John Elway winning the Super Bowl. Kobe Bryant scoring 60 points. David Beckham leaving the field in tears. Three great athletes, all remembered for their magnificent achievements over the course of careers which concluded memorably.
Something else the trio had in common was that their farewell performances took place in front of hordes of fans who had the opportunity to pay tribute to these terrific talents.
Now put yourself in the sizable shoes of Daniel Cormier. The 41-year-old Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) icon is preparing for the final fight of his illustrious career in mixed martial arts, where he has spent over a decade with UFC, Strikeforce and Xtreme MMA.
Beforehand, the Louisiana native was a two-time US Olympian and captain of the 2008 Olympic wrestling team. In the UFC, he became the first athlete to successfully defend titles in two different weight classes. Indeed, Cormier’s 22-2-1 (1 no-contest) record currently places him sixth in the pound-for-pound list, while he is also the No.1-ranked heavyweight.
Not bad for a guy who is more than 15 years older than some of his competitors.
But the global coronavirus pandemic has put the brakes on Cormier bringing down the curtain in a manner befitting his years in the fight game.
Instead of basking in the cheers of thousands of supporters, Saturday’s deciding bout of a trilogy against fellow heavyweight Stipe Miocic at UFC 252 – Cormier triumphed in their first battle in the summer of 2018, before Miocic gained revenge a year later – will take place with next to no atmosphere, behind closed doors at Apex in Las Vegas – the UFC’s bespoke arena that has staged fights during lockdown.
Cormier freely admits he has given considerable thought to how his final fight was going to pan out, but never saw this coming. “I may have played out a thousand scenarios,” he explained to CNN Sport’s Don Riddell.
“This was not one of them, being in the midst of a pandemic, with no fans, fighting in the UFC Apex in a 25-foot cage. That was the one thing I could have never imagined.”
“I will not be able to bask in the adulation from the fans. And that’s OK, because I’ve had that for 24 fights,” he added, the words pouring out from a man who has often worn his heart on his sleeve.
“I’ve been able to compete in front of people, this time I go do it with my army, with the soldiers that I’m going to war with, my coaches and we go and capture another championship.”
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When pressed on what he will miss about competing, Cormier highlighted the “energy” of the crowd.
“When you walk through the curtain and there are 24,000 people in the arena just yelling, screaming and going crazy, that energy is something that you will never be able to recreate no matter what you do with the rest of your life.”
A reflective Cormier acknowledged that “everybody’s time comes to an end, and I don’t think you ever meet a professional athlete that truly wants to walk away, but you have to understand that there’s a time for everything … it’s bittersweet, but I think when you start thinking negative is when you become overwhelmed with sadness.”
Despite that lack of energy come Saturday night, the highly anticipated third bout against Miocic nevertheless puts the heavyweight title and legacy on the line, with the contest arguably set to answer the question of who the greatest UFC heavyweight of all time is.
And Cormier would love nothing more than to call it a day with the words ‘two-time UFC heavyweight champion’ ringing in his, and the world’s, ears.
After confirming to CNN Sport that this Saturday is his swansong – “This will be it for me, I’m not one of those guys that wants to go and come” – Cormier recognized that he got his tactics wrong for the 2019 defeat, and only holds himself accountable.
“I regret not being more prepared for the fight, for the long fight,” Cormier said about the fourth-round loss to Miocic via TKO.
“I regret not keeping my hands up and fighting smart. I regret going away from the game plan that my coaches set in front of me … I think you find the truth in knowing that they did that. Him and his team did that, they won the fight.
“They made the adjustment that got him the victory, and I think when you recognize that and understand that, then you start to feel better about everything, but … I was winning the fight, and it gives me confidence going into the third one.”
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Once the dust has settled on UFC 252, and Cormier has hung up his gloves, he will not waste any time in beginning the next chapter of his life. Opportunity will continue to knock on his commentating work, but Cormier and his team are looking outside the Octagon.
As he put it: “That’s probably why retirement’s not so scary to me, because I understand and know what is waiting for me next, and I believe that’s going to be a fantastic career.”
When asked what is it that makes people excited to work with him, Cormier believed it was, simply, his personality.
“I just believe that people are drawn to me because I am who I am, right?” Cormier responded. “I try to be nice to people, I try to treat people fair.
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“I just kind of be who I am, and when I start to talk to them and they feel a connection to me. And then when I get a chance to work with someone, I work hard in everything that I do.”
Cormier has previously said that during the 1980’s, he wrote letters to the likes of Michael Jordan and Walter Payton, who he would observe on TV being larger-than-life characters.
While they were afforded the luxury of leaving the stage surrounded by their devoted fans – like Elway, Bryant and Beckham – Cormier’s exit will be associated with the sound of (near) silence.
However, one day soon, he will surely open his fan mail and see how he continues to inspire the next generation of wrestlers and fighters. Perhaps that will be the only adulation he truly needs.