Cormier seeking next signature moment as career winds down

Daniel Cormier insists he’s going to end his career as an active MMA fighter when he turns 40 in five months. It seems a bit premature now that he’s finally gaining the kind of adulation that eluded him for much of his career.

Last July, Cormier became the first reigning UFC light heavyweight champion to win the UFC heavyweight title when he stopped Stipe Miocic at UFC 226. The historic achievement ultimately will be the highlight of a 10-year MMA career and gives him an accomplishment his nemesis, former light heavyweight champ Jon “Bones” Jones, now can never own.

“The fact I went up to heavyweight as the light heavyweight champ and won the belt feels good,” Cormier said this week. “For a long time, that’s what people thought [Jones] would do. He was the light heavyweight champ for four years and never went up to fight the heavyweight champion. I did it after three years.”

Cormier defends the heavyweight title for the first time Saturday night at Madison Square Garden when he takes on Derrick Lewis in the main event of UFC 230. If victorious, Cormier plans to fight one, maybe two more times before calling it a career and becoming a full-time broadcaster. He turns the big 4-0 in March and vowed long ago that would be the age when he retired.

“I knew this was going to be when I would leave the sport and I accepted that a long time ago,” Cormier said. “It’s just coming to a head now.”

He will leave without regrets, even though he technically lost twice to Jones. They first met for the light heavyweight title in January 2015, with Jones winning a unanimous decision. Jones was soon stripped of his titles and suspended by the UFC after being arrested on felony hit-and-run charges. After regaining the title in 2016, Jones was stripped again, this time for failing a USADA drug test days before a scheduled rematch with Cormier at UFC 200.

The two rivals finally met again in the Octagon in July 2017 at UFC 214. Jones won on a third-round TKO, but the bout was later ruled a no contest after Jones failed a post-fight drug test.

Through it all, Cormier was a vocal critic of Jones, calling him a “cheat” and bad for the sport. But Jones was more popular and Cormier’s reign as the light heavyweight champ during Jones’ absences wasn’t validated until he defeated Miocic. Now his decade as a clean fighter and his behavior as a true professional in and out of the Octagon have made his encounters with Jones more of a footnote than the focus of his MMA legacy.

“I’ve provided a life I never would have thought of,” said Cormier, the captain of the 2008 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. “But I’ve done it in a way I can be proud of when I walk away. It hasn’t always been good. But as a whole I’ve tried to do things with a level of professionalism that a lot of guys aren’t showing in today’s mixed martial arts.”

Despite the talk of his impending retirement, Cormier insists he’s not taking Lewis lightly. A 6-foot-3, 265-pound Texan (21-5-1 with 18 KOs), Lewis got the title shot after dropping Alexander Volkov with a heavy right-hand in the third round of their showdown at UFC 229 on Oct. 6 in Las Vegas.

“This is a guy that can finish a fight in one punch,” Cormier said. “But where people see Derrick Lewis knock out guys and it scares them, it excites me. After guys get in the Octagon with me they’re never the same. I like showing them there’s a place they can go to in a fight that’s so uncomfortable they won’t truly push themselves anymore. That’s what I like. I like breaking dudes.”

Prediction: Cormier TKO 3rd round.

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