Sunday April 24th, 2016

Saturday night’s UFC 197 in Las Vegas was a showcase for the top two fighters in mixed martial arts. One lived up to his lofty position. The other … well, he didn’t lose.

Jon “Bones” Jones, No. 1 in SI.com’s pound-for-pound fighter rankings, returned from a 15-month absence and it showed, needing the full five rounds to defeat late-replacement opponent Ovince Saint Preux in front of 11,352 fans at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The largely uneventful unanimous decision set up a rematch with Jones’s nemesis, Daniel Cormier, who now owns the light heavyweight belt that Bones wore for five years. The strap was stripped from Jones a year ago following a hit-and-run auto accident that resulted in a felony conviction and ongoing probation.

The rusty performance paled in comparison to that of flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson, who extended the UFC’s longest active streak of title defenses. “Mighty Mouse,” ranked No. 2 pound-for-pound, blitzed previously unbeaten 2008 Olympic gold medalist freestyle wrestler Henry Cejudo, scoring a TKO at 4:49 of the first round for his eighth defense of the strap he won in 2012.

Three takeaways from a night at the top of the sport:

Work to do

MMA
Exclusive interview: Jon Jones talks arrest, UFC 197 bout with St. Preux

Jones did have a belt wrapped around his waist following his win over Saint Preux, but it was just one of those interim straps the UFC creates all too often and is meaningless beyond the faux luster they add to the prefight hype. The real belt is in the possession of Cormier, who won it last May after it was yanked from Jones by the UFC, and who was supposed to be defending it against Bones on Saturday before he was injured in training.

“I don’t think I want that belt,” Jones (22–1) said in an interview inside the cage after he was announced as interim champ. “ It’s not the real belt. I want my belt back.”

He’ll likely have that opportunity on July 9 at the landmark UFC 200, which is in need of a main event after the UFC removed Conor McGregor from the card for refusing to leave his training camp to attend a promotional press conference and commercial shoot. According to ESPN’s Brett Okamoto, Dana White said that if Cormier is cleared in his MRI on Monday then he and Jones will headline the event.

Jones vs. Cormier II would actually be an upgrade at the top of that card.

Mighty dominant

“I am the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world,” Johnson proclaimed after his thrashing of Cejudo, drawing a line in the sands of the Nevada desert for Jones to cross when he emerged for his main event.

MMA
Conor McGregor saga stealing thunder from Jon Jones, UFC 197

Mighty Mouse was a man on a mission. He was only too happy to clinch with the Olympic champion wrestler and overlooked him briefly, which resulted in him being taken down early. But he popped right back up, and the next time the fighters were in a clinch against the cage, Johnson landed a knee to the body that was the beginning of the end.

“Once I got him off balance, threw the left knee to the liver, I heard him go ‘ughhh,’ and I was like, ‘It’s over,’” said Johnson (24-2-1). “I’m not [expletive] backing up. It’s on. Let’s go.”

Johnson pursued the retreating Cejudo across the cage, landed a straight left hand, then another knee to the body that collapsed the challenger. “That’s organic fighting right there,” he said.

Remember these names

In the first fight of the main card, Yair Rodriguez scored one of the prettiest one-kick knockouts in UFC history … and the airborne shot that felled fellow featherweight Andre Fili was only slightly better than what we’ve seen from the 23-year-old Mexican in his three previous fights in the big show. Rodriguez is on the rise.

That’s the opposite direction from where Anthony Pettis is headed. That’s a name you know but is in danger of being forgotten after the former lightweight champion suffered his third straight defeat. This loss was especially deflating for the 29-year-old because Edson Barboza beat him at his own game in an all-standup contest. Barboza, a veteran of 15 UFC fights, put on a dominant performance that sends a message to any 155-pounder who steps in with him: Take this guy down to the mat or pay the consequences. For Pettis, the eye-opening loss could very well douse his flame of relevance in the division.

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