He knew the day he would walk away before he ever started.
That's what he says now, anyway. "I'm telling you, Botter," he says, using the name he's called me since the first time we spoke in 2009. "It's true. When I turn 40, I am done."
Daniel Cormier, the UFC light heavyweight champion, is less than a year away from that birthday. I want to believe he means it when he says he'll retire, but I also recently saw news of Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz coming out of retirement to fight each other. Cormier is not on a downward slide; in fact, he's shown no outward signs of aging.
But he doesn't want to hang around until the only person who can't see his deteriorating skills is himself. He doesn't want his MMA career to end the way too many do, with knockout defeats, sadness and denial.
He has noticed he's slipping, even if others have not. He can't recover as well as he did a year ago, and certainly not like he did when he was 35. A mixed martial arts career against almost nothing but top-level opponents is not good for the body. Add a lifetime of wrestling at true world-class levels, and the end result is a man who sees the end in sight.
"It's hard to carry that workload as you age," Cormier says. "I'm not willing to go out and do less. I'm not a guy who wants to cut back. I want to continue to work hard and improve. If I can't give the effort and the product that I've put out my entire career, I don't want to do it."
He is calling from his car after yet another training session, heading home to see his wife, Salina, and spend time with his kids. On any given day, starting early in the morning, he is always heading somewhere, always in motion.
He is heading to the high school where he coaches wrestling. Or to American Kickboxing Academy to teach at one of Daniel Jr.'s wrestling camps. To the airport to catch a flight to Los Angeles for TV work. Or to another UFC pay-per-view to call the fights while sitting next to Joe Rogan and Jon Anik.
Oh, and there is this: He is doing all of it while also preparing for a fight against Stipe Miocic, the UFC heavyweight champion. The baddest man on the planet. The moniker did not originate with Mike Tyson in the 1980s, but he made it his own. Today, the UFC uses it to market Miocic in short zinger commercial spots, with Anik bellowing a cadence that is somehow tied to both Miocic's punches and the music.
THE. BADDEST. MAN. ON. THE. PLANET.
So Cormier's fight against Miocic is also for the fictional title of baddest man on the planet. If he wins, he becomes only the second man to hold two UFC championships at the same time, and he'll add a second fictional title to his current Daddest Man on the Planet (a reference to Cormier's habit of tucking his T-shirt into his sweatpants).
Which is kind of cool, but it's not the reason Cormier agreed to the fight. See, that moniker is the kind of thing the UFC says people will remember. But they won't. Only ardent fans keep that kind of information at their fingertips.
Conor McGregor was the first man to hold two championships at once, and he will be the one who is remembered. Cormier could knock Miocic out in the first round with the most violent knockout you've ever seen and do an incredible double-standing backflip, and the internet feedback will be the same as always.
Yeah, but what about what he did against Jon Jones?
Cormier's Instagram feedback is brutal. Every person who leaves a comment thinks they have the hottest take about his loss to Jones (they don't) and that theirs is a new and original thought (it isn't). The subject of the photo Cormier posts doesn't matter; the result is always the same.
Yeah, but what about the time Jones made you cry?
He's seen them all. There is no variation that he hasn't already read. Internalized. Processed. Yes, he cried. Hard. The whole world saw him expend a flood of emotions after he realized he hadn't gotten the job done. Again.
They think they're telling him something new; they're saying the same things he tells himself. He knows there is a chance his career will end without beating Jones. Jones may not make it back to the Octagon before Cormier walks away. Jones may come back and beat him again.
He knows all of this, just as sure as he knows he'll think about it until he is old and his memory fades. It's the same with other aging wrestlers, no matter what level of glory they achieved. Wrestlers remember. They might forgive, but they don't forget.
You cried like a baby. You'll always be second. You'll never beat Jon.
"It doesn't matter if I beat Stipe," Cormier says with a sigh. "I will always be second place to Jon Jones."
In March 2016, the UFC had a big media event in Las Vegas. No one wanted to miss the opportunity to see Cormier trade barbs with Jones, and the summer 2016 kickoff press conference would offer that chance. There would be dozens of fighters on stage at the same time. Jones and Cormier were there to promote their upcoming UFC 197 title fight.
There were other UFC fighters on the press-conference stage, but Jones, Cormier and Conor McGregor were the stars. They were the reason we filed into the Mandalay Bay Events Center. The fans knew they would be entertained by some tasty insults; we in the media section knew our stories on the event would create a huge surge in traffic.
That day, Jones continued his attempts at public image restoration. It seems obvious now that he was wearing yet another mask. But at the time, it was easy to believe, because we wanted to believe. We wanted the redemption story, and Jones played his part to perfection.
Jones was ever so grateful he'd been given another chance, ever so grateful the public was so forgiving of his misdeeds, ever so thankful to just be here and be alive in this place and this time with all of us. He wasn't there to talk about the past. He didn't want to dwell on it. He just wanted to talk about the here and now.
It worked. Jones was cheered heavily by fans. We all came down with sudden-onset amnesia. There was a point early on when Cormier seemed exasperated with the fans, shaking his head in disbelief. I knew what he was thinking: I'm the good guy. I save my money. I don't get in trouble. I provide for my family. I teach kids how to wrestle and try to be a good help to my community. Why are you still booing me?
I was driving down Flamingo Road a few hours later when my phone rang. It was Cormier.
"Yo, Botter," he said. "Did you go to the press conference?"
I had, I assured him.
"I just don't get it, man," he said. "Why would they cheer for him?"
He said this last word with a real sense of questioning; he could not figure it out. I told him that I did not know for sure but that I suspected it had something to do with the fact that we all love a redemption story. They are the best kinds of stories. And they wanted to be right about Jones. They wanted him to be Rocky except with a cocaine habit, working his way back to the top the right way. They wanted the good feelings they had about this new Jon Jones to stick around forever.
We wanted this new Jon Jones to become the permanent Jon Jones. And not so much for him, because we are selfish. We wanted to say we were there when he turned his life around.
Cormier sounded a little sad, but there was also a spark of mischief in his voice. He'd come up with an idea, of sorts. He didn't like being hated by the fans; nobody does. But it felt like it was going to happen anyway, no matter what he did.
"I decided that if that's what they want, then that's what I'm gonna give 'em," he said. "I'm doing the Bret Hart thing."
Hart was a pro wrestler in the 1990s who did things the right way, took care of the people around him, showed up for work on time. But then a man named Steve Austin came along, and suddenly Hart found himself being booed.
Austin drank beers on TV and cursed and put his middle fingers up in his opponents' faces; he was clearly the antagonist. But the world was ready to embrace the antagonist, and so Hart was turned to the bad side. Hart was actually still the good guy. It wasn't him that changed—the fans did.
I understood what Cormier was saying. He was the good guy. If the fans booed him for the things that made him a good guy, well, he'd turn those traits up to 11. He'd be the bad guy they wanted, so long as they fattened up his wallet.
So he turned up the volume a few notches. He became even more obnoxious. And the fans responded exactly like he wanted them to, booing him unmercifully.
The reactions didn't last long, though. Jones failed a drug test just days before they were going to fight again, at UFC 200 in July 2016. The fans weren't so sure they hated Cormier. And then, in July 2017, when they finally had the rematch with injuries and no prior drug tests canceling the fight, Jones beat Cormier in the main event of UFC 214, knocking him wonky with a head kick before finishing the fight with a flurry of strikes.
Cormier was still unconscious when Joe Rogan stepped up to interview him. These days, Rogan says he wishes he'd never done the interview; Cormier's cornermen from that night say they wish they'd stopped the interview from happening. But they didn't, and Rogan did the interview, and Cormier cried in the center of the Octagon.
"I'm disappointed," he said, and given the despair on Cormier's face, this may have been the understatement of the year. "I guess if he wins both fights, there is no rivalry." Cormier wasn't able to face the public, and he didn't even want to look at the world, so his coach, Bob Cook, rented a vehicle and drove Daniel, Salina and the kids up the coast to their home. Cormier thought that maybe the darkness that surrounded him was here to stay this time.
And then, a few weeks later, it was announced that Jones had failed another test for performance-enhancing drugs. Almost overnight, there was a change in the reaction Cormier received from fans, one that went something like this: Hey, wait a minute. Maybe we're booing the wrong guy.
All of this is great for Cormier, but it is also beside the point. We all want to be the good guy, or at least most of us do. But Cormier is at the point in his career where he can see the finish line. It's right there on the horizon. And when you see the finish line, you also start looking back and taking stock of where you came from and what you accomplished.
Yeah, Cormier may never beat Jones. That is out of his hands. But when I ask him to look back and tell me what he thinks his legacy will be, he doesn't hesitate. It feels like he's been considering this a lot lately.
"I'll be remembered as a champion and as a guy who went out there and fought his ass off every single time. I'll be remembered as a guy who represented the organization in the correct way," he says. But perhaps most importantly, he is proud of the way he has served his community and has been a guiding light for kids in San Jose and the areas surrounding it, particularly for African American kids.
"I'll be remembered as someone they could aspire to be like and help them do things in a way that their families and their parents can be proud of," Cormier says. "That's all that matters to me."
For now, there is the monumental task of taking down Miocic, who has a five-inch height advantage and seven-inch reach edge. And then, Cormier says, he wants to fight Brock Lesnar in November. After that, he wants to close out his career by facing Jones early next year. Because of course he wants to fight Jones. Until he does, Jones will loom large in his headspace, taking up room that could be used for so many other things.
Both of those might be wishful thinking. Lesnar appears to be in no hurry to leave his gig with WWE, and Jones is locked in a seemingly endless saga with the United States Anti-Doping Agency over his failed test from last summer.
Regardless, these are the fights he wants. Lesnar and Jones. He'll make a ton of money from them, and then he's done.
But first, Miocic awaits. It's the hardest fight of his life, and he's taking on the challenge in the final moments of his career. It makes little sense. But Cormier is a wrestler, and few wrestlers have ever wanted to take the easy way out. It's why he keeps going, at least in his mind, back to Jones. It's why he's going up to face perhaps the best UFC heavyweight ever.
"I want to topple the giant," Cormier says. "I want to go up there and do things people say I cannot do."