Daniel Cormier

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Dirty Dan? Daniel Cormier and the eye poke controversy

It’s only fitting that in the year 2020, a generally beloved fighter like Daniel Cormier, the bitter rival of Jon Jones, would eventually come under fire for his recent string of illegal tactics in his last pair of outings. Jones, a man of many controversies outside the Octagon, has seen his biggest within it revolve around the attacking of his opponents’ eyes.

Jones has been better at reducing those occurrences as of late while instead making up for it controversially in the form of questionable victories via the judges’ scorecards. Therefore leaving Cormier to take the spotlight as the new “eye poker extraordinaire” in the eyes of fans.

The question just comes down to whether or not it’s intentional – which automatically feels silly to ask considering Cormier’s honorable history as a lifelong athlete.

As the now 41-year old Cormier approaches what is expected to be the last fight of his career at UFC 252 on August 15, the former Olympic wrestler recently addressed the accusations of mid-fight cheating. At UFC 252, Cormier will look to reclaim the heavyweight crown that he lost to his upcoming opponent in Stipe Miocic – the man he first defeated to capture it in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, when speaking with MMA Fighting’s Damon Martin and ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, Cormier denied any notions of intentionally eye-poking Miocic in their previous two matchups. And when looking back on things, it’s fair to say that he didn’t. In all fairness, he didn’t really need to either.

Calling the claims “f*cking stupid”, Cormier also offered up a bit of an explanation as to why the eye pokes happened in the first place. More specifically, he referenced the very first poke, the worst of the bunch, that occurred in their first fight at UFC 226.

The first poke saw Daniel Cormier toss his right-hand forward toward Miocic as if he was going to jab. But instead, he left his hand open last second making it look as if he was undeniably attempting a swiping of the eyes on purpose. The fact that he succeeded in connecting didn’t help the cause.

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That poke came late in the first round, roughly 35 seconds or so before Miocic was knocked out to lose his world title. Before assessing any further, let’s just get it out of the way and note that Miocic didn’t APPEAR to be affected negatively from the eye pokes performance-wise in the immediate aftermath. But of course, getting hit in one of the most sensitive parts of the body with anything, let alone a limb looking to do damage, will be unpleasant and cause some distracting discomfort for any period of time that follows.

Now, the common explanation for Jones’ eye pokes has been as part of his distance management. Utilizing his record 84.5-inch reach to perfection throughout his career to keep adversaries at bay, it hasn’t always come cleanly when making his measurements to dish out damage.

In the case of Daniel Cormier, he’s a relatively shorter fighter than most in his weight classes and is almost always at a disadvantage, if not always. So whereas Jones is looking to keep opponents away, Cormier’s measuring is to see if he can get close. Accompany that with his wrestling background, he’s seen trying to grab a lot and get in the clinch while pressing in close. Meaning, his fingers are pretty noticeably always in extension to get ahold of wrists or the neck.

Cormier’s explanation was practically a summarized version of that. He noted that when in his training during sparring sessions, he’ll be wearing the big 16 ounce gloves and try to reach his sparring partners with the end of his glove. So when he does that instinctually in an actual fight with the small fingerless four once gloves, his fingers are out. Thus potentially leading to what we saw in the first Miocic meeting.

Is that a good or reasonable excuse and explanation? Well, a bit of yes and no.

It is reasonable because you have to remember the fact that fighters’ repetitions and muscle memories are built in those training sessions. This means a significantly larger amount of time is spent in those situations as opposed to the actual full fight scenario that the fans are accustomed to seeing.

The big problem circles back to Cormier’s style and his disadvantages in length. Which at the same time isn’t necessarily his fault. He’s just trying to take his best path to victory by closing the distance, which is rarely if ever by recklessly unleashing wild punches in the pocket.

Having gone back and rewatched both of their fights, Cormier only legitimately poked Miocic in the eyes once in each fight. The word “legitimately” in use because there were two instances in the rematch where Miocic noted distress about his eyes. The second coming from a good jab that landed flush with Miocic’s eye causing him to wince.

The first came in the middle of the second round as Miocic caught a thumb from the American Kickboxing Academy staple. This was actually a nice measuring from Daniel Cormier as he did so with his hand closed, but the thumb got a bit loose and just ended up where it shouldn’t have. Unfortunately, the big issue that isn’t talked about with this instance was referee Herb Dean calling it clean when it clearly was not. Leading to Miocic being forced to instantly try and recover without a break. And he actually was able to rattle off a very nice combo in defense.

Perhaps the most ridiculous part of the refereeing sequence though was that it was directly before Dean told Cormier to watch his fingers. Yes, it is hard to be a referee… however…

Considering how often Cormier’s hands are open to try and engage, the referee also needs to be held responsible for this. Under the New Unified Rules of MMA, extending your fingers towards an opponent IS a foul. That’s the extension by itself, not even actually getting to the poking action.

Very rarely since the rule update in 2017 has this been enforced by officials aside from the random shouts to “watch the fingers” as Dean did here. Which caused no change to Cormier’s approach. The most notable times that warnings have been given came from “Big” John McCarthy who helped create the rules.

If this rule was more strictly enforced, you can guarantee it would lead to fighters adapting and just closing their hands a bit more to avoid point deductions.

But the blame still falls on Cormier. And despite every angle to look at, ultimately, his explanation or excuse is not okay. Miocic had to have eye surgery after the last Cormier fight. Whether that was because of what happened in the fight or not, it certainly couldn’t have helped.

As we’re soon to see the trilogy complete, it’s also unlikely that Daniel Cormier will have altered his distance approaches at all. Because truly, they really aren’t even tactics or attempts to be dirty, but just him trying to comfortably work the best he can with what he has.

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