Daniel Cormier is the UFC light heavyweight champion. He is not, however, regarded as the greatest light heavyweight alive. That lofty title goes to his fiercest rival, Jon Jones.
Cormier and Jones’ rivalry is perhaps the most chaotic in MMA history. While rivalries and grudges are often manufactured and force-fed to fans as a means of selling tickets and pay-per-views, there is no denying that these two light heavyweights harbor a very real dislike for each other. They have talked trash, they have gotten in each other’s faces, they have even engaged in an infamous press conference brawl.
They’ve also shared the Octagon twice.
Legendary combat sports rivalries are typically spawned when two fighters alternate wins and losses over the course of a few bouts. This has not been the case in the Cormier vs. Jones saga. Instead, Jones has come out on top both times the two fought.
Regrettably, Jones’ recent success – particularly his two wins over Cormier – have been called into question by his many recent failed drug tests. Even his second and most recent win over Cormier, which earned him the UFC light heavyweight title, was overturned, meaning that the title went back to Cormier. While Jones is maintaining his innocence, avowing he didn’t take any banned substances advertently, the rules are clear, and, intentionally or not, he broke them.
Having been popped for banned substances once again –this time for Turinabol – Jones now awaits sentencing from the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the UFC’s iron-fisted, anti-doping partner. Given that he is a repeat offender; the organization is not likely to go easy on him. In fact, he could well receive a whopping four-year suspension.
A four-year suspension, of course, would be disastrous for Jones’ career. This is a consensus greatest-of-all-time contender who is now in dire need of a few legitimate, clean wins to prove that the praise he has received over the years is justified. As bad as a hiatus of this length would be for Jones, however, it’s arguable that it could be even more difficult for Cormier.
While the UFC light heavyweight title was returned to Cormier when Jones’ win was overturned, fans will have a difficult – maybe impossible – time forgetting the outcome of the pair’s two fights. Over the course of his illustrious career, Cormier has defeated top-flight opponents in both the heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions. He has toppled foes like Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, Josh Barnett, Roy Nelson, Frank Mir, Dan Henderson, Anthony “Rumble” Johnson (twice), Alexander Gustafsson, and Anderson Silva. Yet we have seen him lose twice to Jones. Whether these losses are legitimate, whether they’ve been overturned… these are just things we have witnessed, and they are going to be tremendously difficult to forget as we watch the light heavyweight division trundle on with Jones on the sidelines and Cormier at the helm.
Really, Cormier could go on to defend his title against Alexander Gustafsson, Volkan Oezdemir, Jimi Manuwa, Misha Cirkunov, Glover Teixeira, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, any procession of light heavyweight stars, and we would still remember that, on the two separate occasions that he was locked in the cage with Jones, he failed to win. As such, it is going to be very hard for fight fans – whether they’re his supporters or detractors– to accept him as the light heavyweight champion. And he seems to know this very well himself.
“The people around me, my friends, they tell me that nothing has changed because if [Jon Jones] was not fighting completely clean, then there was no fight,” Cormier said of his reinstatement in an interview with ESPN. “But I was there. I fought. In my mind, I lost a competition, but if it was an unfair competition — I shouldn’t have been in it. It’s a hard question. I guess I do feel like the champion, because I know I was the champion before all this happened. I don’t know. It’s a difficult question to ask someone like me. My manager, my wife, my coaches — it’s easy for them to answer. For me, it’s a tough question.”
There’s just no denying it. Cormier’s renewed title reign will have a massive, Jon Jones shaped shadow cast over it. The only way he can chase that shadow away is by beating Jones.
The issue there is, once again, the possibility of a four-year Jon Jones absence. Daniel Cormier is now 38 years old. He’s already getting up there in the context of professional sports. In the context of the bone-bending, brain-rattling world of combat sports, he should already be well into his physical decline. For the moment, of course, Cormier seems fully capable of staving off Father Time. Four years from now, however, he’ll be 42. His still being able to compete at the highest level at the point seems very unlikely. His being able to beat Jones who, layoff or not, will be only 34, seems nearly impossible.
Daniel Cormier is one of the best fighters alive. Daniel Cormier is the UFC light heavyweight champion. Say either of these things out loud, and nobody is likely to argue with you. Call Daniel Cormier the best light heavyweight on earth, however, and you’re likely to run into a problem. For, deep down, no fan, no coach, no journalist, no fighter, not even Cormier himself is likely to be able to forget what happened on the occasions when he and Jones fought. And so, his renewed title reign, no matter how dominant it becomes, will always be shadowed in illegitimacy. This will remain the case until he’s able to defeat Jon Jones, and now, it looks like me never have the chance.
MMA is a brutal game.