Daniel Cormier: ‘For all that Jon Jones is, I just believe I’m better’

Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones never were destined to be best friends.

From the first time the two fighters met there was an uneasy tension, despite the fact they were in different weight categories and separated by an entire promotion. The occasion was the UFC 121 weigh-ins on Oct. 22, 2010, and Cormier was flanking teammate Cain Velasquez, who was facing Brock Lesnar for the UFC heavyweight championship.

Cormier was there as Velasquez’s friend and wrestling coach while quietly building steam in his own career. He was 6-0 as a pro with all of his fights in the heavyweight division and his biggest win coming over Australian competitor Soa Palelei in his second bout.

According to Cormier, as he was waiting for the weigh-ins to begin, Jones came over to introduce himself, but not with a handshake and a smile.

"Nobody knew who I was because I had just started fighting, but I knew who he was because I watched Jon Jones," Cormier told FOX Sports. "I was a fan of Jon Jones. I thought he was great. I thought he was going to be really good. I was standing with Cain before the weigh-ins and Jon comes up — he was very young at the time, maybe 21 or 22 — and says, ‘So I hear you’re a wrestler?’

"The way he interacts with people, it comes off kind of abrasive. This is an altercation. He meant something more. So I go, ‘Yeah, I’m a wrestler,’ and he makes the statement, ‘Well, I bet I could take you down.’ Now it’s confrontational."

In dozens of interviews since the meeting, Jones swears he meant the comment as a joke, and he believes Cormier was offended because he didn’t know that the person standing in front of him was a two-time Olympian and former Olympic team captain. To hear Cormier tell it, Jones was just igniting the flames to what one day would become a very heated rivalry between two of the best fighters in the world.

Because both Cormier and Jones ended up fighting for the UFC and eventually competing at 205 pounds, they were bound to land in each other’s atmospheres again and again. Whether at press functions, backstage at events or just in passing, the tumultuous nature of that first meeting has repeated itself time after time whenever they’ve been near one another.

"We’ve run into each other a number of times and each one has been just as unpleasant as the time before," Cormier said. "We had an altercation at the World MMA Awards in 2011 and some words were said. I don’t remember exactly what, but every time we’ve been in the same area we just don’t seem to be getting along."

Will the Real Jon Jones Please Stand Up?

"No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true."

— Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘The Scarlet Letter’

As if there needed to be a clearer indication of the disdain Cormier and Jones hold for each other, it was evident on Aug. 4 when the  fighters shared the stage during a press event to promote UFC 178 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

It’s customary after almost every media event for the fighters to square off for photographers to snap pictures, and sometimes a few words are exchanged, but usually by the time things start to potentially get physical, UFC officials are in between the competitors making sure cooler heads prevail.

We’ve run into each other a number of times and each one has been just as unpleasant as the time before.

— Daniel Cormier 

It’s also customary for Jones, who’s not known for having heated staredowns with opponents, to conclude his usual pre-fight banter with the interviews and then step forward, put his head down and stare away without making much eye contact at all.

On this occasion, Jones looked like he was going for the same look as usual, but instead of bowing his head he opted to put it down on the forehead of Cormier, who stands about five inches shorter. Cormier took the move as Jones head-butting him, so he responded with a shove.

Before anyone could intervene — short of one poor UFC official who got tossed like a bean bag into the backdrop — Jones was piling forward at Cormier throwing punches and the men were engaged in a melee amid fans and media. The brawl lasted only a matter of seconds, but the replays still are going strong ahead of their Jan. 3 fight at UFC 182.

Minutes after the fight was broken up, Cormier and Jones sat down in different rooms and connected for a scheduled interview with ESPN. During the brief question-and-answer period, Jones apologized profusely for his part in the brawl while Cormier rolled his eyes and fired back at the champion for engaging in some rather boorish behavior before the cameras were rolling and then turning on the charm when the interview started.

It turned out the cameras were taping the entire time and the unaired segment eventually made its way to the Internet. 

Jones could be seen saying to Cormier, "Hey, p–sy, are you still there? I’m a professional, the fact that you’re a p–sy hasn’t changed." Cormier fired back, saying, "It’s unbelievable how fake you can really be. You’re the f–king scum of the Earth, you are a terrible human being, but you can sure turn it on."

It was clear Cormier was extremely heated as he and Jones exchanged barbs for a few minutes. When the tape became public, Jones took a mountain of criticism for doing exactly what Cormier accused him of: acting like a polite champion on air and then berating his opponent when the lights were supposed to be off.

"I’m not on a slander campaign to ruin Jon Jones publicly. That’s not what I set out to do," Cormier said in the post-brawl interview. "I think in the interview when you saw me rolling my eyes and laughing is because that’s who I am. Before we got on that interview we were yelling and screaming and cussing at each other. So I was so worked up, I couldn’t just turn it off. Is that because I don’t have good public relations training? Is it because I’m too emotional? But I don’t believe when you’re so emotional about something you shouldn’t be able to just turn it off.

"I understand what he was trying to do, and he was trying to put his best foot forward in the public, but after the things that we had said to each other over a matter of minutes before, it was just impossible for me to shut it off."

Cormier never has let up on Jones for putting on what he considers a fake persona to the public while being a completely different person behind closed doors. While the unaired interview certainly didn’t paint either fighter in the best light, Cormier doesn’t feel vindicated that what he’s been saying about Jones was proven to be true.

Much like Jones’ infamous Twitter exchanges with fighters like Tyson Griffin, or the times he’s been accused of attacking fans on other social platforms like Instagram before claiming that his account was hacked, Cormier believes the post-brawl interview was just the real Jon Jones behaving badly.

In a strange way, Cormier prefers that Jones to the other one he’s seen on TV so often. 

"It’s more about who he is as a person," Cormier said. "He’s a little different with how he interacts with people. You see some of the things he says and how he interacts with people on Twitter and Instagram. He gets hacked all the time.

Jones (left) and Cormier sparked a brawl during a press conference announcing their fight.

"Some of that stuff, I think it’s just who he is. I think we’re starting to see more of that on a regular basis because he’s getting more comfortable with himself and being just Jon in the public. I think when he does that, people will respect him more."

PLAY DAILY FANTASY

Cormier has continued to poke and prod the champion every chance he gets, but not, he says, because he’s trying to get a reaction. He’s just giving Jones his honest, unabashed opinion about their upcoming fight, and Cormier is getting what he believes are the real, unfiltered answers.

"Some may think his disdain for me brings out the worst in him, but I think it brings out the best in him because it just allows him to be himself," Cormier said. "He doesn’t have to hide behind anything in regards to me because the emotions are too real that he can’t even hide them. It’s allowing him to be who he is at his core, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people are jerks."

The Dogged Pursuit of Gold

When Cormier looks back at that initial meeting with Jones and the way Jones approached him with the remark about out-wrestling him, the former two-time Olympian took it as a slight and a rude comment to make to someone he’d never met before.

Another reason Cormier might have been a little more sensitive towards Jones’ statement is because of the work and dedication he put in to become an Olympic wrestler in the first place. 

At the Division-I level, Cormier competed at Oklahoma State University, one of the most storied programs in the history of collegiate wrestling. In his first year with the program, Cormier came just short of achieving the All-American status handed out to the top eight finishers at the NCAA tournament held at the end of the season.

Cormier’s Olympic dreams fell short of a gold medal.

In his senior campaign, Cormier made it all the way to the finals of the tournament, which assured his All-American status, but he still came up short of a championship when he lost for the sixth time that year to eventual Olympic gold medalist Cael Sanderson. While college championships are great, Cormier’s end goal was representing the United States in the Olympics.

In 2004, Cormier made the team at 96kg (211.6 pounds) after wrestling in college at lower weights, but he fell short of getting a medal when he lost to Khadjimourat Gatsalov in the semifinals and was unable to secure a bronze medal in the next round as well. Cormier returned to the team in 2008 and not only was he rated as the No. 2 overall wrestler in his field, but he also was named Olympic team captain, which was a huge honor.

But like a nightmare he couldn’t wake from, Cormier saw his Olympic Games end prematurely. He made weight on the day of his match but then his body almost completely shut down following a brutal cut in which he dropped too much weight too fast. Due to the extreme strain on his body, Olympic officials ruled him ineligible and instead of wrestling for his country, Cormier sat in a Beijing hospital room while the rest of the world watched the games without him in it.

As it turns out, the Olympics’ loss was mixed martial arts’ gain, because Cormier now can look back and know that as much as it hurts to not win a gold medal, he wouldn’t be here now if he had.

I’ve been good, but I’ve never been the absolute best. I’ve never been the champion and been able to say I’m the absolute best at something that I do. If you’re the UFC champion, you’re the best in the world at what you do and I get the opportunity to do that.

— Daniel Cormier

Cormier stated recently in an interview with FOX Sports 1’s UFC Tonight that a gold medal would have meant the end of his athletic career. Instead, when he didn’t take home the top prize in the Olympics, it fueled Cormier to push that much harder to win the gold he didn’t take in Greece or China.

"That would have been the culmination of my career," Cormier said. "I would have gotten to stand on top of the world. I would be known as the king. I would have been the champion and I would have found comfort in that. It’s something I worked my entire life to achieve and that would have been enough. What else would there have been worth chasing at that point in my life? 

"I would have been OK. I would have been coaching. I would have followed the path that most wrestlers follow. If I would have won that Olympic gold medal, I would have gotten a job somewhere coaching at a university and I would be totally content with my life."

Without a gold medal in hand, Cormier made the move into MMA, and now, as he stands one fight away from living his dream and becoming champion, that same feeling he had before the last Olympics starts to creep across his soul.

"By not accomplishing that, it gave me the heart and desire to chase something. To chase that high, to chase that goal of being the best in the world," Cormier said. "To stand up and say I’m the best at something. The best in the world at a sport.

"I’ve been good, but I’ve never been the absolute best. I’ve never been the champion and been able to say I’m the absolute best at something that I do. If you’re the UFC champion, you’re the best in the world at what you do and I get the opportunity to do that."

Six years after what amounted to be the worst moment in his athletic career, Cormier turned on the television and saw Jones as a guest on "The Jimmy Kimmel Show" to promote their previously scheduled fight at UFC 178. On the show, Jones mocked Cormier’s Olympic appearance and teased him for only coming in fourth during the 2004 games.

And another log was added to Cormier’s competitive fire.

An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object

One of the most intriguing aspects of this upcoming fight between Cormier and Jones is that for all intents and purposes, these competitors have gone 36 fights without a loss. Of course, Jones technically has a defeat due to disqualification in a fight in which he was mauling Matt Hamill before he used elbow strikes that were deemed illegal and the bout was stopped. Outside of that loss that nobody really considers a loss, Jones and Cormier both have gone through their MMA careers unscathed.

Well almost.

Jones had his toughest test just over a year ago when Alexander Gustafsson took him to the brink and back again over the course of five rounds. When the fight was over, Jones looked like he just crawled through razorblades, but he still held onto his UFC light heavyweight title after a war of attrition.

Some might look at that fight and see a few holes in Jones’ seemingly impervious style, but Cormier sees things much differently.

"Gustafsson took him to the edge and he just wasn’t able to push him off," Cormier said. "He took him to the edge, but I think we learned something about Jon in that fight. I think we learned that Jon is willing to go to hell and back to hold onto that title. I think that title is what defines him right now. It would have been easy for him to give up, but Alexander wasn’t able to push him over the edge."

Where Gustafsson failed, Cormier plans to succeed.

"When a guy feels invincible, when a guy feels he can’t be touched, when that armor has been chinked and it starts to break — they start to question things they never would have questioned," Cormier said. "Jon believes in himself so much and he does things that most people won’t do. He tries things that other people won’t try because he’s so confident in his ability.

"Once he loses and he realizes he’s not invincible and thinks, ‘These guys aren’t afraid of me,’ he won’t be that same guy that’s so confident right now. He has a right to be that confident, but so do I. I’ve won every single time I’ve stepped into that cage."

It’s easy to break down this fight in all the different areas of the game: striking, wrestling, grappling, reach, Octagon control, etc. What really might be the biggest factor for Cormier heading into his showdown with Jones is confidence.

Many fighters display a cocksure attitude going into a fight with Jones, but what they show inside the cage is a whole lot different than their interviews or staredowns before fists start flying. Once Jones settles into a rhythm, most of his opponents have failed to follow through on pre-fight promises.

I believe I’m tougher than him. I believe I want it more. I want to be the champion. I believe I’m better. For all that Jon Jones is, for all the greatness, I just believe I’m better.

— Daniel Cormier

The fact that Cormier has beaten, broken and defeated every man that’s stepped in his way since coming to MMA in 2009 gives him the confidence that he can do the same thing to Jones on Jan. 3. 

"I believe I can impose my will in this fight. I believe I can shut him down," Cormier said. "As he said last week in the interview, he has the ability to make guys that people think are fantastic look not so good. I feel like I can do the same thing. I feel like I can face a guy that people think is a world beater, a guy that looks like he cannot be beat, and I can beat him. I feel like I can exploit positions. I feel like I can control him.

"When he starts throwing everything that he has and (it’s) not working, and the more chances he takes, it’s just going to show me that he’s getting desperate. He’s going to try to get me out of there and he won’t be able to do it. He’ll start getting desperate, and that’s when I’ll know I’ve got him."

Cormier’s words might sound familiar to Jones because 21 past opponents have echoed similar phrases before facing him in the cage. Seven challengers have expressed the same ideas while trying to rip Jones’ UFC title away from him and all seven have fallen.

So what makes Cormier different? Why will he succeed where so many others have failed?

"I believe I’m tougher than him. I believe I want it more. I want to be the champion. I believe I’m better," Cormier said. "For all that Jon Jones is, for all the greatness, I just believe I’m better. I believe there’s just more fight in this dog than the one that’s in Albuquerque. There’s just more fight in me. I believe I want to win this fight more than he does.

"He’s made the walk seven times. This is just another title defense. This is everything to me. I have to win this fight."