Daniel Cormier’s pursuit of perfection portends collision course with Jon Jones
To get to the root of Daniel Cormier’s hyper-competitiveness, you have to go back in time to 1995, when he was 16 years old and chosen to represent the U.S. Cadet world team. Here he was for the first time on an airplane, and he was heading to Budapest, Hungary, meeting other kids from all around the United States, and trading stories and backgrounds.
Earlier in the year, Cormier had proudly won a Louisiana state title as a sophomore at Northside High School. Yet when he relayed the information to his new teammates, they were hardly impressed.
"The kids would make fun of me, like, ‘Oh, you’re a state champion? Great. But who wrestles in Louisiana?’" Cormier told FOX Sports. "And that was true. So then it became, I had to do better than these guys because they said I couldn’t."
By the time the group was ready to return home, he had made his point as the only American to medal, capturing bronze.
While before that trip, he was just another teenager enjoying sports, something about it was transformative. Suddenly, whether he was playing video games or wrestling, he had to be winning, to be proving something.
It’s a trait that has never really left him. It carried him through the rest of high school where he was a three-time state champ, through college as an All-American, and through high-level international competition, where he was a two-time Olympian.
It means something to me to be able to say, ‘I haven’t lost a round in my fighting career.’ That means something to me. Not only being undefeated. I’m a competitor. I want to win every aspect of every fight.
Nearly two decades later, he is still chasing perfection. The UFC’s No. 4-ranked light-heavyweight, Cormier has so far found it in mixed martial arts in a way that few have. In a sport with a steep learning curve and an infinite number of ways to lose, he’s undefeated after 14 fights. But that’s shiny, surface stuff. It matters to Cormier, of course, but just as important is how he arrives at victory.
It’s not just that he’s unbeaten; it’s that he’s never lost a round.
In parts of 28 professional rounds, Cormier hasn’t dropped a single one. In fact, only one fighter — Josh Barnett — has managed to even dent the scorecards against him, taking the fifth on a single judge’s card when they fought in May 2012.
Everyone else has been totally and hopelessly shutout.
"I just love to compete," Cormier said. "It means something to me to be able to say, ‘I haven’t lost a round in my fighting career.’ That means something to me. Not only being undefeated. I’m a competitor. I want to win every aspect of every fight. I want to win at the press conference. If we’re doing a staredown, I want to look at him in the eyes longer than he looks at me. I want to win every single facet of the fight from the moment it’s announced until we’re done in the cage."
It’s exactly that type of ambition that sent him packing for the light-heavyweight division and gunning for the sport’s current pound-for-pound king, champion Jon Jones.
Cormier has openly admitted that he’s rooting for Jones to win his fight against Alexander Gustafsson and retain the championship until the UFC matches them up. A win over Dan Henderson at UFC 173 could put him in prime position for the next contender slot.
"I would like to be the guy to knock him off," he said. "I would like that. I believe it means more to beat Jon Jones. He’s such a dominant champion. He’s got the most title defenses, and he’s the most dominant champ in the history of the division. Does it have to be him? No. I want to be champ. It doesn’t have to be Jones but would it mean more to become the champ by beating Jon Jones? Yes. It’s like Chris Weidman. Look at what it did for Chris Weidman beating Anderson Silva. It would have been different if he had beaten Vitor Belfort."
But first things first.
Even at 43 years old, Henderson is nobody’s pushover, as Mauricio "Shogun" Rua knows all too well. In a rematch of their 2011 classic, Rua seemed on the way to revenge, cruising into the third round in control until Henderson caught him with a crushing right hook that ended the night with a quickness.
Still, there are signs that the ol’ gunslinger is fading. He lost both of the first two rounds against Rua, and prior to that, he’d suffered through the first three-fight losing streak of his 17-year career. Even more troubling? The square jaw, once seemingly impervious to pain, has been dinged of late. Both Rua and Belfort dropped him twice apiece, and Henderson is taking this fight only two months after his last.
"I do believe that could work in my favor," Cormier said. "To give Dan a compliment but also to almost insult him at the same time, he’s so knuckleheaded that he doesn’t know when he’s out of a fight. When you talk about Dan Henderson’s chin, it’s legendary. But back in the day he never fell down. He would take those shots and he wouldn’t fall. Now he’s getting dropped a lot. It’s the wear and tear of a really long career. He’s fought more than 40 times, and I think he might have needed more time to recover. I think your chin has an expiration date on it. It just happens. And I think it works to my advantage he’s back in the cage in less than two months. "
Meanwhile, Cormier had an extra month with which to prepare, and that while coming off a fight that took all of 79 seconds. As a result of this combination of health and a focused camp, he says that he’s reached that level of peak performance that athletes are always chasing but rarely reach. It’s a feeling that he’s only experienced a couple of times directly prior to a bout.
If he beats Henderson to get to 15-0, he certainly feels as if he’s earned the top contender ranking. In some ways, he feels he already has — "I believe that anyone else with my resume would have had a title shot by now," he said — but his hyper-competitiveness being what it is, of course he would feel that way.
MMA only has Cormier because of his disappointments in the Olympics. He said if he had won a medal in 2008, he probably would have taken a coaching job somewhere and done that for the rest of his life. But his itch for competition and victory hadn’t been fully scratched. Now at 35, here he is maybe one win away from the ultimate prize in the sport.
"It’s crazy how things work," he said. "Things happen for a reason. I had to go through that extreme valley to come out on the opposite side of my athletics career which is mixed martial arts."