No MMA fan is celebrating the recent Alexander Gustafsson injury, but Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier as a replacement matchup in UFC 178 is a win for the fans and the sport.
The UFC throws a tantalizing curveball. Just when our Louisville Slugger was poised to take a whack at the impending news of a folly of a championship fight in the making, the promotional pitch changed its looping story arc and burst into a fireworks array that distracts as much as it dazzles.
Just a week ago, UFC president Dana White was letting the world know that he was “pretty confident” he would have fighter-turned-movie-star (-turned-fighter?) Gina Carano signed by Monday, and before the ink was dry on the contract he likely would be booking her into a challenge of women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.
This plan was ridiculous, of course. Carano hasn’t fought in five years. Even back in the days when she was training for fights, she made weigh-in day as much of a must-see as fight night, having to strip down to her birthday suit (under towel cover) to make her bouts’ 145- and 140-pound weight limits. How is she supposed to make 135? And furthermore … oh, never mind, that fight announcement never came, so let’s save the venom.
Save the venom for what, though? We’ll get to that, but first some happy-time news, courtesy of the UFC. With no Rousey vs. Carano announcement in the offing -- yet -- the behemoth promotion soothed our souls this week with two title fight bookings and a couple of other attention grabbers. It turns out that Dana White & Co. not only can spin a nice curveball but also can hang in the batter’s box when a big bender is thrown their way and pound it out of the ballpark.
On Wednesday, Captain Hook cut down what was a much-anticipated light heavyweight championship rematch between Jon Jones and the only challenger who’s given him a fight, Alexander Gustafsson. Last September the tall Swede known as “The Mauler” bloodied and battered “Bones” in a back-and-forth tussle that left fans wanting more. UFC 178 in Las Vegas was going to settle things -- until a torn meniscus suffered by Gustafsson during training earlier this week left everything unsettled.
Momentarily, at least.
The UFC didn’t flinch, swinging right into action with an even better Jones title defense for that Sept. 27 event. Despite “Bones” having taken on five former UFC champions and been taken the distance by Gustafsson, the bout announced this week is the first in which a challenger will be carried into the octagon on a glorious wave of fan belief that he won’t be manhandled by the champ. Daniel Cormier is a two-time Olympian in wrestling who until recently competed at heavyweight. During his unbeaten run as a mixed martial artist, he’s been the one doing the manhandling.
No one is celebrating the Gustafsson injury, but Jones vs. Cormier is a win for the fans and for the sport. The buildup over the next two months is going to be as vivacious as the fighting. Trash has been talked back and forth between these elite athletes for many months, merely in anticipation that they one day would meet. And immediately upon the fight being announced, the fighters ramped things up. It’s not just the fighters talking, either. Jones enlisted his 6-year-old daughter to convey a message to Cormier in an Instagram video: “DC, my dad’s going to beat you up. Guaranteed.”
Cormier has kids, too, and when we hear from one of them it’d be cool if it was to pose a question: Mr. Jones, will you utilize your jumbo jet wingspan and front kick game to keep Papa Cormier at a distance, so you can hit him while not being hit? That’s the essential question, really, the one that separates a thrilling fight from a technical sparring session. Those of us who love watching greats mix it up wouldn’t mind seeing “Bones” approach “DC” the way he did Chael Sonnen -- that is, try to beat him at his own game. Sonnen has always been a dominant wrestler, and Jones went right at him and put him on his back within seconds. “I really wanted to ‘Chael Sonnen’ Chael Sonnen,” Jones said after that fight, “and I think I did that.”
If Jones attempts to “Daniel Cormier” Daniel Cormier, he could be in for a rude awakening. “DC” is a bigger man than Sonnen, and while Chael was an NCAA All-American who tried out for the 2000 U.S. Olympic team in Greco-Roman, Daniel was a cut above, making the U.S. Olympic freestyle team in 2004 and ’08. If Jones goes right at him, we’re in for a clash. We’re in for a treat.
The same might be said of the other title fight the UFC unveiled on Wednesday. That announcement came a few minutes past 2 p.m. ET in a press release issued mere seconds -- seconds! -- after Vitor Belfort had been granted a license to fight by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. During his testimony at the hearing, the Brazilian had told the commissioners that he had a promise from the UFC that, if licensed, he would fight middleweight champ Chris Weidman on Dec. 6 in Las Vegas. Even reading from a script, the Brazilian knew enough to lean on the words “Las Vegas” for emphasis.
What was the NSAC going to do, then, turn down a revenue-generating opportunity? The Dec. 6 card, UFC 181, will be the sixth that the fight promotion will have staged in Vegas this year. That kind of steady business pours a whole lot of money into the Nevada economy. So …
So the NSAC sat and listened to Belfort, who had failed a drug test right there in Nevada back in 2006 and nonetheless was later issued an exemption to use testosterone replacement therapy there and in other jurisdictions. Vitor then took the rejuvenation of TRT to a stratosphere not visited by any other fighter who’s been fueled by artificial testosterone. Last year he fought three times and won all three by highlight-reel head-kick knockout. He’s a scary man.
But the Nevada commission banned TRT back in February, and shortly afterward the athletic commission randomly drug tested Belfort. He failed with flying colors. His testosterone level exceeded even that which would have been allowed if a therapeutic-use exemption were still valid. His excuse? Belfort told the commissioners that he had arrived in Nevada from Brazil right before the random test, and knowing that he would be traveling and unable to take the two testosterone injections called for each week by his Brazilian doctor, he had taken a double dose. Riiiight.
There should have been a laugh track on the hearing’s telecast, which was carried on the UFC Fight Pass streaming service. But in the end the laugh was on us and on the sport. The NSAC listened to Belfort’s lame excuse, questioned none of it, and rubber-stamped his license. Sure, we get what promises to be an exhilarating middleweight championship fight come December, but the man challenging Weidman for the belt has no business being there. The NSAC, even in later that day issuing a two-year ban to retired fighter Chael Sonnen -- you know, no longer an earner for the state -- for testing positive for five banned substances, showed itself to be a toothless outfit whose only wisdom is in knowing where its bread is buttered.
Keep that in mind the next time you hear Dana White answer a question about drug testing by issuing his favorite refrain: “We’re regulated by the government.”
The UFC, for its part, wasn’t done making fights. The next stop on Conor McGregor’s meteoric rise in the featherweight division will be a bout with Dustin Poirier, who as No. 7 in the SI.com 145-pound rankings poses the first real test for the Irishman. They’ll face off on the Sept. 27 Jones-Cormier undercard in Vegas, which means we’ll get to see McGregor walk across the Atlantic Ocean from Dublin, man of miracles that he is.
And as if that weren’t enough, the fight promotion also has brought Nick Diaz back into the fold. No bout was confirmed as part of the announcement that the pride of Stockton, Calif., is ending his year-long retirement. But word is that the UFC would like to put Diaz in with Anderson Silva once “The Spider” is fully recovered from his broken leg. When? “Next year, I guess,” Diaz told UFC.com. “Whatever, though. I can fight tomorrow, tonight.”
So see? The UFC doesn’t have to drag Gina Carano off a Hollywood red carpet to make big fights that fans want to see.