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The rubber match between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier at UFC 252 on Saturday was supposed to determine the greatest heavyweight champion in MMA history—at least according to how the fight was billed.
There was some truth to that statement, albeit truth that was contingent on the result and still very debatable. Had Cormier won, he may have had some claim as one of the greatest heavyweight champions in Ultimate Fighting Championship history, which, alongside his undefeated stint in Strikeforce that culminated in a grand prix win would have put him somewhere in the GOAT discussion, but even then, he’d be more of a consideration than a contender. The second loss to Miocic relegated his otherwise excellent heavyweight career to a distinctly lesser tier, beneath only the truly exceptional big men.
Miocic, on the other hand, is certainly in the mix as one of the greatest heavyweights ever, in the UFC and in general. He’s tied for the most heavyweight title fight victories in the promotion and owns the record for the most consecutive heavyweight title defenses in UFC history; and his 14-3 record includes wins over four UFC title contenders and four former UFC champions. He avenged two of his three career losses, and the only reason that number isn’t three out of three is because Stefan Struve’s career took such a drastic downturn after beating Miocic that a rematch would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
As is customary when a prominent fighter calls it quits, there was an immediate effort to contextualize Cormier’s legacy. Also customary in this process is the clash between recency bias—“He just had a big fight and UFC employees called him the greatest, so it must be true!”—and reactionary invalidation: “Cormier has never beaten anyone good, actually.” Neither of those sentiments are correct even as a strict assessment of his accomplishments, and both are even more inaccurate when measuring the totality of Cormier’s legacy.
By any competitive standard, Cormier’s career doesn’t quite match the fanfare he has received in the aftermath of his retirement. He was a two-division champion in the two thinnest divisions, with no title reigns nearing anything resembling historical notability; he’s certainly a better fighter than Chuck Liddell ever was, but it’s not so clear that he was a greater champion. Cormier was the clear loser in his biggest rivalries in both of his divisions, and outside his win against Miocic—which was a remarkable achievement, no doubt—his best win was either his five-round drubbing of Josh Barnett or his split decision win over Alexander Gustafsson. There is a lot of “good” and “very good” woven throughout Cormier’s career, but there is very little “great.”
This is a bitter swallow for Cormier fans—let alone the man himself—but there’s more to a legacy than wins and losses. A legacy is a reverberation of a person and his career, quite literally what is left behind and handed down. Raw accomplishments are obviously a big part of that, but they are not the only part, or even the most important. Cormier’s legacy is also defined by his role as the captain of the American Kickboxing Academy, which coincided with the championship runs of Luke Rockhold and Khabib Nurmagomedov, as well as his own. Though you can’t credit him entirely for the team’s success, there is no denying he played an instrumental role in it.
Yet what sets Cormier apart from most fighters is how the grit and toughness that defined him as a fighter transcended the cage. He has demonstrated an unflappable resilience from fight to fight, rebounding from heartbreaking losses to achieve something greater. He followed his first loss to Jon Jones with a string of wins against the rest of the best of the light heavyweight division. After his second loss to Jones—a demoralizing knockout loss that was overturned when “Bones” tested positive for turinabol—Cormier bounced back with a thorough win over a streaking Volkan Oezdemir and back-to-back heavyweight title victories against Miocic and Derrick Lewis. He has had almost no easy opponents throughout his career, and after every tough loss, he has always come back against a top-tier adversary. That’s a fortitude that demands respect.
If you watch sports purely for results and athletic performances, you will miss much of what makes Cormier special. His style of fighting is a manifestation of the man he is, an expression of earnest and unwavering determination to be the best version of himself, despite the parade of tragedies he has had to endure to get there. A win over Miocic would have been incredible, but the loss doesn’t negate everything else he represents.
Cormier’s accomplishments are excellent, and if the sport ended today, he’d surely be considered one of the 20 best fighters ever—maybe even a fringe Top 10, if you’re feeling especially generous. His spot is almost certainly bound to slide as the sport progresses, but his legacy will remain intact. If he truly is retired, no one can say that he underachieved, that he wasted even a drop of his potential or that he could have done more. Very few people, fighters and regular folks alike, can claim such completion in any aspect of life. Whatever else can be said about his career, it pales in comparison to the things that cannot.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.