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Loss in final fight leaves crack in the door for Daniel Cormier return

SB Nation logo SB Nation 8/16/2020 Alexander K. Lee
Daniel Cormier et al. posing for the camera © Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Daniel Cormier sounded defeated.

We’d seen him falter before, but the tone Cormier took on Saturday night following a second loss at the hands of Miocic, this was something new.

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He wasn’t a sobbing, emotional wreck like he was when Jon Jones—his most hated rival—put him down with a head kick. He wasn’t cool and composed like he was when he lost the heavyweight title back to Miocic 12 months ago (and probably knew that all he’d have to do was ask to get another crack at Miocic).

No, the Cormier at UFC 252 was a resigned one. A Cormier who’d realized that he’d laid out the ideal exit strategy for himself only to see that plan collapse in its final stage. He was supposed to go out on top and pictured his name being placed in rarified air among the likes of sporting greats Michael Jordan and Peyton Manning, legendary athletes who closed their careers on the highest of highs. Hanging up the gloves after capturing another UFC title and winning a trilogy? It was going to be perfect.

Cormier started his swan song on the right note too, blasting Miocic with a punch at the end of round one that reminded everyone how Cormier won the first meeting. But over the course of 25 minutes, the champion adapted and figured Cormier out. He didn’t find a finish this time, instead gradually wearing Cormier down and suffocating him against the fence. If Cormier was to lose, it wasn’t even going to be in a blaze of glory; it would be in a battle of the wills, and not one that was overflowing with highlights.

No one will fault Cormier’s efforts in what was billed as his farewell fight. But the outcome and the lack of pomp and circumstance due to the lack of a live crowd as much as Miocic’s workmanlike win are sure to leave a bitter taste in his mouth. A star amateur wrestler long before he took his first pro fight in 2009, Cormier looked like an athlete of 41 years on Saturday. It was a sobering reality given how long he’s managed to fend off the advances of Father Time.

But is he really done? Despite all the pre-fight proclamations, Cormier’s actions following his supposed curtain call lacked a sense of finality. No gloves were removed and left in the cage. No sentimental statements were made during his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan. Cormier didn’t even technically utter the word “retirement,” simply telling Rogan that if another title opportunity isn’t in the cards for him then “that will be it for me.”

It was a grim scene, with Cormier keeping it together for the most part despite being forced to stare into the camera with one good eye and millions watching around the world. When he was KO’d by Jones, he couldn’t let the last image of his fighting career be that of himself in tears. It’s difficult to imagine him being at peace with this one.

Cormier was chasing one more shining moment, one that nobody could take away from him. He never won a championship in college, the consequences of wrestling in the same division as the nigh-unbeatable Cael Sanderson. His trips to the Olympics are more known for the myth-building footnotes they added to his legacy. In 2004, he finished fourth and missed out on collecting an Olympic medal, which wouldn’t have been the case if he’d had that same placing four years later when it was decided that going forward bronze medals would be awarded to both competitors who didn’t make the championship final. Cormier did qualify for the 2008 Olympics, but was cruelly robbed of the chance to compete due to kidney failure.

His MMA accomplishments are many, but even these come with caveats. He won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament in 2012, though his status as a reserve meant he missed out on potential opportunities to match up with the likes of Fedor Emelianenko or Fabricio Werdum. His reign as UFC light heavyweight champion came about when Jones removed himself from the equation with his outside-of-the-cage infractions, and even his indisputable heavyweight championship triumph over Miocic will now be viewed less favorably through the lens of the trilogy as a whole.

a man standing in front of a crowd: Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic trade punches in the main event of UFC 252 on Saturday in Las Vegas © Zuffa LLC Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic trade punches in the main event of UFC 252 on Saturday in Las Vegas

This is not to call Cormier’s career a tragedy. He’s had athletic success that all but a select few can dream of achieving. However, he’s shown that he’s determined to go out on his own terms and I’m not sure if Saturday’s fight satisfied those terms. Knowing what a competitor Cormier is, can he really end his illustrious career on a loss, even if another fight will do little to affect his standing as one of the pound-for-pound greatest mixed martial artists in history either way?

Nobody can make that decision for Cormier. More than the money, more than the sheer love of the game, Cormier loves to win and he’s done that countless times. He just couldn’t pull out one more crucial and deeply personal victory. This loss will linger.

MMA retirements are a joke, one in which the punchline increasingly comes at the expense of the fighters themselves, so seeing Cormier walk back his retirement talk would cause only the slightest surprise. He’s done it all in combat sports and has nothing to prove to anyone except himself; unfortunately, that’s likely the person who most wants to see Cormier fight one more time in search of that perfect ending.

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