If you were picking a professional fighter out of a lineup, you would never give Daniel Cormier a second glance. Nothing about his close-cropped and receding hairline, his stocky stature or his indisputable belly pudge screams fighter. It says "accounting and sales." With his easy smile and friendly demeanor, he looks more like a giant Teddy bear than one of the world's very best cage fighters.
Even when you attach superlatives to that picture—things like NCAA All-American, two-time Olympian, Strikeforce champion—it doesn't compute. Standing barely 5'10", it's hard to imagine Cormier stepping into the Octagon and doing battle with the biggest, baddest men on the planet. In pictures of him with his peers, he stands out, a living incongruity.
Until the cage door closes. Until the first winging punch connects. Until he picks another man up like he is a mere child and deposits him on the mat. Until his hand is raised high, as it has been after each of his 11 professional fights.
Then? Then it's not so hard to imagine Cormier, cagefighter. Once you've seen him in the cage, seen him deftly avoiding the submissions of a proven veteran like Josh Barnett, seen him out-strike Antonio Silva (literally breaking his hand on the giant's head), when you've seen him control a crafty grappler like Jeff Monson, you can picture Daniel Cormier standing among the very best of all time.
But can that really happen? Will we eventually mention his name among the greats?
There are a lot of reasons to answer that question in the affirmative. After all, he's looked unbeatable as yet, managing to add, in just four years, an advanced and dynamic striking game to his nay-but-unstoppable wrestling attack.
Barnett was expected to be his toughest test. Instead, Cormier never even broke a sweat, beating a veteran of 15 years with style and panache.
Silva has finished not one, but two UFC heavyweight title contenders in the last six months. Cormier made him look like a rank amateur despite never even taking the fight into his world on the mat.
And yet, there is reason to doubt, too. At least 34 reasons in truth, one for each year of the wrestler's life.
The clock is already ticking on Cormier's career and he hasn't even made his Octagon debut yet. While athletes continue to defy Father Time in ways that would have been ludicrous to consider even a decade ago, the truth is that Cormier is starting his career at an age most athletes are winding down.
Think about Tom Brady and Kobe Bryant.
Both are pillars of their respective sports. Both are aging veterans who have long ago stamped their tickets to the Hall of Fame. And both men are Cormier's contemporaries.
MMA is Cormier's second athletic career, coming as it does after not one, but two appearances on the American Olympic wrestling team. And worse than just being old, Cormier is brittle old.
Three times in a career that has spanned less than four years, Cormier has broken his hand on an opponent's head. The last time, against Barnett, required surgery and a six-week layoff.
These are not signs of a long and glorious career in combat sports. Once a hand breaks, it has a tendency to continue to break in subsequent bouts. You can survive an injury like that if you are the notoriously frail Floyd Mayweather, wearing enormous pillow gloves to the ring and pitter-pattering with punches.
But that won't fly with MMA's four-ounce gloves and Cormier's all-or-nothing striking style. How many times will Cormier be able to wail away on Frank Mir's incredibly hard head before his hand gives in? And if he comes through that fight unscathed, there is always the next one and the one after that.
His body, the machine that has taken him far in life, is no longer his friend. It's a ticking time bomb waiting to betray him at the first possible instance.
The time is now if he's going to write his name in the MMA history books. But Cormier is not just racing the clock and his own body. There's also a 240-pound roadblock in his path by the name of Cain Velasquez.
The UFC champion is also Cormier's main training partner and friend.
"Training with him gives me great confidence. He's recognized as one of the top-three heavyweights in the world, universally," Cormier told me last year. "Having a guy like that in the gym? Every single day? It's great. I look across the cage and know I've put the work in, every time I see my opponent. I know I've trained hard, because if you don't, Cain's going to kill you. You have no choice but to work your butt off."
Can he bring himself to fight his buddy? If the answer is no, and that seems likely, can he even make the cut to 205 pounds after a previous kidney failure trying to cut weight for the 2008 Olympics?
And then there's Jon Jones. If Cormier's body holds up, if he beats Mir, if he can make the cut to 205 pounds—all significant obstacles, mind you—waiting for him there is one of the most skilled MMA fighters of all time.
The rangy Jones, a long, limber terror who uses every one of his 76 inches, seems specifically designed to thwart a fighter like Cormier. He is a master at keeping the fight at a safe distance, his own wrestling background giving him a seemingly preternatural sense for what his fellow wrestlers are going to do at any given moment.
Jones presents a tall test—not just for Cormier, but for any fighter in the world. He's feasted on wrestlers, making easy work of NCAA stalwarts like Ryan Bader and Rashad Evans, as well as international competitors like Vladimir Matyushenko.
And while none of his previous opponents can quite match Cormier's impressive pedigree, does that really matter if they are picking their teeth up off the mat before they can even get close enough to shoot their first single leg?
If you're counting along at home, that's four reasons Cormier may never join the ranks of MMA's true immortals. Age, injury, circumstance and Jon Jones—formidable obstacles each and every one. Yet there's something about Cormier that makes me believe that if any one can defy the odds, it is him.
Beneath the grin, lurking within this Teddy bear of a man, is a passion and a fire to succeed. The skills are there to do it, too, to beat any man on a given day. Next on the list is Frank Mir. After that, whether it's Jon Jones or Cain Velasquez standing across the cage, a Cormier loss is hard to even visualize at this point. I have a feeling that his is a story that's just getting started.