Daniel Cormier knew more was at stake on Saturday then the UFC light heavyweight title.
The shadow of Jon Jones loomed over UFC 192 all of fight week in Houston, and Cormier didn't help matters by heaping scorn upon opponent Alexander Gustafsson for a less than perfect road to the belt.
All of that pressure culminated in excellence though, as Cormier defended his UFC strap in a grueling, five-round instant classic.
"Honestly, I just went to bed last night," Cormier reflected Monday on The MMA Hour. "My fiancé kept going, ‘Daniel, why don't you go to sleep, why don't you go to sleep?'
"I finally told her why I couldn't sleep and it was because it was just a lot of relief. There's so much relief in actually going out there and beating such a tough guy in Alexander and defending this championship. The pressure that I felt going into that fight, not only fighting in Houston, but under the circumstances in which I won the title -- if I would've lost that fight, my goodness, man, a lot of these people who badgered me on the internet, they would've had a field day with me."
While Cormier has been a target of derision for a vocal sect of the MMA fanbase -- those who believe Cormier's belt to be Jones' in waiting -- there was nothing to criticize about his championship performance at UFC 192.
Cormier said Monday that his eyes were still swollen shut and his injured foot was still double its normal size, the result of consuming a cavalcade of Swedish strikes en route to his victory. None of those strikes were bigger than a sequence late in the third round though, when in one motion Gustafsson ripped a knee into Cormier's jaw then downed him with a left hook.
It marked the second time ever Cormier has be dropped in his MMA career -- the first time coming back in May, courtesy of an Anthony Johnson atomic right hand -- and Cormier said it took all he had to keep his wits about him and fight to stay alive.
"The knee hurt very bad, because it was surprising," Cormier said. "A lot of times I was catching knees, I was kind of turning away from them and they were kind of grazing me. But that one landed right on the chin and I was really hurt.
"I got hurt against ‘Rumble' and I was able to get away from the follow-up shots, because I know those are the ones that really put you out. Well, when Alex hurt me with the knee, I didn't get away from the follow-up left hook and it landed, that's why I fell. And I was like, ‘Oh man, this is not good. What happened?' He came to finish me and I was able to grab onto his leg and grab onto a high-crotch and kind of get back to my feet immediately. So I was hurt, but I was still aware."
Cormier persevered to claim two of the three judges' scorecards in a fight that saw Cormier push the pace throughout while landing an impressive 219 strikes on Gustafsson. His hard work showed, too. A black-and-blue Gustafsson had to be transported to the hospital after the match, while Cormier cobbled himself together enough to hold court one last time at the event's post-fight press conference.
Having had a chance to reflect and watch a replay of the fight, Cormier downplayed his performance on Monday, saying only that he "fought okay" but was proud to have showcased a different side to his game rather than relying on his Olympic wrestling to carry him to victory.
"It's hard to really gauge stuff whenever you haven't seen it," Cormier said. "You guys are talking to us immediately after these fights and you don't know, you can't really gauge your performance right after you walk out of the Octagon. But as I'm going back and watching the fight, you know what, man? I'm pretty proud of what I did.
"I said I can beat Alexander Gustafsson in a stand-up fight and people laughed at me, but this was a stand-up fight and I won it. So it was very important for me to prove that when I'm getting ready to fight, you no longer have to worry about just me taking people down. I can strike, I can take people down, and I can submit people as I've shown."
As Cormier continues to win, his résumé only grows more more extraordinary. "DC" has now beaten eight fighters currently ranked in the top-15 from middleweight to heavyweight in the UFC's media-generated rankings. Even in his lone blemish against Jones, Cormier was competitive for three rounds before fading late against a man many believe to be the pound-for-pound best fighter on the planet.
Most impressive, though, is that Cormier has accomplished all of this despite coming to the game late in his athletic career. He now hopes his memorable performance against Gustafsson will go a long way in quieting some of the criticism he receives online.
"Hopefully," Cormier said. "But all I can do is just go out there and perform to my best. I look at my family, man, and the people around me that matter and they all care, and they go, ‘you know what, Daniel, we're very proud of you. You showed us exactly what you've been showing us your entire life,' a will and a desire to compete and to win that a lot of these people who don't know me really don't understand.
"So the people who matter, they know how much effort I've put into this. Man, I'm 17-1 and I've been the Strikeforce champion, the UFC champion, and I didn't start this thing until I was 30 years old. So I think I've been doing pretty well for myself."
As he did on fight night, Cormier also heaped praise onto Gustafsson, saying that despite a second title loss, the Swede deserves to be considered among the best fighters in the world for what he has done.
"I respect him 110-percent," Cormier said. "I think Alexander Gustafsson is phenomenal fighter. He's every bit as good as me and Jones, so if anybody questions the top three guys in the division, I think it's us three. 100-percent. Because that kid laid it on the line with both of us.
"If you match me with a lot of the guys in the top-10, they won't fight me like that, as I've shown. You've seen what Jones has done to the guys in the top-10. The common factor is Gustafsson, and both of us had five-round wars with him where it literally went down to the fifth round, with both guys who have held the belt last. So that kid really has nothing to be ashamed of, man. He fought his tail and he's such a stud."