LAS VEGAS — It is 6:11 p.m. on Thursday, June 5. Over on Sahara, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones strolls into the offices of his promoter for a meeting with UFC President Dana White and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta. His immediate future will be decided: The promotion wants him to face Alexander Gustafsson in a rematch, but Jones has publicly stated his preference for instead facing Daniel Cormier.
Eleven miles away, Cormier sits on a couch in his 12th-floor high-rise condo. Out the window is the desert part of Las Vegas, with the hazy mountains few ever talk about because you can't gamble in them. The UFC has rented this place for Cormier to use while he is in Las Vegas helping American Kickboxing Academy teammate Cain Velasquez film the latest international season of The Ultimate Fighter. Cormier and AKA coach Javy Mendes share a meager apartment; Velasquez has the suite two floors above. Cormier does not need much space, anyway; he is only in Las Vegas four days a week, while the city is Velasquez's permanent residence for the next five weeks.
Right now, though, Cormier is nervously checking Twitter on his phone. Like everyone else in the mixed martial arts world, he is awaiting news from Jones' meeting with the UFC brass across town. He is unsure if Jones will bow to the UFC's demands; the champion is one of the few athletes in the sport with the gravitas to stand his ground until he gets what he wants. But the UFC really wants him to fight Gustafsson, and Cormier is preparing himself for the inevitable bad news coming his way.
It is not all bad news, of course. Cormier is injured. He can begin training in four weeks. Right now, his wrestling and jiu-jitsu are essentially eliminated from his arsenal. But even an LCL injury won't stop Cormier from accepting an August fight with Jones, if that's what the UFC wants.
"If they offer it to me, I'm not turning it down," he says.
A few weeks ago, Cormier stepped into the Octagon to face mixed martial arts legend Dan Henderson. When the fight was under discussion, Cormier mentioned to me that he did not want to fight Henderson. He had too much respect for him, both as an accomplished wrestler and for what he'd done in the sport. But Cormier is also a company man, and said he would accept the fight if the UFC asked him.
The UFC did ask, and Cormier did accept. He went into their UFC 173 bout a massive favorite over the aging veteran, but that did not stop Cormier from giving his all. Some onlookers felt Cormier might have been taking it easy on Henderson; that was not the case.
"It would have been disrespectful to Dan for me to not go 100 percent," Cormier says. "Dan did a real good job of not letting me get my distance. I'm not like Mark Munoz; I don't know if I can generate that much power from short distance. So Dan did a good job of keeping me close and preventing me from generating big power."
Still, Cormier made it look easy against a man who has bested some of the greatest fighters the sport has ever seen. By the end of the second round, Cormier knew Henderson had nothing left to offer. He was broken. Henderson dejectedly sat on the stool in his corner, half-heartedly listening as his corner tried to fire him up. When he stood back up to prepare for Round 3, Henderson leaned over and put his hands on his knees.
"He was tired. The camera didn't catch it because they were showing a commercial for Chris Weidman, but he had his hands on his knees," Cormier says. "He was tired."
Cormier dealt out more punishment in the final frame, and admits that he was looking at referee Herb Dean to see if Dean would step in and spare Henderson from any more unneeded punishment. Henderson was covering up, but only just.
"I have such high regard for Dan, and I don't want to be disrespectful," Cormier says. "But I'm hitting him on his head, on the sides of his head. What is intelligent defense?"
Cormier finally took Henderson's back and choked him out. He rose to his feet and sat down on his corner stool. His mind began racing. He knew he had less than a minute before he would be announced the winner, and then Joe Rogan would put a microphone in his face. He wanted to make the most of that moment, because you rarely get the kind of exposure that the post-fight interview provides. He wanted to say something that would have an impact on both the fans watching at home and the powers that be.
Suddenly, Cormier knew what he wanted to say. He would make a wrestling tournament reference. Not everyone watching the interview would understand it, but Jones would, and that was all that mattered.
"I knew Jon would get the reference, because he was a good wrestler," Cormier said. "Ask Mo Lawal or (former Oklahoma wrestler) Danny Rubenstein about that. Everyone knows there is a toughest guy in your bracket. He's the guy who always shows up. We all know what that's like. You wait until they post the tournament bracket, and you're just wondering if you're going to be facing him in the finals or the semifinals.
"I am that guy for Jon Jones."
In a few hours, Cormier will find out that Jones' meeting with the UFC brass concluded with Jones agreeing to face Gustafsson in a rematch. Cormier went to Lagasse's Stadium at the gorgeous Palazzo to watch Game 1 of the NBA Finals; upon hearing the news, he immediately orders a brownie. Dessert for dinner.
It is not all bad news. Cormier's knee is not 100 percent, of course, and though he would fight Jones if the UFC asked him to, he's actually relieved that he'll be able to rest it and prepare properly for his eventual title fight. He can't grapple or wrestle for four weeks, and may still opt for a minor surgical procedure to repair the damage. But he'll get the rest he needs.
Cormier isn't mad. He, like many other mixed martial arts fans, truly believes Jones should not be allowed to pick his fights.
"Jon is like Floyd Mayweather. He's done so much that he's earned the right. But Mayweather doesn't have mandatory title challengers. He just picks the fights that are going to make him the most money. The title doesn't matter to Floyd," he says. "But it matters to Jon, and he should not be able to pick his challengers. If the belt meant nothing to him, then he can pick them. Because he is the best. But it doesn't work like that in MMA. The UFC has to be able to pick the challengers that make the most sense."
Cormier believes that his eventual title challenge against Jones will make more money than the Gustafsson rematch. He considers Jones to be an undefeated fighter; like many, he doesn't care about Jones' disqualification loss to Matt Hamill. To Cormier, Jones is 21-0, and the eventual title fight will feature two undefeated fighters.
But Cormier also believes Jones has another way to make money: by becoming the biggest "heel," or bad guy, the sport has ever seen. A few days earlier, Jones posted an Instagram video mocking fans who believed he was ducking a rematch with Gustafsson. Jones, his lips curled in a believable sneer, told viewers that it was his career, not theirs.
Jones deleted the video within minutes, but tech-savvy followers were able to capture it and post it on YouTube. The video spread like wildfire.
"I think it was genius. He should own those videos instead of deleting them. This one, and the one where he's kicking Phil Davis when he was down," Cormier says. "People will either watch because they love him, or they'll watch because they want to see him lose. But they will watch. Jon can be that guy, if he'd just own them.
"And the thing is, in those moments....you see Jon. That's him. He's high and mighty. If he owns it, he can make so much money against anyone. Mayweather pulled 1 million pay-per-view buys against Robert Guerrero. You know what I mean? He can pull that against anybody. Jon could be the same way.
"When I get older and I'm looking back, I will be disappointed if Jon never owns it. I will be disappointed for all of the money he will have left on the table."