Saturday’s UFC 214 main event in Anaheim, Calif., could be the culmination of one of the most compelling storylines and heated rivalries in UFC history.
A Jon Jones win would put a final nail in the coffin on the rivalry at a lopsided 2-0, ending the need for a rubber match. Daniel Cormier’s future would be in the air either cemented in a gatekeeper to a title shot role or waiting for a third chance that rarely comes.
But the Jones-Cormier rivalry will be remembered for the mutual disdain between two all-time greats, which provided drama that would be too much for a Hollywood movie. It would need a mini-series on Netflix or HBO. Over the course of two-plus years and four bookings, the war of words has waged on and fists have actually flown just once.
When it began, Jones was still a fighter clinging to a wholesome image. And as his rivalry with Cormier built, Jones's image shifted as story after story chipped away at his reputation. Failed drug test for cocaine. Hit and run incident. USADA drug violation. Being stripped of the UFC light heavyweight title and the next year, stripped of the interim light heavyweight title.
His UFC career was in ashes. UFC president Dana White said he’d never trust him to be in the main event on another card, yet here he is, set to headline the biggest pay-per-view of 2017. This would be the appropriate place to compare Jones to a phoenix, resilient rising out of the rock bottom of his career to re-emerge with a win. But he will do so no matter the outcome of the fight on Saturday.
If he loses, there will be a trilogy fight with Cormier. He hasn’t fought in 15 months, it’s to be expected there will be rust and he’ll get another shot at the title. If he wins, he has reclaimed his mantle as the undisputed light heavyweight king, dispatched his greatest rival and once again staked a claim to the title of greatest of all time.
And over Jones’ rollercoaster career since the beginning of the Cormier feud, his personality transformation has been captivating to say the least. From good guy, to bad guy, and eventually, to beloved anti-hero. It’s flabbergasted Cormier at every turn, wondering how he, an Olympian who has avoided trouble over his career, is being booed while audiences across the country rally around a man who has thrown it all away time and time again.
"It's all out there in the public," Jones said on a conference call Monday. "And that's a freeing feeling to be looked at as a piece of s--- by so many people. And to be able to just be real for yourself and to take responsibility for the things you've done wrong.
"I feel so free, man. It's a great feeling to be who I am. Jon Jones, the f--- up. Jon Jones, the great. However, you look at me, it's just great to be me. Alive. Whether you like me or hate me. It's just a great feeling to be relevant."
Jones isn’t hiding, or putting on a façade, and his ability to embrace his flaws and missteps, coupled with Cormier’s pointed use of it as a weapon, has endeared Jones to so many. He’s not this perfect athlete, with a good Christian background who is seemingly perfect and unattainable.
He’s relatable. Maybe fans see part of him in the mirror. Perhaps he reminds them of a friend or relative who were equally talented and squandered away opportunities.
And Cormier has unintentionally, and at the beginning probably unknowingly, helped bring about Jones second life as a sympathetic figure. Someone battling the odds to get their life back and recover.
The late comedian Mitch Hedberg once quipped: “Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only one you can get yelled at for having. Godd--- it, Otto, you’re an alcoholic!” Godd--- it, Otto, you have lupus! One of those two doesn’t sound right.”
And this relentless attack on Jones’s quest for sobriety while battling addiction has driven fans to Jones. Cormier’s hatred for Jones prevented him from taking the high road, intent on tearing Jones’ character down, as if he was pulling down the curtain and revealing Jones’s true self for all to see.
Instead, it’s helped build him up as this inspiring figure, and Jones can complete that transformation on Saturday night.
"I think my story is gonna really inspire somebody else who has f---ed up," Jones said. "It's gonna really inspire somebody else. To realize that it is not over. 'Man, if Jon Jones can come back from the s-- that he's been through and ultimately win and be the champion he's always been capable of being, [I can do it.'
"I'm glad that I'm used, as a laughingstock or whatever it might be to ultimately inspire, if it's just one person. If there's just one person that continues to fight because of my life. I'm glad to be in this position."
Five Questions with UFC Welterweight Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson
1. You got to see Chris Weidman win on Long Island, ending a losing streak at home, what was that like?
The losses were obviously pretty devastating, especially when I’m so close to Chris Weidman and his family. He’s family now. It was pretty devastating, it was his second fight in New York and it was heart breaking to see it and the way it happened.
But coming back to Long Island, his home town, and seeing what kind of changes he made since his last camp, what kind of shape he is in, where he is at mentally, was night and day. It was completely different, we got to see the old Chris Weidman this past Saturday against Kelvin Gastelum.
Of course he ended up getting hit in the first round but recovered very well. To me it just looked like the old Chris, he was very patient and ended up taking him down. But once he won, it was like he won that title again. The crowd erupted, his family, I was in tears just to see that happen. It was a really cool experience I won’t ever forget with the family.
2. Some people questioned his call out of Michael Bisping, from a fighter’s perspective are the fans wrong? What thought process don’t the fans get?
The thing is, it’s up in the air with Bisping. The guy who is supposed to be fighting Bisping is injured and he might be out for a year. There are some guys that could possibly get that title shot, you got Yoel Romero, he did lose to [Robert] Whittaker but he is still No. 2 now. You got Luke Rockhold. You got Jacare Souza, who I think is not on the injured list anymore.
So you got three guys and you got Chris Weidman. I think what he is looking at is, if he is loud about it, if he gets under Bisping’s skin a little bit, he may be the one that Bisping will pick. You got to put it out there. If you’re not the squeaky wheel, you’re not going to get the grease. I think that’s his mindset going into that.
And they’ve had beef in the past. Re-fueling that beef between eachother he could possibly get it. But I think that’s where he was going with the call out of Bisping and you never know. You’ve seen a lot of guys in the UFC who got the title shot and shouldn’t have got it and it’s because they did speak out about it.
3. Tyron Woodley, an opponent you know well, is defending the belt against Demian Maia at UFC 214. What are your thoughts on this fight?
It’s definitely going to be a really good fight. I think it’s a bad match up for Demian Maia. The last few guys Demian Maia has gone up against are taller guys and it’s made it a little bit easier for Demian to get on his opponents legs. Tyron is a shorter fighter and a phenomenal, if not the best, wrestler in the division. He’s very powerful, very strong. I have a hard time thinking that Demian Maia is going get in there and take Tyron down.
If you watch the fight between Demian Maia and Rory MacDonald, he ended up getting him down in the first round but after that he started to gas. That’s how Maia is, he tries so hard to get his opponents to the ground he gases in the later rounds and this is a five, five-minute round fight. I’m not really sure what kind of gas tank Maia is going to bring into this.
Plus, Maia’s hands aren’t as good as Tyron’s. Tyron is very explosive, very powerful. If he touches you anywhere on the body with that right hand you’re going out. I don’t believe Demian Maia has the strength or wrestling in him to get him down and submit him. I think it’s going to be Tyron all day.
4. Jon Jones is trying to re-establish himself with a win at UFC 214. Daniel Cormier is trying to legitimize his title reign with a win. Who has more on the line this weekend?
I think Cormier definitely has more on the line right now. He is the champion and he is going up against somebody who hasn’t fought in over a year and he didn’t look very well in that fight. It wasn’t very impressive. I think it was because he was doing a lot of lifting and he tired out fairly quickly.
That being said, Jon Jones is an intelligent guy. I don’t think he is going to go back with that training regiment. It has been a while since he’s fought, but the guy is always training. He is probably the most dangerous guy today in the UFC, in any division.
Do I think Jon Jones will finish Cormier? No, not at all. But I do think he is going to win. He has nothing to lose. He’s been out for a long time, so if he loses he can say it’s been a year since I’ve fought. Cormier has been the more active of the two of them. He is the champion right now.
This one is very difficult, I don’t know because there are so many variables going on. They’re some of the top guys in the division and it’s very hard at this level to choose somebody who is going to win.
Sometimes my heart says Cormier, but realistically I think Jones is going to win. But sometimes when I watch these guys go back and forth, I’m like ‘man, I hope Jon Jones wins this.’ I have a hard time picking between the two.
You listen to one guy and you hate that guy that time. You hear the next interview and you hate the other guy.
It’s rough, but I think Cormier has more on the line.
5. Thoughts on Mayweather vs. McGregor? Is it good for MMA, does the UFC, and by extension its fighters, stand to lose anything if McGregor doesn’t perform to a certain level?
I think good for MMA, just the fact that it’s going to bring those boxing fans over to mixed martial arts. And they hate McGregor right now, but at the same time you’re going to find those people are going to watch MMA more because of this rivalry between these two now.
Does it look good for boxing? I don’t think so, not at all. Boxing has been known for a very long time as the gentleman’s sport. It almost seems like a WWE move for this fight to happen for boxing.
And for MMA you have this guy going over to another man’s sport. Boxing is completely different, they’re both contact sports, but they are a different sport. The distance is different. The techniques you’re allowed to throw are different.
To be honest, it’s a win-win for McGregor. He is fighting the best boxer in our generation. Even though he’s retired, the guy is always in shape. He is a young 40, he doesn’t even look 40, and everyone’s questioning that.
Do I think McGregor’s going to win? I don’t think so. If he does, he is going to have to touch him up in the early rounds. But Mayweather has fought the best of the best in boxing, guys who are way faster than McGregor, way more powerful than McGregor. So it’s hard for me to believe he is going to go out there and do work against Mayweather.
I don’t think Mayweather is going to knock him out, I think it’s going to be a decision. That’s because McGregor is a tough guy. He hasn’t been knocked out, he’s a very durable opponent and he’s aggressive, and tricky.
Of course it’s that what-if factor. That’s why everybody is going to tune in, and that’s why everyone is going to buy that $100 pay-per-view. It’s that what if, what if he does it. That’s what is going to make it so popular.
1. Brock Lesnar vs. Jon Jones. Both fighters are interested in the fight, and that’s all the UFC really needs to pursue a super fight that would draw eyeballs. It’s a matter of if the UFC has anything it can give the WWE in return, and that might be Ronda Rousey. She’s been at WWE events recently and is tangentially involved in a storyline.
We touched on this last week. This could be an interesting fight to keep an eye on, even as UFC president Dana White downplayed it at the press conference.
2. White doubled down on Georges St-Pierre’s return to middleweight division at the UFC 214 press conference. Tyron Woodley boldly said Georges St-Pierre is afraid of his power and doesn’t want to fight the reigning champion for fear of a concussion.
White reiterated that St-Pierre will fight the winner of Woodley’s welterweight title bout with Demian Maia, even if St-Pierre and Michael Bisping agreed to a fight on a podcast.