The superfight was a magical moment in MMA history.
The SuperfightMania (BrockDown? RoyalBumble?) that followed was just a bad magic trick -- you know, the kind where you can see the sleight of hand unfolding in the most ham-handed way and wish you could unsee it. It was a clumsy postscript to Saturday night's storybook ending.
Daniel Cormier had just knocked out Stipe Miocic, the longest-reigning heavyweight champion in UFC history, to add that big-boy belt to the light heavyweight strap he already owned. The UFC 226 superfight -- just the third champion vs. champion clash in the promotion's 25-year history -- had turned T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas into a scene of chills and thrills and unmatched accomplishment. The spotlight was shining down upon the Octagon and onto the new champ-champ.
It was Cormier's moment in which to bask.
And then Cormier seized the moment to bring in Brock Lesnar.
It's hard to fault the new Baddest Man on the Planet for ending his postfight interview in the cage by grabbing the microphone and setting up his first heavyweight defense. His buddy Lesnar, the professional wrestler and one-time UFC champion and star attraction, was seated right there in the front row, a halo of dollar signs swirling above that massive crew-cut head.
Cormier is 39 years old and has promised his family he will be done with fighting by age 40. His birthday is in March. He has no time to waste. So rather than bask in the afterglow of one of the great championship accomplishments in UFC history, "DC" kept the engine revved and set his next fight promotion in motion by inviting Lesnar into the Octagon.
Cormier wants to get paid before he retires. A fight with Lesnar is the biggest money fight there is, unless Conor McGregor is bulking up on black pudding and Dublin coddle.
Fine, but why sully Saturday night's glorious moment with tired WWE theatrics? The one thing the UFC has always prided itself upon -- and has held itself in direct contrast with pro rasslin' -- is the sentiment expressed in the promotion's old slogan: "As Real As It Gets." Real isn't always pretty, but it's never fake. Cormier brawling with Jon Jones at a UFC news conference was ugly but a bona fide reflection of bad blood. Same with McGregor throwing a dolly through a bus window in Brooklyn. Do you think there was anything real about Lesnar shoving Cormier in the Octagon? Where's the beef?
UFC president Dana White told ESPN afterward that the melodrama was not scripted. Yeah, Lesnar just happened to arrive at the arena right before the main event. Cormier just happened to know he was cageside and, without checking with White or the UFC's matchmakers, felt empowered to announce that Lesnar would be his first challenger as heavyweight champ. And Lesnar just happened to be allowed into the cage to confront the new champ and get on the microphone to sell tickets. White just stood there smiling. He did not look the least bit surprised.
Maybe this is the way of today's sports world, which laps up the blowhard antics of the likes of LaVar Ball. But throughout the annals of the games we love, the greatest deeds in our collective sports memory have grown in stature when given a few moments to breathe. Cormier had just knocked out the heavyweight champ to make history in a rare superfight. Lesnar can wait, DC. Be here now.
Consider what Saturday night meant to the fight game and the two fighters.
For Miocic, it was a dramatic plunge from the top of the tallest mountain in the sport. He had been unbeaten in six fights over the past three years and had been champion for a little over two years. He had made three successful title defenses, more than any previous UFC heavyweight champion. Although he's a soft-spoken regular guy and not one to elevate his star power with mouthiness, Miocic nonetheless was being held up by some as the greatest the heavyweight division has ever seen. This night brought him back to earth with a thud.
Then there's Cormier. Despite having the starry credentials of UFC light heavyweight champion and, before that, NCAA All-American and two-time Olympian in wrestling, he had a résumé most notable for also-ran finishes. In college, he lost the 2001 NCAA final to Cael Sanderson -- no shame in that, though, as the Iowa State legend was 159-0 in his career. In the 2004 Olympics, Cormier finished just off the medals podium after losing in the semifinals to Khadzhimurat Gatsalov -- and then the Russian went on to claim the gold medal. At the 2008 Games, Cormier was a Team USA captain but did not compete after experiencing kidney failure during his weight cut. In the UFC, Cormier reached the top of the hill at light heavyweight only because of the personal-life failings of Jon Jones, who defeated him twice (although it only once shows on their records, as Jones popped for an anabolic steroid and the second win -- via nasty KO -- was changed to a no contest).
Now Cormier has made all of those almosts fade into the haunted shadows of the past. His future will forever glow with "I'm a two-division champion, baby!" Those were the words that burst forth from his smiling face in the Octagon after the knockout, which he accomplished with a quick right hand out of a clinch in the final minute of Round 1. The short, solid punch dropped Miocic lifelessly and lifted Cormier's own spirit like nothing before.
"I am 39 years old, and I've been second a lot of times," he said. "But today I finally accomplished everything."
Even, apparently, that big payday awaiting him at the exit door.
There's no shame in Cormier wanting to cash in. He deserves every cent he can squeeze out of this sport. But if Dana White wants his promotion to be respected among the sports mainstream, he owes an explanation to fans who care about his championship belts and to the fighters who vie for them. One of those fighters, Curtis Blaydes, has won four straight fights and appeared poised to become the No. 1 contender at heavyweight after Francis Ngannou and Derrick Lewis put on a snoozefest in Saturday's co-main event. Then into the cage walked Lesnar with his WWE promo, and a resigned Blaydes could only take to Twitter, writing in part, "Tired of all the politics. Like, is it even still about fighting? First CM Punk, now Brock Lesnar."
White has taken some heat over the past couple of years for booking Lesnar's fellow WWE thespian, CM Punk, in UFC bouts. But those were just prelims against similarly unqualified opponents -- money grabs with no significant impact on the sport's hierarchy. By putting Lesnar in a championship fight at this time, however, the UFC president is messing with the top tier of the sport. Yes, Lesnar is a former champion. But he is about to turn 41, it has been eight years since his last victory in the Octagon, and he was knocked out twice after that. What's more, after popping hot for the banned substance clomiphene two years ago, Lesnar is still on U.S. Anti-Doping Agency suspension.
Lesnar's qualifications for a title shot? He puts fannies in the seats at the arena and in front of pay-per-view telecasts. The UFC has had only 15 pay-per-views in its history reach a million households, and Lesnar has been part of five of them. That elevates him to No. 1 contender status in the eyes of Dana White and his bean counters.
White chasing the money might not ingratiate him to fans who care about the meritocracy that long has driven this sport, but who is going to begrudge Cormier a life-changing payday for him and his family as he heads for the exit door? DC is not just the new Baddest Man on the Planet, but he's also the Nicest Baddest Man. He has been an honest, respectful and elite athlete, one of the finest ever to compete in MMA. And if he has to beat up Brock Lesnar to walk out of the Octagon with his pockets bulging with cash, so be it.
The hype campaign just didn't need to step all over the magic that had just happened Saturday night.