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Fortunes changed for five at UFC 226

Daniel Cormier’s athletic career narrative changed forever on Saturday at UFC 226.

Daniel Cormier
Daniel Cormier made history at UFC 226.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Since the age of 16, Daniel Cormier has chased a dream of being the best in the world.

Over the last 23 years, he has compiled one of the more amazing individual sports resumes. While there are dominant athletes in a lot of individual sports, few have that kind of longevity at the top in two different, very physical sports. Cormier was third in the world championships in his age group in Greco-Roman wrestling at 16, and placed highly in big tournaments and international competitions for years, including a fourth-place finish in the 2004 Olympics, before leaving wrestling at the age of 29.

But through all of his successes and longevity as one of the best in the world in wrestling, his career was always defined by coming up short of his goal of being the best in the world.

In MMA, the narrative has been the same since Jan. 3, 2015, when he lost to Jon Jones. It didn’t matter that when Jones was subsequently suspended, Cormier won the light heavyweight title, which he’s now held for three years. In the eyes of the public, he never beat Jones. Then Jones came back and knocked him out and won the title, only to have the result overturned when Jones tested positive for steroids.

In the record books, he didn’t lose that fight. But the public still saw him knocked out.

All of that is now a moot point.

Cormier moved up to heavyweight and knocked out Stipe Miocic in the first round on Saturday at UFC 226. One week ago, Miocic was being called the greatest heavyweight in UFC history. At the age of 39, Cormier — who never trained striking until the age of 30 — outstruck a taller fighter who had been on a tear as a knockout artist himself. There is no more asterisk, and no more Jon Jones as his constant shadow. On this day, “DC” is deserving of the title of best heavyweight in the world.

Dave Doyle earlier this week wrote about Cormier’s claim to being something even bigger: The greatest of all-time.

That’s a whole different pill to swallow. For years, that argument came down to four men: Anderson Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, Jon Jones, and Georges St-Pierre. But Silva and Jones each failed more than one drug test. Perhaps you could let one test failure slide in an argument over the best ever. But when it’s two, it really should disqualify you from those type of discussions.

St-Pierre was an amazing fighter in his prime. He fought a generally higher caliber of competition and was at the top for a longer period of time. He also, like Cormier, moved up a weight division and won the title. But while the welterweight St-Pierre would have to be viewed as better than the light heavyweight Cormier, as far as being at the top in two weight classes, Cormier clearly wins that one. St-Pierre did win a second championship, and his opponent in that fight, Michael Bisping, may have been a better known star than Miocic, but Bisping was nowhere near the level of dominant champion Miocic was.

St-Pierre also got started in the sport at a younger age, but left at 32. Even though heavyweights do tend to be able to do well at an older age, it is far more impressive to be beating top guys from 34 to 39 than from 24 to 32. St-Pierre also didn’t consistently face fighters who had huge reach advantages.

In that sense, what Cormier did, given his tools, age and late start, was far more impressive than what St-Pierre did. Another feather in his cap is he held two weight division championships at the same time. St-Pierre was offered a similar opportunity for a fight with Anderson Silva, where he would have been giving up substantial size and reach, and never took it. Cormier, with similar disadvantages, did take it.

But due to the longevity issue, and just how dominant St-Pierre was, it is hard to rank Cormier above him as the greatest of all-time above him.

Emelianenko had a dominant 10-year run, but he never faced the level of competition on a regular basis that either St-Pierre or Cormier was facing in the current era. A short, stocky heavyweight, Emelianenko was no longer a top fighter by the age of 33. His long run on top is impressive in the sense he fought 33 times at one point without what one would call a legitimate loss. Still, Cormier started older, beat better fighters and only lost once in 23 fights. And Emelianenko never faced anyone near the talent of Jones.

In recent years, another name has to be in the discussion: Demetrious Johnson.

Johnson is 13-0-1 in the flyweight division, and as far as pure all-around skill in every aspect of the game, there is probably nobody better. Johnson has been the best in the world in his division from the age of 25 until 31, and right now there is no end in sight for his dominant era.

It’s not his fault, but Johnson’s division does not have the depth or level of top fighters as the divisions Cormier and St-Pierre fought in. “DC” and “GSP” both beat more top fighters, and in addition, they both moved up and won a world championship a weight division up. Johnson, like Cormier, actually started a weight division up from the one he won his first championship in. He was good enough to challenge for the bantamweight title, but didn’t win it. He’s now a far better fighter than he was the night he lost to Dominick Cruz in 2011, but Johnson turned down the chance to perhaps seal the legacy deal when he was recently offered a shot at T.J. Dillashaw, the bantamweight champion, and didn’t take it.

Still, Johnson continues to win and has the chance to break many of the most established UFC records. Flyweight, as a speed division, is not as favorable for older fighters. But Johnson has been so dominant that you almost can’t imagine his era ending, so he does have to shot to end up viewed as the greatest ever.

In the end, it’s really hard to say Cormier deserves that tag. One of the greatest? Based on what he’s accomplished, he’s a lock for any drug-free top four. But factoring in his starting late and age, his level of success can easily be argued is the most impressive of all.

Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five Stars at UFC 226.

DANIEL CORMIER — As noted, Cormier didn’t just join Conor McGregor as the only two-weight division champions at the same time, but changed his lifetime legacy.

As far as what it next, the money fight is Brock Lesnar (5-3, 1 NC). Lesnar has done absolutely nothing to earn a title shot, except be the guy who more people will pay to see get a championship shot than any other.

On paper, it looks like a tough matchup for Lesnar. He won’t have the superior wrestling like he’s had in all of his wins. Cormier’s striking is also far superior. Still, Lesnar has a strength and reach advantage and anything can happen in a heavyweight fight. Lesnar’s name and physical size will make it a huge fight, perhaps one of the biggest money fights in UFC history. All of those factors will make the fight intriguing to people who don’t follow the sport as closely.

Given that upsets can happen, in the unlikely case of a Lesnar win, things get very interesting. Lesnar is all about money, not championships nor legacy. He’s already done the confrontation to lead to a match even before he’s under contract with UFC, since his WWE deal lasts until August. Lesnar has been the master of getting big deals by playing WWE and UFC against each other for years. The key is whether Lesnar can pull off a short contract. If he wins, he’ll be able to get more than ever from WWE, which is now in a different financial stratosphere than in the past.

If Cormier does retire when he turns 40 on March 20, 2019, as he has said, and wants to get two fights in, he did talk about defending the light heavyweight title. But the top two contenders are Volkan Oezdemir and Alexander Gustafsson, both of whom he defeated. There would be little interest in an Oezdemir rematch. There may be some in a Gustafsson rematch, as the first fight between the two was close, and one of the most exciting light heavyweight title fights ever. In doing so, he’d be risking the Lesnar fight, which is a financial windfall not risking.

STIPE MIOCIC — Miocic (18-3) should next fight Cain Velasquez (14-2). It’s a huge heavyweight fight that has never been made before. The reality is that Cormier, based on his retirement talks, isn’t going to be champion at this time next year. With Cormier out of the picture, the Miocic vs. Velasquez winner would have to be in the position to be one of the guys in the position to be in the title deciding picture after Cormier is gone.

DERRICK LEWIS — Lewis (20-5, 1 NC) got his hand raised against Francis Ngannou. It was a terrible fight but the heavyweight division has limited depth. Lewis should next face either Alexander Volkov (30-6) or Curtis Blaydes (10-1). The winner of either of those fights should also be high on the list to face a Miocic vs. Velasquez winner as a potential post-Cormier champion.

ANTHONY PETTIS — Pettis (21-7) looked like the Pettis of old in his win over Michael Chiesa. A fight with Kevin Lee (17-3) would determine whether he can return to a championship level position.

PAULO COSTA — Costa (12-0) showed strong striking power, as well as displayed some weaknesses in his second-round TKO win over Uriah Hall (13-9).

Costa’s ability to throw heat, even when he was starting to tire, showed him as dangerous. But on the flip side, Hall dropped him in the second round and was able to land jabs almost at will for much of the fight. There’s also always the question when somebody is as muscular as Costa, what happens if they are taken the distance in a five-round main event?

Costa blew off mentions of Israel Adesanya (14-0), even though that seems like a natural next match for both. With Chris Weidman (14-3) out of the championship picture with Kelvin Gastelum getting the shot, Weidman would be a real test for Costa. But Costa may need one more win to be able to get a fight at that level.

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