We had talked about the contemptible weight watching that had deprived him of Louisiana home cooking for weeks in order to turn a heavyweight nowhere man into a light heavyweight championship contender. We had addressed the comedown to the core that had hit like the followup blow in a 1-2 combo when news broke last week that his top-shelf opponent had shattered on the floor and their fight was off. And, of course, we had gotten around to the life-affirming development that resuscitated his spot in Saturday night's UFC 170 co-main event, only with a new opponent.
That last part had brought into play a harder question that had to be asked. I was tiptoeing around it. On the other end of the phone connection, Daniel Cormier was sounding excited and positive and jovial. I knew that letting the air out of his balloon ran the risk of shutting him down into monosyllabic pablum, turning the rest of our interview into an icily fruitless exercise.
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I mean, this is a man whose mixed martial arts career has been an express train toward a championship, and now it seemed to me that the train needed to throttle down a bit as it navigated a curve in the track. Not everyone agrees with me on that. Some pretty smart people have insisted to me over the past week that, even with a change in opponent, a Cormier win on Saturday night should earn him a shot at the 205-pound belt. I don't see things that way. So I braced for some pushback as I forged ahead.
"A win over Rashad Evans, a former light heavyweight champion, would have thrust you right into a title shot," I began. "Now you're facing Patrick Cummins, who'll be making his UFC debut, and-- "
"It's going to take more now," Cormier piped right in. "It's going to take more. That's one thing we cannot ignore."
There was silence on the line. Cormier, the 34-year-old two-time Olympic wrestler with a 13-0 MMA record, had said what he'd had to say. And I was muted by the surprise of it.
How refreshing to hear a guy with significant stakes in the matter acknowledge that there's a meritocracy in this sport -- or at least that there should be. All too often, fighters argue their case for a shot at the brass-and-leather strap based on the flimsiest of credentials. They're emboldened to do so by UFC matchmaking that sets fuzzy standards, occasionally even awarding title bouts to fighters who haven't once competed in a weight class, all in the name of commerce.
For that reason, I had expected to have to challenge Cormier on the sticky issue of entitlement when we spoke earlier this week. But he went there all by himself. And while I was busy crossing a bunch of contentious questions off the mental list I'd prepared for our conversation, he decided he had a little more to say on the matter.
"With a win over Rashad Evans, there's a valid argument that I should be the next guy to challenge for the title," said Cormier. "But a win here doesn't really do that. It doesn't have the same effect. You beat Patrick Cummins, as I expect myself to do on Saturday night, yeah, there still is some work to be done. I believe I'm going to have to fight again in order to get that title shot I've been chasing for so long."
Actually, Cormier's pursuit of the gold has had its fits and starts and twists and turns before. Back in 2008, his return to the Olympics -- he'd finished fourth in freestyle wrestling in '04 -- brought him nothing but disappointment, as he experienced kidney failure while cutting weight and couldn't compete. The following year, Cormier made his professional MMA debut, hooking on with American Kickboxing Academy. There's no downside to being the primary training partner to Cain Velasquez, except for this: Velasquez is now entrenched as UFC heavyweight champion, and his good friend is not about to challenge him. So much for that goal of being heavyweight champ.
On to the light heavyweight division it would be. And Cormier didn't exactly dip his toe. In signing on to make his debut at the new weight a tussle with Evans, a former champion coming off a career-revitalizing dismantling of Chael Sonnen, Cormier was diving into the deep end. "Yeah, maybe it was a bit much, cutting to a new weight and taking on a former champion in my very first fight in the new division," Daniel acknowledged. "In a sense, maybe this will be better for me, to allow me to make the weight and get into the rankings at 205 pounds while competing against somebody who's not at such an elite level. Patrick Cummins is no Rashad Evans."
That's for sure. Rashad Evans was not working at a coffee shop last week. Rashad Evans is not a neophyte with but four professional fights. Rashad Evans would not be going into this fight as a 10-1 underdog.
Patrick Cummins has a story, one that even ties in with Cormier's, and the UFC is jumping through hoops to tell it. He was a two-time All-America wrestler at Penn State, and back when Cormier was preparing for the 2004 Olympics, Cummins was among the high-level wrestlers brought in to train with him. Cummins said last week that during one of those sessions he broke Cormier emotionally, made him cry. Cormier apparently doesn't appreciate the distorted reminder of a challenging time -- Cummins was just one in a long line of fresh wrestlers, he said, who were sent at him in waves during those harrowing practices -- and when they came face to face at a Thursday press conference, Cormier gave him a shove. All parties are trying to build this into a grudge match.
But here's what it really is. It is the UFC's attempt to salvage a co-main event of a card strategically scheduled for the Olympic fortnight with three undefeated Olympians at the top of the marquee -- a pair of Olympic medalists, Ronda Rousey (2008, bronze, judo) and Sara McMann (2004, silver, wrestling), fight in the main event. For Cormier, this fight represents a payday he thought he was losing -- no longer a proving ground at the top of the 205-pound division, but at least a chance to prove he can make the weight. And for Cummins, an Evans knee injury translates into his opportunity of a lifetime.
No one's a loser here. Fans might see this as an abominable mismatch, but it's not like they were going to get a different bout in its place. It's fine that this fight will be taking place ... as long as no one tries to build it into something it isn't.
Cummins has won all of his four pro MMA bouts, every one via first-round stoppage. But consider the competition. He last fought back in May for a Denver-based promotion called Sparta Combat League. His opponent was someone named Willie Smalls, who came into the bout on an eight-fight losing streak and with a 5-13-1 record. All told, Cummins's four opponents are 10-20-1.
Can he beat Daniel Cormier? Of course he can. On any given night ...
But let's be realistic. You know what's more likely than a Cormier loss? A title shot coming right off the mismatch.
Cormier understands how things work in the UFC. As much as he believes there'll be more miles to travel on the road to a championship even after Saturday night, he has seen fighters magically teleported to the top of the mountain. Daniel has sat on the UFC on Fox set alongside Chael Sonnen, who was given a light heavyweight title shot while coming off a loss and having not fought in the division in seven years. That's the most outlandish example, perhaps, but other fighters with resumes less sparkly than Cormier's have been handed opportunities to go for the gold.
"I've accepted that there still will be work to be done," said Cormier, "but yeah, with injuries you never know what could happen. Hopefully, I'll put on a great performance here. I'm disappointed that I won't have the opportunity to show what I can do against someone the caliber of Rashad Evans. But I'm a professional, and my job is to go in there and fight to the best of my ability, regardless of who the opponent is. My motivation comes not from the man across the cage. It comes from within myself, from a desire to do special things in this sport. I've got to get through that guy -- whoever it is -- to get myself closer to my goal of being UFC champion."