Sunday April 24th, 2016

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Bruce Buffer had a little end-of-a-long-night fatigue in his voice as he announced the UFC 197 main event scoring shortly after midnight on Saturday. “And now,” he bellowed as convincingly as he could, “the interim UFC light heavyweight champion …” Referee Herb Dean had already raised the arm of Jon Jones before hearing the winner’s name announced, before hearing Buffer back off the word “interim” as if to try to make it go away.

UFC president Dana White stood impassively behind Jones holding a brass-and-leather belt that under the hot Las Vegas lights had the same glimmer as the title belts with real meaning behind them. But Jones knew better. No sooner had White slung the strap over the winner’s broad shoulders -- shoulders that had just been squeezed into a brand new champion’s jersey, black with a gold octagon emblem on the upper arm, just like Jones used to wear -- when the once-and-perhaps-future king of the light heavyweight division peeled the faux strap away and handed it to one of his coaches.

MMA
Jon Jones defeats Ovince Saint Preux at UFC 197

“I don’t think I want that belt,” Jones (22-1) said, a solemn start to his postfight interview in the cage. “It’s not the real belt. I want my belt back.”

That surely was Jones’s best move of the night. He had just won a fight inside the octagon for the first time in 15 months. (His long absence was a repercussion of a hit-and-run auto accident last year that had resulted in a felony conviction, ongoing probation, a UFC suspension, and the stripping of the 205-pound title -- the real title.) But Jones’s performance had about as much luster as the belt that just had been awarded to him. He’d been in control throughout, but the five rounds had dragged on in excruciatingly slow motion.

That’s what can happen when you take the stage following the fast-forward animation of Demetrious Johnson. The flyweight champion put on one of his vintage exhilarating performances in the co-main event, handing 2008 Olympic gold medal freestyle wrestler Henry Cejudo his first MMA loss and extending the longest active streak of UFC title defenses. The explosive TKO at 2:49 of Round 1 leaves “Mighty Mouse” just two away from Anderson Silva’s record of 10 straight UFC title defenses.

“I am the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world,” Johnson proclaimed after his victory, drawing a line in the sands of the Nevada desert and daring Jon Jones -- the longtime consensus No. 1 -- to step forward in the main event that was shortly to follow.

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And then Jones came out looking like he was going for a midsummer run on the beach. In flip-flops. Ring rust can slow you down like that. So can stepping in with an awkward opponent like Ovince Saint Preux, whose resilience shrouded the harsh reality that he was vastly overmatched and fighting on short notice.

This was supposed to be Jones’s opportunity for some measure of redemption. He was originally scheduled to fight Daniel Cormier, who wears the belt that the UFC took away from “Bones” a year ago. It was to be a rematch of Jones’s last title defense prior to his forced sabbatical, and the continuation of an acrimonious pairing that in 2014 saw them famously brawl during a Vegas press conference. But three weeks before fight night, Cormier tore a ligament in his lower leg during training. So Jones’s shot at regaining his old belt would have to wait.

Probably not for long, it turns out. With this summer’s landmark UFC 200 in need of a main event, after Conor McGregor was yanked from the card for refusing to leave his training camp to dance for the promotional hype machine, Dana White has mentioned Jones vs. Cormier II as a possibility for that July 9 event. He would not commit to that matchmaking on Saturday night, but the UFC brass did take to Twitter with a video clip of White, asked about the fight at a Friday press conference, saying, “It’s a possibility.” Those words were met by cheers from the crowd, and the UFC tweet concluded: “Sounds like the fans like that idea.”

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Sounds like the UFC is dancing around the inevitable. And it can’t become official soon enough. To replace a meaningless money grab like Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor II with a top-shelf rematch between Jones and Cormier is an upgrade of extraordinary proportions, perhaps not for the corporate bottom line but certainly for the lifeblood of the sport. It’s like trashing your black velvet Elvis painting and paying a visit to the Van Gogh Museum.

Can’t you feel the heat, the genuine masterpiece of disharmony?

As Jones left the cage on Saturday night, he spotted Cormier nearby and flipped him a one-finger salute. And “DC,” who was working a microphone for the pay-per-view broadcast team, had a caustic message in return. He said he’ll be seeing his doctor on Monday, and if given clearance to fight in July, he’ll show up at UFC 200 ready to defend the belt. His belt.

As for the strap that Jones had just won, Cormier scoffed. “Don’t bring that interim belt,” he said. “You leave that at home. That’s garbage. That’s a play belt. They got that thing from the [merchandise] kiosk upstairs before they gave that to you in the middle of the octagon. Leave that thing at home, Jon.”

Finally, there’s something Jones and Cormier can agree upon.

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