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Daniel Cormier survives past adversity, looks to dethrone UFC champ Jon Jones

12/31/2014 04:47 EST | Updated 03/02/2015 05:59 EST
LAS VEGAS, Nev. - At six foot four with a reach of 84 inches, UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon (Bones) Jones is a nasty, bone-breaking mixed martial arts puzzle.

For Daniel Cormier, however, he is just one more mountain to climb, one more problem to solve. And away from the cage, the 35-year-old challenger has survived far worse.

Adversity has walked lock-step with Cormier for many years.

His father was shot to death on Thanksgiving Day in 1986 when Cormier was seven. At Oklahoma State, his best friend was killed in a plane crash involving the college basketball team.

In 2003, his 3 1/2-month-old daughter Kaedyn Imri Cormier died in a car crash.

Despite the tragedy, Cormier still managed to finish fourth in wrestling at the 2004 Olympics. Four years later, he made weight only to have a kidney problem prevent him from competing in Beijing.

He fell into a funk after that, putting on 40 pounds as he mourned his Olympic dream.

On Saturday, a revitalized Cormier (15-0) goes for the 205-pound title against Jones (20-1) in the main event of UFC 182. As the hours count down to their showdown at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Cormier has not forgotten his painful road.

"When a guy goes through the things that I've been through, personally and in my career with wrestling and the Olympics, they fold, they're done," Cormier said Wednesday after an open workout on the casino floor at the MGM Grand.

"I started to do that. I was 265 pounds and mixed martial arts saved me from myself. I didn't think that after starting this sport, I could reach this level but I have. And it's a strong belief in myself, my fighter spirit and my will. And not only me, it's the people around me. They lift me up, man."

Cormier showed off his wrestling roots Wednesday with a T-shirt that read King of the Grind on the front and Embrace the Grind on the back.

And he pronounced himself ready and able for a fight that was first announced in July and pushed back from September due to a leg injury to Jones.

"I haven't felt this good in a long time," the challenger said.

"My team's around me. My family's here. Everybody that's important is here," he added. "We're all ready for this. This is what we've been preparing for. My whole gym is here ... We at AKA want another championship and I'm ready to deliver."

Cormier, who won a heavyweight grand prix tournament in Strikeforce and fought as a heavyweight in the UFC before dropping down to 205 pounds, trains with UFC heavyweight title-holder Cain Velasquez at the renowned American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose.

Velasquez and middleweight contender Luke Rockhold are among the AKA fighters who have come to Vegas to support Cormier in his title quest.

There has been no shortage of vitriol between Cormier and Jones, dating back to their first meeting when Cormier says Jones disrespected him. Jones disputes that but has still been a more than willing participant in the war of words that has ensued.

The two came to blows at an August news conference, after a staredown turned physical.

Bitter Rivals is the catchline on posters for the fight. A TV special on the bout was titled "Bad Blood." In a sport ruled by pay-per-view numbers, a good back story never hurts on fight night.

The invective has been dialed down of late, although there was some banter Wednesday arising out of Jones' comment on a media conference call Monday that Cormier's body type "doesn't scream athlete."

"Well I can grab the rim of a basketball (net)," Cormier said Wednesday. "Jon Jones's six four and can't dunk a basketball. So who's the athlete?"

Said an unfazed Jones: "It's true. I've never dunked a basketball. I've got no calves."

Jones' original comment was actually complimentary, in the context of saying that Cormier despite "being a short guy and thicker guy," had done some "some amazing thing both in the sport of wrestling and in his MMA career."

While Cormier looks like a squat fullback, the athletic Jones has the elongated, graceful body of an NBA player or a soccer goalie. Sports run in his family with brothers Arthur (Indianapolis Colts) and Chandler (New England Patriots) both in the NFL.

Jones, widely acknowledged as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, has already made seven successful title defences, beating back wave after wave of former champions. His run of 11-straight wins is the longest active streak in the UFC.

Fighting Jones is like facing a human combine-harvester given his size, reach and seemingly endless arsenal of punches, kicks and elbows. The champion has sent more than one opponent to hospital.

The five-foot-11 Cormier is a bull, however. He has outstruck every opponent he has faced in the UFC and Strikeforce and, when he gets his chance, can ragdoll his foe. How well he can penetrate Jones' 12-inch reach advantage may well decide the fight.

Both men have elite wrestling skills. Cormier was the more decorated amateur wrestler but Jones was a junior college national champion.

Jones has defended 96.4 per cent of the takedown attempts against him. Cormier has never been taken down in the UFC.

Cormier's rallying cry is, given what he has gone through, he's not supposed to be here. But he is.

"That's what makes a guy dangerous. When he can pick himself up, rebuild, refocus and get to where I am today."

Just 27, Jones is already well on his way to building a remarkable legacy.

"I want to be the best, I want to be the best champion of all time," said Jones, saying Anderson Silva and Canadian Georges St-Pierre are among those "great champions who are far ahead of me."

"I've got big dreams," he added.

Whatever happens Saturday, Cormier may have the final word. When not fighting, he is co-host of "UFC Tonight" on Fox TV.

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