In most fights, the stakes are usually the highest for a challenger, who can never be certain another chance at the belt will come along.
But in this fight, it’s do-or-die for the champion.
Everything Daniel Cormier has worked for, all that he stands for, a lifetime of athletic achievement, is at stake on Saturday when he defends his light heavyweight crown in the main event of a stacked UFC 214 card against bitter rival Jon Jones at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California.
Cormier grew up amid modest circumstances in Louisiana, but has become rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams, thanks to his drive and athletic abilities. Not only has he held the UFC light heavyweight championship for more than two years, he’s also one of the elite mixed martial arts fighters in the world and among the greatest of all-time.
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He’s also a two-time member of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team and was its captain in 2008. He parlayed his congenial nature, his deep understanding of MMA and his ability to explain complex concepts simply and quickly into a job as the lead analyst at Fox Sports. He has set a standard in that role for the dozens of his peers who have followed him.
Life couldn’t be much better for Cormier, who is recently married, has two beautiful children and a flawless reputation.
But … and there’s always a but … it’s obvious that everything that Cormier has worked for is at risk on Saturday when he takes on Jones, his bitter rival and a man most experts believe is the greatest MMA fighter of all time.
Jones is 30 and had numerous missteps that have cost him large swaths of his career, but he was so remarkably successful at such a young age, he doesn’t need to win one more fight for his reputation as a star among stars to be fully cemented.
The bitter and personal rivalry between them goes back seven years, to another occasion when the UFC staged a card at the Honda Center. UFC 121 was headlined by a heavyweight championship match between Brock Lesnar and Cain Velasquez.
Jones approached Cormier at the event, and somehow it didn’t go well. Each man has a different explanation of what happened, and surely the truth is somewhere in the middle.
But since that day, the animosity and the intensity between the two has only grown.
Only a few months later, Jones mauled Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to win the UFC title, heading out on an unparalleled run of success which established him as the greatest fighter of the UFC’s first quarter century.
Someone, someday, will surpass him, because they always do. But despite his career self-immolation, Jones’ place in the history books is pretty secure.
Cormier, though, isn’t there yet. Without a win over Jones, which potentially set up a lucrative rubber match, he’ll have to accept that there was never a true rivalry.
If Cormier, at the peak of his powers and coming off a dismantling of power-punching Anthony Johnson, can’t defeat Jones, then it made their personal animus more bark than bite.
Jones has found a way to gnaw at Cormier, to put him on edge. Though Cormier is very clearly the best light heavyweight other than Jones, Jones couldn’t resist a dig at him when asked on a conference call if Cormier was his greatest antagonist.
“I would say outside of the Octagon, yes, because of all the back and forth and all the verbal,” Jones said. “But inside of the Octagon it would have to be Alexander Gustafsson. He came the closest to putting me in a spot where I felt, like, ‘[Hey], I’m digging deep right now. I could be losing this.’ With Daniel Cormier, with Rashad Evans, with anybody else that I beat by unanimous decision, I never felt like I was in danger or I had to dig deeper or pull out my reserve.
“At one point in the first fight [with Cormier] I smiled and looked up at the camera. I was like, ‘This is great.’ It was fun. It was high pace. He pushed forward and moved forward but at no point did I get rocked or wowed or hurt or he made me bleed or anything. I had my whereabouts at the end of the fight. I never put my hands up and he thought the fight was over and he quit, like he normally does and then I slapped him two more times and gave him a DX ‘suck-it’ sign. It was a fun fight. This fight’s going to be even more fun. He’s two years older.”
Cormier insisted he was over the back-and-forth taunting, but he couldn’t resist jumping in to take a dig at Jones. And he was going at Jones during Wednesday’s news conference, as well.
It was an acknowledgement, without saying it in as many words, that Jones is the one mountain in MMA he still must climb.
“You know, at this point I’m not interested in arguing and fighting with this guy anymore,” Cormier said in response to Jones’ not-so-subtle jabs. “I’m not interested in the back and forth. I’m not interested in all that stuff. My goal is to get into the Octagon on Saturday. If all the things that he is saying right now are true, then great. If you feel as though he never had any danger in the first fight, then great. If he feels my age will be the determining factor in this fight, then great. These are all things that I can look forward to proving him wrong on Saturday.
“The guy has no idea what he’s in for but I’m going to sit back here, let him talk, do his job of selling the fight and I’ll go collect my check and defend my belt on Saturday.”
Cormier’s record is impeccable. He was an elite heavyweight, won Strikeforce’s heavyweight grand prix, and probably would have won the UFC heavyweight title at some point if Velasquez, his good friend and training partner, weren’t also in the division.
Cormier has beaten Johnson, whom Jones has never faced, twice by submission. He, too, won a brutal contest over Gustafsson, just as Jones did. He thrashed Anderson Silva when Silva stepped in to replace Jones at UFC 200. He defeated Josh Barnett in Strikeforce in a manner that no one to that point in Barnett’s outstanding career, including a prime Fedor Emelianenko, had done.
If Cormier reverses the outcome of UFC 182 and defeats Jones on Saturday, he may ultimately go down as the greatest MMA fighter of his time. He was beaten badly in that first fight, though he’s clearly improved in his four fights since.
This, though, is the fight of his life. He needs it to get what he craves, the respect of the world and the recognition as the best.
For all the statistics Peyton Manning piled up, rest assured he’d swap his stats and his two Super Bowl rings for the five rings that Tom Brady has earned.
That is Cormier’s plight. As it stands now, he’s Manning and desperately wants to be Brady.
More UFC 214 coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Best trash talk exchanges between Cormier and Jones
• Why Tyron Woodley is ‘The Rock’ of the UFC
• Why Jones-Cormier II won’t be the best fight at UFC 214
• Cyborg’s long, emotional journey to UFC 214