Sunday October 4th, 2015

It was the end of a long, brutal night for Daniel Cormier. He was sitting in a locker room at the Toyota Center in Houston well after midnight on Saturday, slumped on a wooden bench, purplish bruises under both eyes, his face puffy and raw in several other spots. He appeared to be sapped of energy, his demeanor almost downcast, even with the UFC light heavyweight championship belt safely spread across his lap.

Barely a half-hour had passed since Cormier had persevered through a vicious five-round split decision victory over Alexander Gustafsson. Those 25 minutes of full-on engagement with the tall Swede had changed his life, he’d acknowledged in an interview in the cage.

“Thank you, Alexander Gustafsson,” Cormier had said, speaking almost reverently. “You made me a better man and fighter tonight. I will forever be indebted to you.”

Now he was being interviewed again, on the Fox Sports 1 post-fight show, and after conversation had delved into Saturday night’s challenge, it moved on to one ahead. Jon Jones, the sport’s longtime pound-for-pound No. 1, who had reigned at 205 pounds for four years before Cormier got his hands on the belt, is free to return after entering into a plea agreement last week in the felony hit-and-run case that, in addition to its courthouse implications, had gotten him stripped of his title and suspended by the UFC. Jones apparently had watched Cormier vs. Gustafsson, the champ was told by his interviewer, and had posted two videos on Instagram implying that he was ready to come reclaim his belt.

“You showed some heart tonight, DC,” Jones had written in a caption accompanying one video. In the other, he’d been smiling as he conveyed this teasing message: “Mmm, I think I miss it. I don’t know.” In typical Jon Jones fashion, he deleted both posts, showing the awkwardness and self-doubt that never creeps into his fighting but has become a trademark of his social media dabbling. “Bones” watchers know this about him, so a few alert observers had captured he videos while they were still visible and had spread them around social media like fistic wild fire.

As he was being told about Jones’s flurry of online activity, Cormier seemed to grow even more weary. It’s become both tiring and tiresome for Cormier to live in the shadow of Jones, but that’s your lot in life when you famously engage in a brawl with your sport’s untouchable superstar in a Las Vegas hotel lobby during a UFC press conference. The shared animosity persevered through a series of joint media appearances leading up to their January fight.

The war of words is not what stays with Cormier, though. The part that still haunts him is what happened when the fight finally went down. Jones not only handed him his only career loss, but he dominated from start to finish. The lead-up was feistier than the fight.

Now Cormier wears the title belt, and it is being treated like a faux strap. It’s as if “DC” is merely an interim champ keeping the seat warm for Jones’s return. This is not easy to hear, especially on a night when you’ve just fought a five-round tug of war and held on to the coveted brass-and-leather.

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So even though Cormier understands that to be fully accepted as the light-heavyweight king he must slay Jones, he was not ready to share the bright lights just yet. Even in his weariness, he wanted to draw a distinction between him and the fighter who wore the belt before him but had his taken from him in disgrace.

“I’m here,” Cormier quietly told interviewer Megan Olivi. “I’m here, he’s not. It’s good that he’s having fun. Our time will come.” He paused, shook his head. “But I’m here, I’m competing,” he continued. “I didn’t leave this organization high and dry. I’m here. I’m fighting in these types of fights. He’s playing around on Instagram.”

Cormier has a point. He didn’t beat Jones back in January, far from it, but he also didn’t get handed the belt. He had to earn it in a fight with the dangerous Anthony Johnson, the man who had been scheduled to challenge for the title before Jones’s irresponsibility got him stripped and suspended. And four months after capturing the belt in May, Cormier defended it against the man who once had given Jones his toughest challenge. Gustafsson put “DC” through the ringer, just as he had done to Jones. And yet the champ survived.

So yes, Cormier earned the opportunity to sit in a Houston arena and, even in his pain and weariness, bask in being a champion. But when the bruises heal and the fighting spirit returns, there will be a challenge lying ahead.

Jones has not yet been reinstated by the UFC. But the fight promotion tends to be forgiving when it sees dollar signs dangling above one of its star fighters. And while we’ve heard talk that Jones might not want to return, those are empty words. He is not Georges St-Pierre, burnt out and disillusioned after a long reign. Jones has resided on top of the mountain, too, but his descent was one of disgrace.

Jones is not going to walk away from a chance at redemption. Neither is Cormier.

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