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Daniel Cormier is the kind of champion that makes you read between the lines

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If there’s a temptation to turn fighters into pieces on a chess board after a big bout — to ask them “who’s next” while they’re still bleeding and broken, at the same time tamping dirt on the vanquished — Daniel Cormier is the rare figure that is always there to remind everyone of a simple fact: Namely, that he’s human. He did it again on Saturday night in Boston after defeating Volkan Oezdemir in the co-main event at UFC 220. When the idea of fighting Stipe Miocic next for the heavyweight title was brought up, an intoxicating new idea floated by UFC president Dana White moments after both retained their respective titles, Cormier talked about getting back to his California cul-de-sac where he can mow his lawn, like your average, everyday Daniel.

In his biggest moments, Cormier has the demeanor of an old friend you bump into at the grocery store.

He gives you little details about his life and the way he’s come to appreciate things. He talks about his children, and his coaches driving five hours a day to train him. He could just as easily talk about the gardenias that are coming up, or the escalating price of gas — he’s just that conversational. He’s not the superhuman that we necessarily desire in a light heavyweight champion. What Cormier is, is superbly human. He’s red-blooded and concerned, a father who happens to fight, a fighter who happens to champion others. If there’s something he does as sublime as snap another man’s will in half, it’s to communicate the essences of his journey. He’s so down to earth we don’t know what to think of him.

Maybe it’s because of his many run-ins with Jon Jones, but it’s weird, you know? In a game of chest-smiting theatrics, Cormier is unique for being so completely normal. He’s polarizingly normal, so relatable as to become unknowable — one might even say egoless, if one didn’t know better. Because he’s decidedly not normal. Everything he does in the cage is exceptional. He is a psychotically driven athlete who is sneakily one of the best fighters in MMA history, who solves reach and height discrepancies and exploits fighter tells. When he nearly choked Oezdemir at the end of the first round, he knew getting the fight back to the ground was the most practical path to victory. Practical and Cormier are bedfellows.

Two minutes later, after a botched single leg that he brilliantly turned into a trip, he was pounding on Oezdemir in a crucifix position. The fans in Boston cheered as the referee intervened, just as many others across the country cheered. What were they cheering? The man? The fighter? Or the fact that we can no longer distinguish?

“It didn’t surprise me [to get those cheers] because I’ve seen a little bit of a shift since the last fight in the level of acceptance that I’ve gotten from the fans,” he said at the post-fight press conference. “Because, although you’ll have some people sprinkled in there that still say stuff that’s negative and kind of look past the fact that I may not have gotten a fair shake on a number of occasions, but the vast majority of people are just kind of like, man this guy’s had some rough luck. Just as he seems to have gotten past this black cloud in his career, that happened.

“I think at its core people are still good, and I think they may sympathize with me a little bit. I think that’s kind of why I got the cheers, and I really did enjoy and appreciate it.”

Perhaps what stands out most about Cormier is his absolute sincerity. At 38 years old, he doesn’t need to bullshit anybody. He says by the time he’s 40, he’ll be through fighting. It will be a shame when he does go, because no other fighter takes his audience with him to the emotional depths of the fight game. Nobody is as articulate, or as willing. He can sing of triumph through a sprig of blood, and make his every punch vicarious. Even the loss against Jones back in July, when he cried on the microphone after being knocked out, became one of the great humanizing moments in the sport.

The father, the fighter, the husband, the open book. He said rebounding in his return fight with Oezdemir was a thing he couldn’t help but savor.

“If not for anything else, to be able to look at my mom and not see tears in her eyes,” he said, in the middle of the night at the TD Garden. “To look at my wife and not see a look of confusion. Or wake up on Sunday morning, and hear my son, who came to the fight for the first time [tonight]…”

And there was Cormier, giving himself over to reflection.

“…you know, the whole Jones thing, it sucked. I lost a fight and I got beat. I got my ass kicked. And I cried in the Octagon. I cried before I went to bed. But you know when I cried the most? It was Sunday morning when I was laying on the couch and the kids are laying in bed with their mom, and my boy rolls over and he taps his mom, because every time he’d never go to the fights he wanted to know if his dad had won.

“And you know what I heard at 7:30 in the morning in Anaheim? He tapped his mom and he goes, mom did dad win? And she said no, he didn’t win this time. And I was laying there, and I could hear him. I had my back to him, and I was crying. And not long after, I feel my boy behind me hugging me, you know? That was the hurtful thing. So for him to get to experience the other side of it was big for me.”

Many fighters can talk to you about the X’s and O’s of fighting. Not many can make you understand Sunday morning. Cormier can. And he does. He’s the whole story. He’s the narrative, the clear-headed sobriety, the dancehall at daybreak. Is it off-putting that he’s a real life human being who reminds you of it every time the hysteria of the fight game reaches a pitch?

That’s who he is. Love him or hate him, respect him for his gifts and his willingness to tie it all together. Does he want Miocic?

“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said, remembering his old friend Cain Velasquez. “It’s especially hard for me now because Cain’s in the gym more. Cain’s in the gym now getting back prepared to do what he does best. So, I draw so much for him. Cain had a baby about a month ago and he’s here with me right now. I didn’t even know. I didn’t even bother asking him if he was coming to the fight because I didn’t know if it was possible because of the new baby. But, Wednesday night, Cain comes into the room with his bags.

“He’s there, and I draw inspiration from him. And if he’s getting prepared to get that belt back I have nothing for that division. It will never change.”

Standing there in Boston, just six hours before he was to board a flight to go back home after defending his title, there was a bittersweet feel to the room. The open book will one day close, but at least people are reading Daniel Cormier better.

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