BURBANK, Calif. — Daniel Cormier recognizes the cosmic paradox at the bottom of his bitter rivalry with Jon Jones.
If anybody in the world could relate to the exact pressures and pitfalls faced by Jones over the past several years as a wildly successful mixed martial artist, Cormier would be that man.
If any fighter could teach Jones about the perseverance and steadiness necessary to forge a successful career with something besides spectacular athletic talent, it would be the man standing across from Jones in the UFC 214 cage on Saturday night.
“If we weren’t what we are today, there are a lot of things that I could give to him, to help him be a better version of himself,” Cormier said with a rueful laugh.
Instead, Cormier and Jones are locked in one of the greatest rivalries in MMA history, one featuring street-clothes scuffles, epic trash-talking and a pointed animosity that can only grow out of familiarity.
More than 2 1/2 years after Jones beat Cormier to defend the light heavyweight title, Cormier is the champion heading into their rematch at Honda Center in Anaheim, California.
Cormier (19-1) realizes he needs a victory over his self-sabotaging archrival to validate his own title reign — and any empathetic thoughts about Jones (22-1) have been drowned out by years of anger and frustration with an enemy who could have been a friend.
“I’ve allowed myself to let go of that thought: ‘Why am I so disappointed in him?”’ Cormier said during a recent lunch break from his other job as an MMA analyst for Fox. “Why was I so upset when he was throwing everything away? It shouldn’t matter to me. When I was finally able to let that go, it freed me.”
The most anticipated MMA matchup of the summer is the headline bout on a stacked card, but Cormier is unable to take much satisfaction in this lucrative pinnacle of his career. The decisive loss to Jones in January 2015 remains the only blemish on Cormier’s record, and he has reigned atop the 205-pound division for two years since Jones’ title was stripped a few months afterward.
Jones’ misdeeds are almost too long to list at this point, even when limited just to the trouble since 2014. He had a positive test for cocaine use around the time of their first bout, followed by an embarrassing hit-and-run accident in which a pregnant woman’s arm was broken, followed by another failed drug test revealed shortly before their scheduled rematch at UFC 200 and blamed on an erectile dysfunction medication.
Cormier has lampooned and criticized Jones with each mistake, but only because he sees Jones making the mistakes that he has avoided. While Jones lives his madcap life, Cormier is a former Olympic wrestler with a late-blooming MMA career and a stable family existence in the Bay Area.
“I can almost sympathize with Jon more today than I did before,” Cormier said. “Because I see all the traps, the excess — from girls to new friends. There’s just so much available to you that you don’t really want to be involved with. But I got it as a 36-year-old man. He was a 23-year-old kid, and then it just became a part of who he was. You’ve got to avoid those traps. I live in what’s important. My family, my training, my jobs.”
When Jones blew his title shot and received a yearlong suspension last year, he also cost Cormier a great deal of money by forcing their bout’s cancellation. Anderson Silva agreed to be a late replacement, and Cormier did the only thing he could against one of his heroes: He pinned the Spider to the mat for most of their three rounds, earning an easy victory and boos from fans who have embraced Jones’ antihero ethos more than Cormier’s good-guy life.
“I didn’t get here being stupid,” Cormier said. “There was no way to win in that situation, but I had to take the criticism for it.”
Cormier finally has a way to win this Saturday, but he is an underdog. Jones still is widely considered the greatest fighter in the world, and he appears to be focused on regaining his belt.
Their animosity hasn’t cooled, either. At their ceremonial faceoff Wednesday in downtown Los Angeles, a shirtless, chiseled Jones glowered at the smaller, suit-wearing champion.
“I know what I’ve got to do,” Cormier said. “We finally have to have this moment. It’s time.”