It was January 2015 and after months of immense and intense build-up, it was finally fight night. The MMA world watched on as Jon Jones defended his UFC Light Heavyweight crown against the undefeated contender Daniel Cormier. For almost four years Jones had been the supreme champion but Cormier seemed to represent a very different kind of challenge. ‘DC’ entered with an impeccable wrestling pedigree and a track record of dominance in MMA, even up at Heavyweight. Though he often looked undersized against the sport’s biggest men, Cormier still had great success and even won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. In the UFC, Cormier also beat veterans Frank Mir and Roy Nelson before making the drop to 205lbs.
It wasn’t Cormier’s Light Heavyweight resume that earned him the shot at Jones though. Granted he’d dominated legend Dan Henderson as well as beating Patrick Cummins but the real key was his personal animosity with Jones. An injury to Alexander Gustafsson had left ‘Bones’ needing an opponent and Cormier obliged, filling in on two months’ notice. The personal hatred between the two men quickly resulted in an infamous brawl and suddenly, public interest was at an all-time high. However, Jones himself would pull out and so the fight was up in the air. Though Gustafsson was now again available, the excitement surrounding Jones and Cormier was simply too much and so the fight was re-booked.
That brings us back to where we began: January 2015, UFC 182, Jones vs. Cormier. Opinions were divided going in but the physicality inside the cage told a story almost blatant in its appearance. Cormier had his moments, especially early, but it felt as though Jones was mostly in control of the action, using his wide range of strikes for consistent success. Heading into the aptly named championship rounds it was relatively close, with Jones likely leading 2-1, but the fight was about to change dramatically in both feel and in action. In the heat of the battle Jones simply thrived where Cormier faltered, scoring two emphatic takedowns in the penultimate round.
With his pride hurt and his mind scrambled, Cormier went back to what he knew and tried with all his might to score takedowns of his own. He succeeded on one occasion too but it was all for nothing as he’d neglected to attempt what was really necessary: chasing the needed knockout. Jones came out the clear unanimous decision winner and took Cormier’s undefeated record in the process, leaving the challenger devastated by the heart-breaking loss to his famed foe. Though it wasn’t a finish, the fight’s result was rather conclusive after 25 minutes of action. However, this story wasn’t finished yet and in fact, had really only just begun.
Now back to being just another contender, Cormier was booked to fight veteran Ryan Bader. Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson had emerged as the next title challenger and considering his age and prior fight result, Cormier seemed to be in a tough spot. Though he was slightly unproven at 205lbs, Cormier likely could still beat the majority of the division but the problem was that whilst Jones stood at the top, his chances of championship gold looked rather slim. However, the Light Heavyweight weight class would soon be shaken up in a major way and sadly, for all the wrong reasons.
A hit-and-run incident led to Jones being pulled from the fight with ‘Rumble’ and he was subsequently stripped of his title and suspended from the UFC. With that dramatic shift everything changed and Cormier was no longer fighting Ryan Bader, now instead facing Johnson for the vacant title. It was a very dangerous fight on paper, especially with Johnson entering on the back of his stunning knockout win over Alexander Gustafsson in Sweden. That rapid finish almost repeated itself too, with ‘Rumble’ heavily dropping Cormier early but DC miraculously fought back, eventually breaking his foe and finishing the fight with a Rear Naked Choke. Months after fears that he’d become just another contender, Daniel Cormier was now the UFC Light Heavyweight champion.
With the achievement came criticism though. Jones had only just beaten Cormier and so his status as champion was scoffed at by some. The reality of course was that Cormier was simply taking advantage of an opportunity given to him by Jones’ own mistakes and so for that very reason, really deserved no negative response. Nonetheless, Cormier was the champion now and had to start defending his title whilst Jones continued to clean up his own personal problems. His first challenger would be Jones’ greatest in-cage rival, the aforementioned Alexander Gustafsson. In a memorable championship affair, Cormier went toe to toe with ‘The Mauler’ for 25 minutes and in the end, came out the split decision victor.
The fight’s result wasn’t completely conclusive but in fairness to DC, nor was Jones’ famous win over Gustafsson two years prior. Luckily, Cormier would soon have the chance to validate his spot on the division’s throne as Jones finally returned to the octagon. However, another roadblock awaited the two men’s plans to fight as Cormier had to pull out with an injury. Jones instead defeated Ovince Saint Preux to become the interim champion, all be it in rather underwhelming fashion. The wait wouldn’t be much longer anyway fortunately as the Jones-Cormier rematch was rebooked for the historic UFC 200 event. The tradition of trouble following Jones would continue though and this time, more dramatically than ever.
Just days before the blockbuster UFC 200, Jones was pulled from the figt due to a potential doping violation. Incredibly, the rematch had been cancelled again and this time on fight week. It seemed that it just wasn’t meant to be. Cormier would fight regardless as Anderson Silva stepped in on obscenely late notice. The champion approached the almost impromptu match-up professionally, securing takedowns and winning by unanimous decision without risking any real damage. The crowd’s response? Boos. Rightly or wrongly people were disappointed in Cormier’s performance. The perception, likely skewed by Silva’s mythical aura, was that DC had sucked any potential excitement out of the bizarre bout.
Once again though it all felt a little harsh on Cormier who had really done nothing wrong. It was Jones violation that cost fans the rematch and DC simply did his job and beat the man put in front of him, even if not in spectacular fashion. An injury would delay the champion’s next title defence but he eventually returned in April 2017, once again fighting Anthony Johnson. The fight followed a similar pattern but had far fewer scary moments for Cormier, who again won by Rear Naked Choke. The post-fight would involve some trash talk to jones, who was in attendance, and suddenly we were back here again, still staring down the barrel at the seemingly inevitable rematch.
Fast forward three months, we are now just days away from the high profile bout and the focus is understandably on the returning Jones. Arguably the greatest fighter in the sport’s history stands at a crossroads. It’s truly impossible to know whether or not his time at the top is over or if it’s just getting started. Cormier is fighting for more than just his belt here though too and in many ways decides his own legacy this Saturday night. He could be remembered as a genuine great that lived alongside the greatest or he could, with an emphatic win, solidify his own spot in history at the absolute top end of the sport’s greats, regardless of weight class. There’s no two ways about it, Saturday’s result impacts that in a very big way.