Why We Watch: Daniel Cormier, No Sweat

Fighting is not as easy as Daniel Cormier makes it look, even for Daniel Cormier. As far as we know, anyway.
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The thrill in watching Daniel Cormier whoop someone’s ass is not necessarily the whooping. That is a thing that happens, and sometimes it's a delightful thing, but it's almost a secondary by-product. The thrill, the privilege of it is watching Cormier do this impossibly violent and difficult thing with such odd serenity. Even, or especially, in his fights that are otherwise lacking in grand spectacle, this is the real show.

UFC 170 marked the last time Cormier granted us this privilege. It came in a regrettably nonsensical bout that arguably didn’t even warrant sanctioning, let alone co-main event status on an only-in-America priced pay-per-view. A late Rashad Evans knee injury and an understandable lack of fighters lobbying to get lumped-up on ten days’ notice left Cormier with no opponent for his light heavyweight debut, and the promoter with few good options. Cormier was strikingly forlorn regarding the possibility of a cancellation. For better or worse, the UFC found a solution.

Patrick Cummins, a 4-0 competitor who lost his job as a barista while taking a call about the fight, was given the incredible chance to step into the Ultimate Fighting Championship for the first time and get pummeled by a superior athlete. There were compelling reasons to root for Cummins—an affinity for underdogs; a morbid and justifiable desire to watch the sport burn; prior positive experiences at local coffee shops—but he transparently never stood a chance. Cummins is talented and an accomplished wrestler in his own right, but Cormier is on a different stratum. This was obvious before either entered the octagon.

The two met once before on a wrestling mat; Cormier shut him out seven-nothing. Cummins’ last two MMA opponents held records of 0-1 and 5-13. The betting lines were rightfully lopsided and the result was practically preordained. There was little reason for anyone to pay to watch this fight.

And then Cormier went out and proved it. He jumped on Cummins early and hurt him with seemingly every punch he landed. After a minute and nineteen seconds of predictable abuse, Cormier was raining down unanswered right hands from a rear waistlock and referee Mario Yamasaki was waving off the fight. Reality, it turns out, doesn’t care much about hastily manufactured storybook narratives.

Cummins was nowhere near ready for Cormier and there’s no shame in the consideration that he, like most fighters, probably won’t ever be ready. That’s just how it is with Cormier, a great mockery of reasonable expectations who refuses even to look the part. He is this good against baristas, and against former champions, and, so far, against everyone else. His challenge, to those who would fight him or those who’d rather watch, is to deal with it.

***

Grace is supposed to be willowy, or at least chiseled. Anything, that is, but a cuddly endomorph with broad shoulders and mismatched speed. Even in MMA’s shallow talent pool, 30 is too old to take up prizefighting and far too old for the label of “prospect.” Cormier is that.

Men who wrestled at 211 pounds are not supposed to outman the giants in deep end of the heavyweight division. Barrel chested grapplers don't transform into fluid, powerful strikers, and they don't dial in context-perfect counterpunches or ambidextrous headkicks. Cormier is that, too, a squat anomaly intent on making us forget how sports work.

Although of course that’s the thing: sports are hard, and elite athletes help us forget this. On-demand video of apex athletes doing unfathomable things is desensitizing, but overexposure to Top Ten highlights doesn’t change the fact that human motion is incredible. Just rolling off the couch and navigating to the nearest beverage is a series of physiological miracles. Parlaying that trick into something more—dunking a basketball, nailing a pommel horse routine—approaches sorcery. When we watch elite fighters combat each other, we are watching something ridiculous and virtuosic, even if we only glimpse 79 mismatched seconds of it.

Using your body to manipulate a resisting opponent is very hard. Using your empty hands, sheathed in fingerless gloves, to dominate a professional heavyweight contender is harder still. Using a 5'11” frame to hip-pop lift all 250 lbs. of Josh Barnett and then ragdoll him to the floor is preposterous.

It's important to be reminded of this because these things just do not look very hard for Daniel Cormier.

The ease with which Cormier appears to operate is as mesmerizing as it is deceptive. It makes him great, but it also makes his greatness less conspicuous. Though it required natural ability and untold hours to perfect, much of what he does so extraordinarily well is almost imperceptible as he does it.

When this culminates in a huge man flying through the air everyone can agree that it's outstanding. When it adds up to Frank Mir trapped against the fence being ground to coarse meal—because Mir can't resist locking up, and because Cormier's underhooks and collar tie are of a different sort—not everyone is entertained. Punching out some dude appropriately known as “Bigfoot” Silva is visually arresting. Depriving Roy Nelson of oxygen just to work out your kicking game in a live fight will leave the crowd restless, grumpy, and decidedly un-awed. What I am saying is that it is not Daniel Cormier's fault for being so beautifully fluent and dominant; it's our fault for not appreciating it.

***

The phrase “world class” is so often misused in the context of mixed martial arts that it has become a running joke. MMA is a young, dangerous sport with a steep learning curve and, for most fighters, limited financial returns. World class athletes who are suited to hand-to-hand combat thus aren't knocking down the door in droves. There are better ways to make a living.

However, Daniel Cormier is what world class means. He took fourth place in freestyle wrestling at the 2004 Athens Olympics. He was a team captain with legitimate medal hopes in 2008, only to be forced out of competition when his kidneys failed during a botched weight cut. His grappling skills are on a tier that most MMA fighters are only vaguely familiar with.

Further, his wrestling game is based on fundamental subtleties and opportunistic counters rather than pure physicality, which makes Cormier an even more daunting target for takedown attempts than some of his convert peers. In fourteen fights, he hasn't been taken down once; no one has come particularly close. Several good grapplers have thought better of even trying.

Not all, though. A shook Silva panicked and ventured a desperation double leg from too far out. Cormier stuffed it, sprawled his hips back, grabbed head control and moved for a go-behind with all the apparent effort that most people put into brushing their teeth. Against almost anyone in this sport, he has the luxury of defining the terms of the engagement. He makes this positional control, this command over momentum, and centers of gravity, and relative geography so effortless that it does not look difficult. It is incredibly difficult. It is just less difficult for Daniel Cormier than it is for most anyone else.

Still, there is a danger of overenthusiasm. Cormier isn't without flaws. His striking skills are still somewhat raw and his submission skills somewhat untested, which is a strange thing to say about a 35-year-old fighter who has mostly looked so impressive. Beyond that, the worst to be said is that Cormier is occasionally hittable and can lose his bearings when backing out of exchanges. That’s about it.

All of these issues may improve with time, but the fear that accompanies his weight cuts is never going away. Given the serious health problems caused by his previous cuts, every training camp will be a scary proposition. At light heavyweight, this is part of the gig, too.

In this case though, the perspective that would normally temper expectations only makes things more intriguing. Cormier entered professional MMA four and a half years ago. In that time he has fought and won fourteen times, finishing nine fights, losing zero rounds and winning a Strikeforce Grand Prix. He has defeated a stack of quality heavyweights, including two former UFC champions. He's the wrestling coach and primary training partner for Cain “Let's Be Real, Quite Possibly the Best Heavyweight Ever” Velasquez. The two spar on a weekly basis and all descriptions amount to the dojo scene from The Matrix, with fighters around the gym stopping to stare slackjawed. You have doubtless gathered as much by now, but I’ll reiterate: Daniel Cormier is really fucking good.

Still, the question of Cormier’s ceiling still remains. Instead of an answer, all we received from his last fight was confirmation that he’s not going to lose a fight with a barista. We didn’t learn much about his continued progression, or how he’ll fare against spry light heavyweights, or most tantalizingly, if he has any chance of dethroning Jon Jones.

We may get some of these answers May 24th, when he meets former Pride champion Dan Henderson at UFC 173, but most likely not all the answers we want. Henderson is 43 years old, small for a light heavyweight, was recently deprived of his testosterone replacement therapy exemption, and has lost three of his last four fights. In recent years, he’s also fallen into a pattern of relying almost exclusively on his dumb powerful right hand, which is a plan which got Roy Nelson nothing except a beating against Cormier. Given that Cormier has hulked on everything in his path, and he’s working with a limited window of remaining athletic prime, there are probably better uses for his talents.

All of this is unnecessary and disappointing, but there’s still some solace to be found. Cormier kept the universe in balance by squashing the kind of opponent he’s supposed to squash against Cummins and giving us a clear demonstration of the stark difference between good and world class. Who knows what wonderfully smooth destruction he could potentially unleash against Dan Henderson, a guy who has been elite and whose name recognition might finally put him over with fans? And who knows, too, whether those watching might be able to see the virtuosity underneath all of Cormier’s apparently effortless dominance.

Regardless of how unwarranted the matchup, it’s hard to complain too much about any opportunity to watch someone buck convention while doing extremely difficult things with unnatural ease. It’s as good a reason as there is to watch anyone fight, and the best reason to watch Daniel Cormier fight anyone.


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