BOSTON – The cheers came thundering down from the cheap seats, enveloping TD Garden in wave upon wave of sound.
“Let’s go DC! Let’s go DC!”
Daniel Cormier, the UFC light heavyweight champion, is a man who has never quite felt the love of the fans despite doing tremendous work in the cage and long embodying the ideals mixed martial arts fans claim they want out of their fighters.
But Boston, a town not exactly known for being friendly to African-American athletes over the years, appears to have marked the moment the tide turned in Cormier’s favor. The chants started early during his title defense against upstart Volkan Oezdemir at UFC 220 on Saturday night. They continued throughout the bout as Cormier put on a master class in how a crafty veteran uses guile to show a young buck a thing or two. The building erupted again after Cormier used a technically proficient chain of ground work to earn the second-round TKO and retain his belt.
“I think at its core people are still good, and I think they may sympathize with me a little bit,” Cormier said at the UFC 220 post-fight news conference. “I think that’s kind of why I got the cheers, and I really did enjoy and appreciate it.”
Cormier came of age in MMA right around the time the sport’s culture took a dramatic turn toward over-the-top trash talking. Combat sports have always been about the battle of words outside the ring, of course. But this is the age of Twitter, when someone like Conor McGregor can become a transcendent superstar based as much due to his verbal skills and tweets as his ability to back up his words in the cage.
That’s spawned a million imitators in what often turns into a breakneck race to the bottom. In such an environment, an earnest competitor such as Cormier, a family man who’s never had a whiff of a scandal in his professional life, and whose sense of humor tilts more toward old-school, good-natured ribbing than the mean-spiritedness currently in fashion, has never quite made for a comfortable fit.
But if the crowd reaction in Boston was any indication, then it appears the MMA world is finally coming around on what it has in Cormier, a former Olympic wrestler who won his first 13 pro fights at heavyweight and then became a light heavyweight out of deference to teammate Cain Velasquez, a two-time UFC heavyweight champ.
“It didn’t surprise me because I’ve seen a little bit of a shift since the last fight in the level of acceptance that I’ve gotten from the fans,” Cormier said. “Because, although you’ll have some people sprinkled in there that still say stuff that’s negative and kind of look past the fact that I may not have gotten a fair shake on a number of occasions, but the vast majority of people are just kind of like, man this guy’s had some rough luck. Just as he seems to have gotten past this black cloud in his career, that happened.”
The “black cloud,” of course, is the reference to his bitter rivalry with Jon Jones, the one which until recently seemed to be the defining story of his career. As anyone who has followed this sport more than a day can tell you, the supremely talented Jones handed Cormier his first career loss, via unanimous decision, at UFC 182, then earned an apparent head-kick TKO victory last summer at UFC 214 in the rematch.
That result was changed to a no-contest after Jones flunked a post-fight drug test, the latest in his seemingly endless string of self-inflicted wounds from trouble with the sport’s regulators to legal issues. Those issues are likely to sideline Jones until after Cormier, who turns 39 in March, retires from competition.
“The whole Jones thing, it sucked,” Cormier said. “I lost a fight and I got beat. I got my ass kicked. And I cried in the Octagon. I cried before I went to bed. But you know when I cried the most? It was Sunday morning when I was laying on the couch and the kids are laying in bed with their mom, and my boy rolls over and he taps his mom, because every time he’d never go to the fights he wanted to know if his dad had won. And you know what I heard at 7:30 in the morning in Anaheim? He tapped his mom and he goes, ‘Mom, did dad win?’ And she said no, he didn’t win this time.”
That’s a level of honesty and authenticity that’s rare in this sport which is infused with testosterone fueled-bravado. The fans’ embrace in a city as hostile as Boston can sometimes be seems to signify that they, too, have moved on from the whole sordid affair, and have come to appreciate Cormier, whose 20-0 record in his non-Jones fights is a remarkable run all on his own, for who he is, rather than defining him against a rival who can’t stay on the straight and narrow.
Cormier has caught on as a color commentator and will no doubt be around the scene for years to come, reiterated Monday on “The MMA Hour” that he’s setting a firm date for retirement.
“I’m going to be done at 40,” he said. “I won’t be back. It won’t be jumping around or doing ‘I’m waiting for the right fight.’ I’m done at 40.”
That gives us just a bit over a year to appreciate what one of the sport’s great ambassadors has accomplished. UFC 220 was our hint the people are finally ready to enjoy it while it lasts.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Super Bowl: The ghost of Foles vs. the legend of Brady
• Dan Wetzel: Seated next to disgraced pedophile Nassar is a kind voice
• Awkward moment as Hope Solo honored at game
• 49ers QB Garoppolo cashes in on Patriots’ AFC title