Daniel Cormier is the UFC’s fixer.
When it needed a major fight to top its typically deep Madison Square Garden card Nov. 3, Cormier this week shrugged off a right hand that remains sore and approved booking his first heavyweight title defense — against second-ranked brawler Derrick Lewis.
“I went to see how my hand would hold up. It did. I said, ‘OK, I can fight,’” Cormier, a two-division champion, told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday in his first full interview since agreeing to the UFC 230 main event. “I’m going to have to punch. You can’t go into a fight thinking you’re only going to wrestle. I have to be confident I can use my right hand to finish the fight as I’ve been doing lately.”
Hours before he spoke, Cormier learned that UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, his stablemate at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, had threatened to quit the organization as a result of it cancelling an Oct. 27 fight in New Brunswick between Nurmagomedov teammate Zubaira Tukhugov and Conor McGregor teammate Artem Lobov.
The UFC’s decision was based on Tukhogov’s involvement in the melee that followed Nurmagomedov jumping out of the the octagon after defeating McGregor on Saturday night in pursuit of a trash-talking McGregor training member.
“I can kind of see where the guy [Nurmagomedov] would be upset, but I can also see fault in the things they [the UFC] have done, and the fault in the [McGregor] side too,” Cormier said. “It’s a full-on [crap]-show.
“The reality is it’s the fight game and it was such a big fight and such a big moment. I wish it would’ve ended better, but it seemed like that was destined to be the ending because it started so terribly,” with McGregor getting arrested in Brooklyn for attacking a bus occupied by Nurmagomedov in April, “that terrible would be the way it ended.”
Cormier understands that Nurmagomedov, so principled and devout in both his daily life and Islamic faith, carries convictions that some can struggle to grasp.
“Even back a couple years ago, [McGregor] coach [John] Kavanagh wrote something just joking about ‘Jesus likes knockouts,’ and immediately Khabib wrote, ‘Brother, we should not joke about religion.’ And that was before any issues between him and Conor,” Cormier said.
“They’re just so strong in what they believe that when you start to attack that, it becomes an issue. Look, this is a guy who has millions of dollars and still lives with his father and takes a backseat to his dad. When you start attacking that … I understand Conor builds fights the way he builds them, and obviously it works because they did more than 2 million pay-per-view buys. …
“But the thing that made the promotion successful and made Khabib a ton of money was also the thing that made him so upset. … He’s passionate about what he believes.”
Cormier said that he expects Nurmagomedov to receive “some sort of punishment and suspension,” from the Nevada Athletic Commission, but he’s hopeful the UFC doesn’t inflame its relationship with the lightweight champion by cutting Tukhugov.
Nurmagomedov has only one fight remaining on his current UFC contract.
“If there’s no true standard baseline as to what the punishment is, we can’t create it in the moment,” Cormier said. “There’s been other instances where guys have done stuff like that and haven’t been cut.
“They just need to talk to Khabib and be fair with him and the rest of the team and they’ll be fine. I know Khabib loves to fight in the UFC. He used to record Bruce Buffer introducing him into the octagon … he loves being part of the organization, every part of it. There’s not a massive gap … once they talk, it’ll get worked out pretty easily, and both sides will have to make some concessions to get this thing done.”
That calm was seen Saturday as Cormier (21-1) sought to comfort Nurmagomedov following the bedlam, and the 39-year-old champion came through less than 48 hours later by approving the fight against Lewis (21-5), who stunningly knocked out Russia’s Alexander Volkov with 11 seconds remaining.
“They asked me a few weeks ago to fight Stipe Miocic,” Cormier said of the former heavyweight champion he dethroned by first-round knockout in July. “My right hand — the one I hit Miocic with — is messed up, and I told them I’m still rehabbing, that, ‘If you have someone else … I’m not at my best form.’ I don’t want to fight Stipe Miocic, the greatest heavyweight of all time on short notice. He’s too good.”
Cormier said the UFC replied by offering him Lewis, who has won nine of his last 10 fights with seven knockouts, and more that double what he earned against Miocic.
“Really difficult to turn away … ,” Cormier said. “Derrick Lewis is a true fighter. You can make certain guys quit. He never quits on himself, never gives up, constantly thinks, ‘All I need is one chance to change everything,’ and those are the guys who are dangerous, the ones who show that undying faith to land one that can end the fight. Derrick Lewis is a stud.
“It’s going to be a tough fight, especially because I’m not 100% prepared for the fight. It will be difficult. No [excuse], I’ll do everything to beat Derrick Lewis. I’m not looking for any way out. I’ll make sure I’m healthy and I’m going to fight.”
Cormier has long maintained that he wants to retire when he turns 40 in March, but since the UFC also this week made a Dec. 29 rematch between former light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones and two-time title challenger Alexander Gustafsson for the 205-pound belt, Cormier admits he’s rethinking his plans about meeting former heavyweight champion and current WWE performer Brock Lesnar in March, then retiring.
Cormier has speculated that Jones has used performance-enhancing drugs in all three camps before they were to fight. Jones defeated Cormier by unanimous decision in 2015 when it was later revealed he had cocaine in his system a month earlier.
Their 2016 fight was scrapped when Jones tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance, and Jones tested positive again before defeating Cormier at Honda Center in an outcome changed to a no-contest.
“I’d love to fight Jones again at 205,” Cormeri said. “Moving up to heavyweight isn’t how I want to fix our rivalry. I want the same playing field to see if I can get the job done.”
So Cormier might have two fights remaining should he defeat Lewis: Lesnar or Miocic, then Jones.