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Cormier: UFC 200 rematch with Jones is 'life or death' for me

One way or another, UFC 200 will be a redemption story for one of the sport's light heavyweight champions.

Jon Jones, already the greatest fighter in the world at age 28, will attempt to the reclaim the title he was stripped of in April 2015, when he fled the scene of a traffic accident in New Mexico. The story on Jones is his natural, unrivaled talent, which at times he has seemed determined to waste. A dominant performance against Cormier would go a long way toward closing that narrative.

And on the other side is Daniel Cormier, one of the most accomplished athletes in the game but also one missing a truly career-defining moment.

Cormier, 37, is a six-time U.S. National wrestling champion and a two-time Olympian. As a collegiate wrestler, however, he came up one win short of winning an NCAA championship. His two trips to the Olympics produced zero medals. And even though he is the defending UFC champion in Saturday's main event at T-Mobile Arena, he did not take the title from Jones. The two fought in January 2015 before Jones was stripped, and Cormier lost via unanimous decision.

"I haven't experienced that shining moment," Cormier told ESPN. "When [UFC president] Dana White straps that title belt around your waist, that's huge. But to be truly recognized as the best in the world at something? I can't say that I've felt that because Jon beat me in our first fight.

"I'll say this -- there are things I've done that can't be taken away, but my legacy in mixed martial arts comes down to this fight. If I don't win this fight, I'm dead. I have nowhere else to go. I will have lost twice to [Jones]. This is life or death for me and I'm OK with that."

Cormier (17-1) says his rematch with Jones will define his legacy in MMA, not his athletic career as a whole, but even some of those closest to him have trouble separating the two.

Originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, Cormier has been tied to sports for most of his life. He was a high school state wrestling champion and fielded a football scholarship offer from LSU.

Wrestling specifically has always been his first, second and third passion. It has been his safe haven at times. When he was 7, his father was fatally shot on Thanksgiving. He lost a close friend and then a cousin to separate car accidents in high school. In 2003, his three-month-old daughter, Kaedyn, died in a car accident. Cormier's therapy through it all took place on the wrestling mat.

"If you know anything about Daniel, you know that wrestling pretty much adopted him," said Craig Andrus, Cormier's cousin. "When those tough times in his life happened, he always looked to wrestling."

Cormier began his collegiate career at a junior college in Kansas, before transferring to NCAA powerhouse Oklahoma State for two seasons. He moved weight classes in the process, dropping from 197 pounds to compete at 184. That happened to be the same weight class as Cael Sanderson, who is considered to be the greatest collegiate wrestler of all time.

"I think his senior year, he had singled Cael out," said John Smith, head coach at OSU. "Right out of junior college, he was still realizing how good he was, and we took it slow with him. By 2001, it wasn't about winning an NCAA championship anymore, it was about beating the best pound-for-pound guy in college wrestling. Daniel was so competitive, I remember feeling that if he was that focused on Cael, I wasn't worried about him making the NCAA finals, because we knew that's where Cael would be."

Cormier would lose to Sanderson six times between 2000 and 2001. After college, his focus immediately turned to winning an Olympic gold medal, which he came close to accomplishing in 2004 with a fourth-place finish.

All roads led to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Cormier made the team for the second time and was promoted to team captain. The field was wide open. None of the three wrestlers who finished ahead of Cormier in 2004 competed in 2008.

What was supposed to be the peak of Cormier's athletic career, however, became its lowest point. After making weight, Cormier's body began to shut down. He was taken to a medical facility and diagnosed with kidney failure. He ultimately withdrew.

"He let his weight get heavy going into those Olympics," said Kevin Jackson, former USA wrestling coach. "It became a purely dehydration cut. For three days, we were in plastics, in the sauna. He sucked it up and got through it, made weight, but he was hurting and cramping up. We made the decision to get him to the hospital.

"After he withdrew, I think there were some people that turned their back on him. They thought it was embarrassing to the country. There were even thoughts that he needed to pay back the costs of his flight and housing in Beijing. A few of us stayed focused on what was really important, the man, but it was his fault he didn't compete. Nobody else did that to him."

When Cormier returned to the U.S., he took a job at a television station in Oklahoma. His love of wrestling was never going anywhere, but Andrus says Cormier kept to himself initially. Before the Olympics, he had talked about winning a medal and then transitioning to a coaching job at a Division I college. After the Olympics, his relationship with the sport was less mapped out.

"That was one of the worst times of his life," Andrus said. "I'd be lying if I said he didn't still keep up with wrestling, but he really turned himself away from a lot of it. It was like, 'I don't know what I want to do with wrestling anymore.'

"And then one day, it just hit him. He called me and said, 'Bro, I'm going to California to fight. I'm too short to try out for the Houston Rockets, so I'm gonna go fight.'"

The revelation didn't come from nowhere. Cormier had been recruited by MMA manager and former collegiate wrestler DeWayne Zinkin since about 2003. Zinkin had actually taken his business partner Bob Cook to one of Cormier's wrestling matches and declared, "This guy is going to be a badass fighter."

Cook, seeing Cormier for the first time, responded, "That short, little guy?"

Cormier, who is 5-foot-11, arrived at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose after a year of relative inactivity. Cook remembers him weighing around 268 pounds, "with not as much muscle as he has now." Cormier was a fast learner, however, and a natural leader. In addition to winning his first 15 fights, he quickly became the head wrestling coach at the gym.

And now all roads have led to UFC 200 in Las Vegas. The Jones (22-1) rematch was supposed to headline UFC 197 in April, but Cormier pulled out with a leg injury. That delay, coupled with a public spat between the UFC and Irish star Conor McGregor, paved the way for Cormier to headline a landmark event. His shot at redemption against Jones, whom he personally dislikes, is coming on the grandest stage the sport can offer.

Expectations are that Jones will get his redemption, not Cormier. Jones is significantly favored to win the fight, as he was before their first meeting.

The cruel reality might be that Jones is just better, a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Cormier is just unlucky enough to have run into two of them in his lifetime: Sanderson and now Jones.

But this is where Cormier is able to separate the two, and it's why he believes UFC 200 will leave a lasting impact on his MMA career and not his overall legacy as an athlete. "Cael was better," Cormier will tell you. He just was, for multiple reasons. He had it all together. No one was beating Sanderson in a college wrestling match in 2001.

Jones? Cormier believes he can beat Jones, which would make him arguably the best fighter in the world. His redemption will be proving that to everyone.

"I truly believe I am better than Jon Jones," Cormier said. "I still believe that the last time we fought, I fought bad. I don't have to be mistake-free to beat Jones, because I feel like I'm the better fighter."