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Daniel Cormier seeks opportunity to leave on a high note

Daniel Cormier saw Peyton Manning do it. He cringed when Michael Jordan missed his opportunity.

All-time greats riding off into the sunset and retiring at the pinnacle of their sport is a rare occurrence. Cormier hopes to add himself to the short list on Saturday night by capturing the rubber match of his trilogy with Stipe Miocic in the main event of UFC 252 at the Apex.

“Most guys in my position who are talking about being done are on the preliminary card somewhere,” the 41-year-old former two-division champion said Thursday. “That’s not me. I’m fighting to be the best in the world on Saturday. You’ve got to be comfortable walking away as the best in the world or eventually you’re going to end up on the prelims for someone to beat you and build off your name.”

Or on the Washington Wizards. Jordan retired for the second time after sealing an NBA Finals trophy with a last-minute shot against the Jazz. That could have been the final attempt of his legendary career, but he decided to come back and play for Washington.

Cormier would rather follow Manning’s path.

“It would put me in that type of sphere with some of the greatest athletes who ever competed across any sport,” Cormier said Thursday. “So when I win on Saturday, I will retire that way. Jordan did it with the Bulls against the Jazz. Unfortunately he came back. I won’t. Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl in his last season. I think it puts you alongside the greatest athletes of all time.”

Cormier knows he has to win first. He can’t leave on top if he doesn’t get by Miocic and not only reclaim the heavyweight belt, but the unofficial title of best heavyweight in UFC history.

The bout headlines a pay-per-view event that also features breakout superstar Sean O’Malley putting his undefeated record on the line against bantamweight contender Marlon Vera.

Cormier, a former Olympic wrestler, knows what it will take to claim victory. He did it once before, knocking out Miocic in the first round of their first bout in 2018 to take the belt. Miocic took it back by softening him up with body punches and knocking him out in the August 2019 rematch.

“There is no debate,” UFC president Dana White said. “The winner of this fight is the greatest heavyweight ever in mixed martial arts. Period. Two future hall of famers, two of the best to ever do it to determine the greatest heavyweight champion ever.

“You just don’t see heavyweights go at it like these two guys have gone at it for two fights. Saturday we find out who’s the best heavyweight of all time.”

Falling short would be a bitter pill for Cormier to swallow. He already may go down as the second-best light heavyweight in history behind his bitter rival Jon Jones.

“I’m a guy with a big ego and that would suck,” he said of potentially being second-best in another weight class. “I have to be honest. To think there would be two guys in my career who were just better than me and I had multiple chances to beat them and didn’t get it done? Yeah, it would suck.”

Conversely, the thrill of a victory would signify the pinnacle of a storied career. Cormier, who fought at light heavyweight from 2014 to 2018, started and hopes to finish his career in a heavyweight division where he was dominant in just about every round he competed in until the loss to Miocic last year.

If he can atone for the setback, he would mark it as his greatest achievement in mixed martial arts despite the absence of the kind of roaring sold-out crowds he’s grown accustomed to as his star has risen.

The Apex will be devoid of fans due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s all about moments,” he said. “The moment you win your first title. The moment you have both titles and are sitting on top of the cage and enjoying the fan adulation. Those things are important. But this moment I believe will be bigger than any of them. You don’t get to bask in all the people screaming, but you get to fight in that cage with just that small amount of people and they get to hear the punches. We hit each other a lot last fight. Can you imagine what you’re going to hear on Saturday night? It’s going to be fantastic. I can’t wait for it.”

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.

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