Daniel Cormier sure picked a good weekend to become a bad guy.
In a second-round submission victory over Anthony Johnson in Saturday’s UFC 210 pay-per-view headliner in Buffalo, N.Y., he entered scowling through scattered boos and left grinning through a chorus of them. He dominated one competitor and dismissed others. He picked up the black hat and waved it for all to see before he rode off into the sunset, laughing all the way.
That he seemed to enjoy himself so much in the process only made it more fun to watch as he grabbed towels, snatched chokes and spit hot fire into waiting microphones.
Thus did the UFC light heavyweight champion become the newest fighter fans could love to hate. And he did it all while being a more brazenly unapologetic version of his true self, which only seems to infuriate some people even more.
Start with the weigh-in incident, since there’s a lesson to be learned there. It’s not just a lesson about how to use the tension of an outstretched towel to knock some ounces off the final number on the scales, either. It’s also about Cormier’s overall approach to the business of professional fighting, which he seems to regard as one big high school wrestling meet only with concussions and money.
Leaning on the towel to make weight? You’ve got to admit, it’s pretty clever. And if the local commission isn’t smart enough to stop you, hey, isn’t that their fault and not yours?
Then there’s the post-fight screed, where Cormier (19-1 MMA, 8-1 UFC) taunted potential challenger Jimi Manuwa and told longtime rival Jon Jones to get his “academics in order” before they started talking about a rematch. It’s the kind of trash talk with which, if you read the transcript with all the names removed later on, you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to the state wrestling champ and not the UFC light heavyweight one.
He did all this, of course, to a soundtrack of scattered boos from the crowd at KeyBank Center. Maybe Cormier has never been a unanimous fan favorite, but this seemed like the first time in recent memory that he showed up to fight with such vocal opposition coming from the paying customers.
What turned the hearts of the mob against Cormier? Do these people really regard weigh-ins as that sacred a ritual? Or was it a convenient excuse for turning on a guy who seems like he’s having a little too much fun sitting on a throne that doesn’t quite belong to him?
That’s not to say that Cormier hasn’t earned the right to wear UFC gold. Take his most recent performance against Johnson (22-6 MMA, 13-6 UFC), the man who pre-fight hype pieces hailed as unmatched destroyer of worlds. A terrifying knockout artist, we were told. Best one-shot power-hitter since Zeus himself. Then he smashed Cormier’s nose without successfully changing the expression on his face, all before getting taken down and choked into submission.
The choke might be a big part of how we remember what Johnson has claimed will be his final fight, and I don’t mean just the choke he tapped to. His decision to try to wrestle Cormier early baffled and infuriated his coaches. The ease with which Cormier finished him was eerily reminiscent of their first fight, when Johnson’s coaches implored him not to quit shortly before he quit.
This just didn’t seem like a guy who wanted to be champion, which makes someone like Cormier the worst possible matchup. Cormier isn’t the biggest or the scariest. You see him walking around with his Carl Winslow hair and his T-shirt tucked into his pants, and he seems like somebody’s dad, the junior high school wrestling coach who also teaches gym class and tells old football stories. When he pops his shirt off in the cage he resembles an anthropomorphic bowling ball, ready to roll downhill, picking up speed just before he flattens you.
Cormier’s the kind of guy who loves making people quit. Johnson’s the kind who quits. The outcome of such a pairing should be, and through two fights has been, fairly obvious.
Still, if you entered this weekend thinking that Cormier was the second-best light heavyweight in the world, do you leave it thinking it anything else? His hope for holding onto the belt seems to hinge more on Jones (22-1 MMA, 16-1 UFC), who’s still atop the USA TODAY Sports/MMAjunkie MMA light-heavyweight rankings, losing something as a result of his many missteps than it does on No. 2-ranked Cormier closing the gaps between them. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing to hope for, if you’re Cormier.
After all, if you win the state wrestling title only after the best kid in your division hurt himself while goofing off, didn’t you still win? Don’t you still get to take that trophy back to school with you? Don’t you still wind up telling people about it over and over again years later as you tuck your T-shirt into your track pants and smile, thinking about how much people hated it when you won, and how much fun it was to keep winning anyway?
For more on UFC 210, check out the UFC Rumors section of the site.
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