BOSTON — Daniel Cormier was squinting as he tried to listen to the questions being thrown at him at UFC 220 media day Thursday at Fenway Park before he briefly paused and positioned someone to stand in front of the spotlight that had been piercing his eyes.
It was perhaps the first time, it could be argued, that any spotlight for Saturday’s UFC 220 pay-per-view was directed in Cormier’s direction.
Nearly six months after his last fight in the UFC — a knockout loss to Jon Jones at UFC 214 which was later ruled a no-contest when Jones tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug — Cormier will step back into the Octagon as the UFC light heavyweight champion.
But for the first time in about three years, Cormier is not in the main event going into fight week. UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic and No. 1 contender Francis Ngannou will headline the show at TD Garden and were seated in the middle of media day with camera crews surrounding them. Cormier was off to the side, holding court, content with his place on the card and in his career.
“I don’t mind being the co-main event at all,” Cormier said. “I’ve headlined so many UFC events and sold over 2.5 million pay-per-views. I’m fine. I’m fine with that. I know what my worth is to this company so I don’t need to be on top of the marquee anymore. It’s been there a number of times.”
When Cormier was handed his UFC light heavyweight championship for Thursday’s faceoff against Volkan Oezdemir he didn’t raise the belt or drape it over his shoulder as he normally would — he dropped it below his waist as if he was hiding it from photographers. Cormier is the champion on Saturday but he won’t feel like one again until his most recent match ends with him raising his arms.
“It’s an odd circumstance that I can’t really control,” Cormier said of still being the champion six months after his loss to Jones was changed to a no-contest. “I feel like this is the first ‘Rumble’ Johnson fight all over again, where Jon did what he did and got himself into some trouble and the belt was up for grabs. I know I’m the champ because I definitely want those pay-per-view points in my fight purse as the champion, but I feel like I’m fighting for a vacant title a little bit. I’m going to win and feel better about it on Saturday.”
This isn’t the first time that Cormier’s possession of the UFC light heavyweight championship feels unusual, if not perhaps undeserved in the eyes of some, and each time it’s because of a Jones transgression. The history of Cormier’s career is impossible to write without devoting a good portion of the chapters to Jones, and Cormier knows that. That is why Cormier is fine answering question about an “ineligible fighter” he last fought six months ago and will never fight again.
“It’s part of my journey. It’s part of my story,” Cormier said. “My career is very closely tied to Jones. It will never change, but I’m still here. I’m still doing this. That’s what matters. The most important thing is being here and being able to fight for this and I’m here doing that. I’ll talk about him as you ask, but the reality is I’m the one that’s here competing.”
Cormier suffered the first and only official loss of his career the first time he tried to take the UFC light heavyweight championship from Jones at UFC 182 three years ago. Three days later it was announced that Jones had tested positive for benzoylecgonine, the primary metabolite for cocaine. Jones was later stripped of the belt and suspended from the UFC indefinitely in connection with a hit-and-run accident.
Cormier won the vacated title against Johnson at UFC 187 and successfully defended it against Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 192 before his much-anticipated rematch with Jones at UFC 200. But three days before the fight, Jones was pulled by the United States Anti-Doping Agency due to a violation and was suspended for one year. Cormier took on and defeated Anderson Silva on short notice and went on to successfully defend his title against Johnson, who retired in the Octagon after submitting to a rear-naked choke.
When Jones and Cormier finally met again at UFC 214 last year, Jones defeated Cormier — but it was later announced Jones had tested positive for Turinabol, an anabolic steroid, before the fight. Jones was again stripped of the title and suspended, and Cormier was again the champion — albeit a reluctant one with a 6-foot-4, 205-pound asterisk continually hovering over his title reign.
“I just don’t understand why he did what he did in our fights,” Cormier said. “At UFC 182 there was the cocaine and the odd levels of testosterone. At UFC 200 there was the failed drug test and at UFC 214 there was the failed drug test. Every time we’ve fought there’s been something. It sucks, but I can’t do anything about that. I had to let it go. I had to move past it. Something made him do the things that he did. I don’t know what it is. All I can do is move on and do the things I’ve been doing.”
It would be logical to assume most fans would give Cormier, a former Olympic wrestler, the benefit of the doubt for being a model champion — one who didn’t resort to performance-enhancing drugs and take time off for his transgressions. Instead, he is the one booed and vilified by many fans as a “paper champion.” It is seemingly as ridiculous as someone booing Carl Lewis for accepting a gold medal after Ben Johnson failed a drug test at the 1988 Summer Olympics, but that’s Cormier’s reality over the past three years.
“There are people that still support their teams no matter what they do,” Cormier said. “So you choose who you support. I can’t control that. They respect [Jones’] skill level, I guess, so everything else doesn’t matter.
“For a while they were universally nice to me, but people change. As times change, people start to expect more and different things from individuals and at a certain point they decided that they wanted me to be something that I’m not, and I’m just going to be true to myself. I’ve stayed the course. I’ve been who I am, so when they decided they didn’t like who I am, that was when they started to boo me, but I don’t care too much about that.”
Cormier, who will turn 39 in March, said he will not fight when he hits 40. Saturday’s fight against Oezdemir will essentially kick off what will be a 14-month retirement tour; Cormier said he expects to fight at least three more times before officially leaving the Octagon for good.
“It’s all about competition for me,” Cormier said. “My goals are now tied to being competitive and being successful. They’re not tied to any person anymore. I’m done with that. I’m done with having so much of my approach to everything being tied to one individual. It’s over.”
Oezdemir, who made his UFC debut last year, isn’t the kind of opponent who will make fans forget about Jones. There’s no one out there who could do that. But he’s the No. 1 contender to the title and if Cormier is to maintain that he’s the best “eligible” light heavyweight on the planet, he can’t afford to follow his last performance against Jones with an upset loss to Oezdemir.
“I’m supposed to beat this guy,” Cormier said. “I’ve stood in the Octagon across from Jones, [Anderson] Silva, [Dan] Henderson, Gustafsson, Johnson, [Josh] Barnett, “Big Foot” Silva right after he beat Fedor [Emelianenko]. I mean, I’ve stood there against some of the best guys in the world. The best guy he’s beaten is Jimi Manuwa. I’m supposed to win this fight. With that comes some pressure, but I embrace it.”
As Cormier heads into the twilight of his career, he is beginning to think about his lasting legacy. Not so much with fickle fight fans who may never recognize his accomplishments, but with his family and especially his 6-year-old son, Daniel Jr., and 5-year-old daughter Marquita, who will likely look up some of his old fights long after he has retired.
“I want to be remembered as a guy that gave all I had,” Cormier said. “I was never the biggest guy in any weight class I was in and I just did my best. I fight hard and was tough and was successful. My legacy is the most important thing. What I leave behind for my family and my kids to look back on and go, ‘Wow, my dad or my uncle was a bad-ass. He really did his thing when he went to that Octagon.’ That’s what matters to me.”