most high-profile card of the year, challenging Miocic for the heavyweight title in the main event of UFC 226 at T-Mobile Arena in a rare champion-versus-champion bout.

Cormier’s legacy deeply rooted in Jon Jones rivalry

Cormier has spent three-plus years as a light heavyweight, and while the decision to move down helped him win a title and establish his greatness, it also came with one huge downside.

By going to light heavyweight, Cormier developed a bitter rivalry with Jon Jones. Jones is arguably the greatest MMA fighter who has ever lived, and dominated the finest 205-pounders in the world.

When Cormier and Jones met in 2015, Jones won a wide unanimous decision even though he’d been partying and doing cocaine in training camp, which Jones would later use to mock Cormier.
When they fought in a rematch in 2017, Jones won by head kick knockout even though he’d had a slew of new personal issues and had spent some time in jail before fighting Cormier.

Cormier is one of the most respected figures in the sport, but no matter what he does, that one hurdle that he’s never been able to overcome, won’t go away.

On a conference call to promote his bout with Miocic, the first question Cormier received was not about the coming fight. Rather, it was about his rivalry with Jones. Jones taunts Cormier incessantly on Twitter, and many of Jones’ fans join in.

“I think that at this point where the guy’s been as inactive as Jones, he ties himself to certain individuals … he tries to keep himself relevant,” Cormier said. “It’s easier to talk to trash to me because people always ask me questions. We’re getting on a conference call for Stipe and the fight is [Saturday] and the first question’s about Jon Jones.

“I answer the question and then he obviously sees my answer to the question. Then it gives him an opportunity to put himself back into relevancy whenever he isn’t.”

Cormier’s position is odd going into the fight. Miocic is widely regarded as the greatest heavyweight ever and Jones is regarded as the greatest fighter ever.

Daniel Cormier took down Anthony Johnson in their UFC light heavyweight championship bout at UFC 210 last year. (Getty Images)

The second of Jones’ wins over Cormier was overturned because Jones failed a post-fight drug test, so Cormier is 20-1 overall. He’s beaten great fighters such as Anthony Johnson (twice), Alexander Gustafsson, Anderson Silva, Dan Henderson, Mir, Barnett and Nelson, and is among the 10 greatest fighters in MMA history, perhaps the top five.

Should he beat Miocic, he’d have a case as the best: He’d be a two-division champion with yet another major win, yet the shadow of Jones simply won’t go away.

Daniel Cormier wants suspended fighters treated like MLB pariahs

Cormier, though, believes he’ll deserve G.O.A.T. status should he get past Miocic, and used a baseball analogy to explain his reasoning.

“I think I am [the greatest MMA fighter ever],” Cormier said. “I don’t believe that anything else should be thought of. I should be in the conversation. Anytime a guy does performance-enhancing drugs and on multiple occasions, they eliminate themselves. So as great as Anderson Silva was, he tested positive I think two times. Jones had tested positive two or three times. Those guys eliminate themselves. I want to be among the greats, the George St.-Pierres and the Demetrius Johnsons, the guys who have done things the correct way over the course of their entire career without that asterisk. When you start getting performance enhancers tied to your name, there’s no way around that. There’s no way around it and I think that of all the sports, you know, the people that pay the harshest price are the baseball players.

“When you have negative tied to your name, they deny you the ultimate vindication. The ultimate goal of a baseball player is to go to the Hall of Fame and these guys aren’t even getting close. The Mark McGwires, the Sammy Sosas and Barry Bonds’, those guys aren’t getting close, man, because they have those bad things tied to their name. I think as a sport, MMA needs to evolve to the point that the punishment for having done those things is that your place within the sport should be challenged and should be questioned.”

Jones is still battling USADA over the punishment for his positive test prior to the second Cormier fight, and there is a possibility he receives a four-year suspension. He’s hopeful, though, that he’ll be cleared and able to fight far sooner, as he claims a contaminated supplement led to his positive test.

The likelihood he’ll fight Cormier a third time is slim, though. Cormier is 39 and plans to retire by no later than his 40th birthday: March 20, 2019.

Light heavyweight champ no stranger to adversity

His life has been full of tragedies, as his father was murdered when he was a child, and his young daughter was killed in an auto accident.

He’s faced adversity, and succeeded, throughout his life. He’s become the sport’s finest television analyst, has been a role model for many fighters and a constant positive presence in promoting the sport and its athletes.

He’s nearly reached the summit, but must accept that no matter what he does, to some, it won’t be enough.

If he beats Miocic, it would be the signature win of an athletic career that includes two spots on the U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling team. He won two junior college national championships, was a Division I All-American, won five U.S. national championships in a row and has been among the elite in MMA for nearly a decade.

That is the resume of one of the greatest athletes of his era. If it doesn’t include a win over Jon Jones, so be it.

Win or lose on Saturday, Daniel Cormier has zero to apologize for and every reason to be proud.

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