Daniel Cormier has credited Alexander Gustafsson for making him a “better man and fighter” in their five round war for the UFC light-heavyweight title in Texas in Saturday.
Cormier managed to hang onto the strap he won in May, but was forced to dig deep and whether a barrage of strikes from Gustafsson.
The 36-year-old won via split decision, with the judges scoring the bout 48-47, 47-48, 49-46, and thanked his opponent in his post-fight interview inside the cage.
“Thank you, Alexander Gustafsson. You made me a better man and fighter tonight. I talk a lot. It's my job to sell these fights,” he said.
“But I expected that Alex. I expected that warrior and a guy I left part of myself in this Octagon with. I just wanted to prove I wasn't one dimensional and I can stand with the best strikers in the world.
“Every time I hit him, he stopped moving, he just held on to me. If you make a striker try to wrestle with you, you're doing a damn good job.
"Everything hurts. You have to be honest. You have to tell the truth: That guy beat me up tonight.
“Alexander Gustafsson is an absolute stud. He’s one of the best fighters in the world. The sport needs guys like Alexander Gustafsson who can go out there and lay it all on the line against the best fighters in the world.”
Cormier won the then-vacant title with a third round finish victory against number one contender Anthony Johnson, meaning his list of potential opponents for his second defence is abnormally narrow.
Johnson has since returned to winning ways with a technical knockout victory against eighth-ranked Jimi Manuwa, but a rematch between him and Cormier seems unlikely.
The UFC 192 card also saw fourth-ranked light-heavyweight Ryan Bader secure his fifth consecutive win, and second consecutive win over a former title challenger, with a unanimous decision victory against Rashad Evans.
Bader could be next in line to face Cormier for the title, unless Jon Jones returns to the octagon in time to reclaim his title.
Jones was tripped of his belt earlier this year after he was arrested for allegedly committing a hit and run while under the influence of drugs. His last title defence was a unanimous decision victory against Cormier at UFC 182 in January.
While the current champion says he would happily grant Jones a shot at redemption, he will not do so at the UFC’s first ever event in New York at Madison Square Garden in April.
“At the end of the day when Jones gets reinstated, New York is probably the only place that he’ll be welcomed without venomous anger,” he said.
“This is where he’s from, so they will actually care for him. Cheer for him. Why should I allow this guy to go and fight where he’s comfortable?”