Sunday May 24th, 2015

Fisticuffs can speak volumes without a word being said, and the two UFC title fights Saturday night in Las Vegas answered all appropriate questions succinctly and definitively. Yet none of the leather that was thrown around the octagon late in the evening was as memorable as the fighting words articulated by a couple of champions: The triumphant belt holders, in all of their euphoric post-fight glory, each felt a presence in the building that was killing his buzz. So they both spoke up.

Chris Weidman had reason to boast after turning Vitor Belfort into the incredible shrinking man in the UFC 187 co-main event, holding onto his middleweight championship with a brutal first-round TKO. But in an interview in the cage immediately afterward, the champ instead spoke like a lover spurned, perhaps reacting to the sporadic boos mixed in with the cheers cascading in his direction. “Hey, stop doubting me,” Weidman (13-0) told the 12,615 gathered at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. “It’s enough. Stop doubting me. You better join the team now. This is my last invitation. Join the team. I love you.”

Why that love hasn’t been unwaveringly returned by the masses is a mystery. This is a man who became a champion two years ago by shockingly beating up one of the greatest of all time, Anderson Silva, then defeating him five months later. Sure, both of those fights ended oddly, but no one could deny that Weidman was showing himself to be the better fighter both times. The 30-year-old Long Islander is an aw-shucks regular guy, a homegrown American athlete on top of a sport that usually celebrates such figures. Maybe he needs some custom-tailored suits and an action-film role.

The other champ with something to say Saturday night was Daniel Cormier, who spoke up not merely as a winner but as a brand-new titleholder. A combat coronation is big stuff, especially when it comes in the main event of a much-ballyhooed pay-per-view. So why bury the lede, as we say in this business, by stashing the light heavyweight title fight beneath a couple of middleweights? Well, you’ll better understand when you hear the entirety of what was on Cormier’s mind in the aftermath of his third-round submission of Anthony Johnson.

“I have a message for one man,” Cormier (16-1) said to in-cage interviewer Joe Rogan, ignoring the question he’d been asked. “Jon Jones, get your s--- together. I’m waiting for you.” He then turned and stormed out of the octagon. He’d just won the championship he craved, but there was more to do. Enough said.

Jones had been the elephant in the room all during the lead-up to Saturday’s marquee bout, which some fans had downplayed as being akin to just an interim title fight, since the greatest 205-pound fighter on the planet would not be competing. But because of the reason Bones wasn’t fighting – he is under UFC suspension and has been stripped of his title, owing to his felony arrest stemming from an alleged hit-and-run car accident that injured another driver – the fight promotion was steadfastly treating this like a real title fight. One could hardly detect the wink-wink.

MMA
UFC showed unprecedented gumption in stripping Jon Jones of his title

And when Cormier won, overcoming an early knockdown to grind out Johnson with his relentless wrestling beatdown, he had to decide in the moment how he’d wear his crown. He decided not to pretend the ex-champ, who just this past January dominated him, had vanished from the face of the earth. He decided to assume Jones was somewhere out there watching, and to put on his tough-guy voice and dare Jones to get his, um, life together and come get the belt back. Just go ahead and try.

So it was that Cormier set the course for what he hopes to be a redemptive journey back to the crossroads where Jones handed him his only defeat, and Weidman let it be known that he cares what the fans think of him and would love – he used that very word – to have them along for the ride toward greater glory. That’s some fine post-fight narrative there.

UFC 187 produced some other consequential story lines as well. Donald Cerrone fought through a rib injury and systematically broke down John Makdessi until Makdessi tried to take a timeout. Of course, there are no timeouts in MMA, so what Makdessi was in fact doing was quitting, thus setting the stage Cerrone to move on to a likely lightweight title challenge. John Dodson perhaps earned a go at a belt as well, although he looked so rusty in his tight decision win over Zach Makovsky that he might not be quite ready for a rematch with flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson. And Travis Browne, who again and again has seemed to be on track for a heavyweight title shot, only to be derailed, once again lost steam, getting KO’d by 38-year-old Andrei Arlovski, who a decade ago was UFC champ and now is defying nature.

Nature is what also caught up to Belfort. Fighting for the first time in a year and a half, and for the first time since testosterone replacement therapy was banned, the Brazilian had about a minute of fight in him. He made the most of it, trapping Weidman against the cage and wailing away with punches. But once the champ withstood the onslaught, you just knew it was over. And when Weidman secured a takedown at center cage, right into half-guard position, Belfort was transformed, right before out eyes, into the Wicked Witch of the West, melting, melting. As Weidman was finishing him off, not a tear was being shed by Luke Rockhold, Michael Bisping, or Dan Henderson – all victims of head-kick KO’s by a TRT-fueled Belfort.

MMA
With Jon Jones suspended, Rousey No. 1 in pound for pound rankings

The evening’s other high-profile loser, Johnson, also disappeared before our eyes. In the all of the fight buildup hype, Cormier had pointed out past instances when Johnson had come up small in big spots, the implication being that Johnson would crumble when the going gets tough. And that’s what happened. Johnson caught Cormier with an overhand right in the fight’s first five seconds, and had his moments when he had room to fling those hamhock fists of his. But when Cormier got him in a clinch, he had no answer. It was even worse when he was on his back.

Between the second and third rounds, as his corner was reminding him there were three more five-minute sessions to go, Johnson had a vacant look in his eyes. Early in the third, someone in his corner was yelling “Do not give up!” over and over. That’s exactly what you plead when you know your fighter is about to give up. And so it was.

So now we’re left with a dominant champion, Weidman, who has visions of Madison Square Garden dancing in his head – maybe his home state will finally legalize MMA, and maybe his promoters will get to use the date they’ve reserved at the world’s most famous arena. There are formidable challenges ahead – Rockhold, Ronaldo Souza – and a fickle fan base. But this guy has the road to stardom laid out in front of him.

So does Cormier. He’s a champion, a real champion, not a paper one. If his bitter rival Jones never comes back to the sport, the 36-year-old former Olympic wrestler still has time to build a sparkling legacy. And if, as expected, Bones does eventually return to the octagon, Cormier can walk into that cage and defend his belt like a champion does. Let the chips fall where they may.

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