Gritted PR teeth and a sagging PPV-hype backdrop. A platform-elevated primal champion’s roar.
Vividly iconic imagery already has been burned into the collective consciousness of the mixed martial arts world, and we’re still seven weeks away from the fight to end all fights. When Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier created slippery mayhem on the marble floor of a Las Vegas hotel lobby on Monday, it was in essence Round 1 of what promises to be the biggest UFC bout in a long, long while.
The Sept. 27 clash for the 205-pound championship was a big deal even before the press conference brawl because it is the first Jones fight that’s expected to be a fight. It’s true that Alexander Gustafsson put “Bones” through the wringer last September, but nothing in the buildup suggested that a bloody battering was impending. The tall Swede had been hyped for his height and not much more. And while Jones also has fought five former champions during his ascent to and reign at the top of the mountain, not one of them was widely viewed as a terribly serious threat. But Cormier sure is.
As a two-time U.S. Olympic wrestler, Cormier possesses a sports pedigree pretty much unmatched in MMA. Yet Athens 2004 and Beijing ’08 represent just the foundational building blocks of his sparkling resume. That’s an essential distinction. The Olympic silver won by his ’04 teammate Sara McMann didn’t help her avoid a one-minute-and-six-second destruction by Ronda Rousey last February. No one has come close to handling Cormier, though, in the 15 fights he’s fought since turning pro five years ago.
That the low-key man with no nickname other than “DC” started out as a heavyweight only adds to his intrigue. Cormier trains at American Kickboxing Academy with the baddest man on the planet, UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, and is said to be an even match in the gym for the big brute who routinely dismantles everyone else set in front of him. Because of an ongoing collaboration and friendship with Velasquez, heavyweight was a dead end for Cormier.
It’s been clear all along, as he was tossing around burly guys like Josh Barnett and Dan Henderson as if they were newbies from the UFC’s 115-pound division, that Cormier was on a collision course with Jones. And it was no less apparent that the 36-year-old Louisiana native poses a plausible threat to the man universally acclaimed as the best MMA fighter in the world today, and perhaps ever.
Jones recognizes this. He downplays it, speaking in interviews about how he’s been doubted before and how this challenge is nothing new. But he knows that’s hogwash. He might not betray his insecurity in words, but he certainly did with his actions on Monday.
The faceoff for cameras at the end of the UFC 178 press conference was different from any previous one in Jones’ career, and that was the case even before the fighters came to blows. In the past, no matter how much the other guy was mean-mugging him during a face-to-face photo op, “Bones” would just look down and off to the side. He’s always made it his practice to not meet an opponent’s stare. It was as though he considered himself above it all. He didn’t need to play the intimidation game. He was too good for that.
On Monday, however, when the main event fighters were brought onto the stage to pose, Jones walked right up to Cormier and pressed his forehead into his challenger’s. And when “DC” instinctively shoved him back, the champ went into full-on attack mode.
That remained Jones’ mental/emotional state for hours to come, we learned later in the week. In the aftermath of the brawl, the fighters made several joint media appearances — on ESPN, on Fox Sports 1, on SI.com’s SI Now — and interacted with various degrees of civility. More telling than any of those encounters, however, was one in a video that leaked four days later. It was from moments after their ESPN appearance, in which Jones had offered an apology like a pious choirboy. Unbeknownst to him and Cormier, though, the cameras continued to record, and within seconds the hot mic caught the champ darkening his tone and addressing his challenger as a “p----.” Cormier initially seemed amused by the sudden shift in demeanor, although the more he riffed on it in his mocking response — “You are just the fakest person” — the more disgusted he sounded.
“I wish they would let me next door” — the fighters were being interviewed separately but in the same building — “so I could spit in your [expletive] face,” Cormier finally spat out. Jones sat stone-faced for a beat, saying nothing. It was as though he were measuring out his response with mental teaspoons.
Finally Jones said, “You know I would absolutely kill you if you ever did something like that, right?”
The "oh-yeah"? dares then went back and forth, with Jones assuring Cormier that he didn’t mean he’d fight him over flying spittle, “no, I would literally kill you if you spit in my face.”
This was juvenile, keep-them-after-school-for-detention stuff from both men. But the shift in Jones’ manner, from public to (he believed) private, did shed some light on the man’s character, if only retroactively. Remember when a Swedish fan complained of being assailed with homophobic slurs on Instagram by Jones, and the champ and his management responded with claims that his account had been hacked or his phone had been stolen? Both stories came public before the team got its story straight. Both were widely dismissed as hoo-hah, although yeah, there were some who held out hope that the champ couldn’t really be so hateful. Now can there be any doubt? So what do execs at Nike see, really see, beneath the fading veneer, when they look at the man behind the swoosh splashed across a puffed-out chest?
The UFC 178 main event does come down to establishing a brand.
Cormier is a two-time Olympian with no medals to show for those journeys. His second ascent up Mount Olympus nearly killed him, as a bad weight cut before the Games resulted in kidney failure, forcing him out of the competition. Now he has a redemptive opportunity against a fighter regarded as unassailable (inside the cage, at least). This is his chance to go for the gold.
Jones is already regarded as the best in his sport, but a smashing performance against a man who might very well be No. 1a in the heavyweight division would go a long way toward fortifying the 27-year-old’s legacy as the greatest MMA fighter of all time. And in a sports era when athletes are getting away with far more vicious acts than tossing out childish threats, that might be enough to make him a big sell in the marketplace.
Now, can these guys keep up the intensity for another seven weeks?