Perhaps it speaks indirectly of Daniel Cormier’s dominance that we tend to dismiss each of his conquests. Dan Henderson, whom he obliterated on Saturday at UFC 173, was as small in stature as he was long in the tooth. Roy Nelson, too round and predictable. Frank Mir, too blowhard and bygone. Josh Barnett, that skull-collecting marauder with Hell’s flames coming off his fingertips, well…he was as inflated with lore as the death metal he personifies.
And so on.
For whatever reason, Cormier’s inroads to our belief system is full of detours. The subtext in cases like his are obvious: We sort of expect him to run through everybody. Our frustration is we can’t find the man that can challenge him. It’s all just a bunch of backhanded flattery, this urge to reduce what he's doing -- it says his foes must come from the discount rack because, you know...he makes them look cheap. Now we’re to the point where the guy that would give him a run for his money, Jon Jones, could be next.
And of course, wouldn’t you know that comes with a fat maybe. It depends on if "DC" wants to wait until late-2014, or possibly early 2015, to find out. Jones has to fight Alexander Gustafsson in late August (if Jones finds that schedule agreeable). He could lose, setting up a trilogy scenario which Jones could demand given his light heavyweight title tenure. People could postpone with injures. As Cormier well knows, strange things happen.
So what should he do? Roll the dice and wait it out? Fight somebody like Rashad Evans, whom he was supposed to meet in February, in the meantime? Cormier said he wants to wait for his shot at the belt, but with him things are rarely so cut and dry.
When you think about it, nothing to do with Cormier’s MMA career has been normal, beginning with his late age of entry. Cormier is now 35 years old. He was 30 when he first took off his shoes in Bixby, Oklahoma -- just 80 miles from Stillwater, where he wrestled at Oklahoma State -- to fight Gary Frazier. He beat him via punches. His fifth fight, against Jason Riley, was in Strikeforce, which was only just beginning to bust the seams of its regional confines. His sixth came against Soa "The Hulk" Palelei, who today is starting to find his stride in the UFC.
Back then, though, we didn’t think much of it.
By the time Cormier fought Jeff Monson in the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix reserve bout in 2011, there was decent-to-sincere intrigue as to how far he might go. He was, in essence, a 32-year old prospect because of his Olympic background. Plenty of the press swung to the anarchist for that one, though, as Monson had suddenly emerged as a figure of endearment (which followed him all the way to Russia, where he showed up in Samaritan form to get Fedor Emelianenko off the skids).
Cormier earned a three-round decision, which didn’t raise our collective eyebrows much. It was nothing spectacular.
Then, almost out of nowhere, it started getting spectacular. When Alistair Overeem backed out of the grand prix, Cormier, sitting three deep in the alternative pool, found his way in. He sprang into "real talk" against Antonio Silva in the semifinals, dropping "Bigfoot" multiple times with punches in the first and only round. That was when we really saw him use his hands. That’s when we realized his everyman’s physique was deceiving, and that for a heavy, immovable object, he was sure as hell light on his feet.
Since he beat Barnett to win that tournament eight months later, we’ve known he’s a monster that’ll crash through walls. But he’s been the kind of monster with no clear path to anything. As one of the nicest guy’s in the fight game -- a pro’s pro who keeps it all real business casual -- he’s been straying off in different directions, beating people up sort of arbitrarily. He was supposed to fight Frank Mir on the last Strikeforce show, but when Mir got hurt ended up fighting somebody named Dion Staring. That kept him busy, at least, but didn’t propel him towards much.
He ended up debuting in the Octagon against Mir, making his first movements towards Junior dos Santos, who was at the time the heavyweight champion. The elephant in the room, though, happened to be the elephant in his gym at AKA, Cain Velasquez, who was trying to win back that belt against JDS first. When he did, Cormier, not wanting to challenge Velasquez, was forced to try salad. He took out Roy Nelson (the same night Velasquez beat JDS) before bolting the heavyweight division, but by that point he was already whittling himself down as a precaution. And he was already feuding with Jon Jones, whom he feels he can roughhouse with impunity.
By now you know what happened next. Cormier had Evans lined up for UFC 170 in February for his light heavyweight debut, but when Evans tore his ACL he ended up fighting the Patrick Cummins -- the game’s most famous coffeehouse barista. That advanced him exactly nowhere, but got him paid.
Still, people wanted to see him fight "a somebody" before deciding whether he was ready for a title shot.
That brought us to Saturday in Las Vegas for his co-main event bout with Dan Henderson, which was being billed (abstractly) as a No. 1 contender fight. What he did to Henderson was cruel and unusual. It was a manhandling like you rarely see at this level in MMA. He looted Henderson for two full rounds before grabbing his neck and leaving unconscious in the gutter in the third. The first words out of his mouth afterwards were directed at Jones, whom he said he could take down 100 times if he wanted to (and at the moment, that seemed totally feasible). He wants a title shot. No more filler fights that leave us griping at the level of competition -- griping at unverifiable greatness.
Jones is who he wants to fight next. Can’t blame him for waiting, either, so long as everything works out. Not just because it’s a title, but because Cormier, who’s been turned in so many directions in his five years in MMA, can finally say he’s arrived.