UPDATE: Following the publishing of this article, Jon Jones was flagged for a potential Anti-Doping Policy violation, and was subsequently removed from the card.
Nine years separate Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier. It’s why their personalities seem a generation apart. They are joined however by their mutual desire to be this era's greatest mixed martial artist. They are rivals at MMA's forefront. Champion versus Olympian: a dynamic demonstrating MMA's ability to give common ground to world-class athletic talent of every background.
Jones is the youngest champion in UFC history. At just 23 years old, on March 19, 2011, Jones reserved the right to be named the baddest light heavyweight in the world. "Bones" never lost that right in competition. He proved it over a divisional record of eight title defenses. It's a mark good for third all-time behind living legends, welterweight Georges St-Pierre (nine), and middleweight Anderson Silva (10). Jones' eighth and final defense came 46 months after he first captured the belt.
The MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas hosted five championship rounds in January 2015, where Jones handed Cormier his first loss in 15 fights. Jones let it be known over the course of 25 minutes: Cormier was just another notch in his already cemented MMA legacy, that not even Cormier could dent Jones' unbeatable nature.
Jon Jones won a national junior college wrestling championship. Daniel Cormier won two. Jones never wrestled Division I. Cormier became an All-American.
Cormier had a bronze medal from the 2007 World Championships. Jones never wrestled a single world-level match, let alone medaled. Cormier was a two-time American Olympian. Jones was never even on the Olympic radar.
Those accomplishments matter to Cormier. It's why he refused to believe Jones could score a takedown on him in an MMA fight. No one had in four-plus years. Surely Jones would be no different.
Except Jones is different.
Jones is today's athlete. He grew up imagining his own Jumpman logo. A politically neutral personality engineered for maximum endorsement revenue. What he stands for is the fact that he's the best, and that he deserves the best. His championship is his own and no one else's. He posts then deletes on social media in cognitive dissonance. A New York native, Jones strives to be a one-man Empire State.
Cormier is a throwback cut from the USA Wrestling mold. A Southern man who labored to be a blue-collar worker and a champion for more than oneself. Mean what is said and stand by it. An athlete prided on character as much as achievement, because one without the other is meaningless in his world. The Louisiana native views himself the authentic article worthy of being number one—a leader—counter to Jones' self-consumed millennial attitude.
Yet for all their differences, the commonality of their character is undeniable drive. Their competitive nature is rooted in battling back from incredible loss.
Jones' older sister, Carmen, helped raise him, but in 2000 was tragically taken by brain cancer before her 18th birthday, when Jon was still a skinny church boy on the verge of adolescence. It propelled him to become MMA's youngest champion.
Cormier lost his first-born child, three-month-old Kaedyn, in an unfathomable 18-wheeler accident while training for the Olympics in 2004. It's a loss that would have broken almost any man. However, Cormier has defined himself through persevering, undeterred by even the hardest lesson life deals.
That's where MMA's wins and losses contradict. They are all that matters, and yet they don't matter all at once.
Jones has never lost in MMA—save for a dismissible disqualification during a fight he was about to finish, rendered irrelevant by his brilliance. At UFC 182, Cormier's wrestling wasn't enough to change that. It shook Cormier's fundamental belief system. Jones, the man he believed he'd define his legacy on, imposed defeat in MMA upon him for the first time. A unanimous decision for Jones left Cormier without UFC gold, contemplating the reality Jones took him down.
Seven years prior, instead of becoming a champion wrestler or U.S. Olympian, Jones became a pro fighter at 20 years old to provide for his firstborn child. He finished six consecutive opponents on MMA's regional circuit in his first four months fighting. Cormier was preparing Team USA wrestling for the Beijing Olympics.
Cormier narrowly missed bronze in his 2004 Olympic bid, so he set out to medal in 2008. He didn't step foot on the Olympic mat that year despite being America's captain. A miscalculated weight cut forced his kidneys to fail—Olympic dreams dashed. Cormier had previously beaten both the eventual bronze and silver medalists.
The same month that Cormier's wrestling career ended on a momentous down note, Jones debuted in the UFC one year into his pro career on August 9, 2008. Jones' obvious talent fast-tracked him through the UFC rankings.
Meanwhile, Cormier remained distraught and directionless in his post-Olympic life. He recalled a standing offer he received in 2001, when former All-American wrestler turned MMA manager DeWayne Zinkin tried to recruit Cormier to fight. So the wrestler ventured to the renowned American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, and after minimal training, began fighting for Strikeforce in fall 2009. He hoped to satisfy the void left by his wrestling career's unceremonious end in 2008.
Both Jones and Cormier dominated the opposition in their respective organizations.
Jones became UFC light heavyweight champ—on short-notice, no less—after 12 minutes and 37 seconds, demolishing Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in March 2011. He became the equivalent to Mike Tyson in boxing—the youngest world champion in history. Jones didn’t even need three full years pro to achieve the historic mark.
Eight months after Jones' first UFC title defense in September 2011, Cormier battered former UFC heavyweight champ Josh Barnett to win the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix. It was the last of MMA's great tournament era. Cormier went from alternate to winner for his fighting career’s breakthrough championship performance. By that time, Jones defended his title versus three former champs, moving to clean out the 205-pound division. Strikeforce's imminent closure led to talk that Cormier would forego competing at heavyweight and chase Jones' title.
Here's where the rivalry ensues. MMA was fixated on Jones' historic run. Cormier claimed Jones pretended he didn’t know who Daniel Cormier was when they first met. That Jones dished an out-of-line joke about how he could take Cormier down. Cormier marked Jones for his destiny for the disrespect. Jones responded with indifference.
Their backstage heat boiled over publicly with the two going back and forth in the media for two years.
Even as Jones ascended to all-time great status though, his out-of-competition behavior threatened his success, mirroring Tyson in the wrong ways. Jones crashed his Bentley, drunk. Jones’ physical prowess was never questioned. His self-sabotage begged many questions.
Still, the prodigious champ had the mental focus to outmaneuver Cormier at UFC 182. The anticipated scrap between the virtually undefeated combatants had an incredible pre-fight build up, culminating in Jones toppling a former heavyweight champ for his career’s most high-profile victory. It came undone from there.
Post-fight test results revealed Jones' cocaine use. Then, worse, Jones punctuated his troubles with another car accident—this time a hit-and-run. He broke a pregnant woman’s arm in the accident and fled on foot, not bothering to check on her. All this amounted to the UFC stripping Jones of the light heavyweight championship—the first fighter to lose their title for behavior issues.
Cormier jumped at the chance to seize Jones’ vacated championship. Video had surfaced of his immediate backstage reaction losing to Jones. His head hanged low, covered in sweat, downtrodden in the MGM Grand’s bowels, accepting teammate Cain Velasquez’s hug. Four months after losing to Jones, Cormier was thrilled to put that moment behind him. He submitted No. 1 contender Anthony Johnson and relished in calling himself champion, despite having never beaten the former champ.
Jones is the sport's uncrowned king. The 28-year-old is without a physical crown yet still deferred to as MMA's unparalleled ruler inside the Octagon. Seemingly unstoppable, Jones left behind a legacy in medias res. His presence is a dominant, competitive force until an opponent—not Jon Jones himself—defeats him. Since everyone loves a good redemption story, Jones’ out-of-competition transgressions have not stopped MMA fans from welcoming him like a returning hero.
Jones is full circle if he returns to undisputed versus rival Cormier in their second clash in two years.
Cormier's throne is legitimate. However, he’s perceived to be the interim champ (even though that’s technically Jones’ title) since losing to Jones is still fresh in memory. It’s an uphill battle for Cormier. He emerged champion from a murderer's row including five former champs in Strikeforce’s heavyweight grand prix, yet it’s largely forgotten—once a king in a fallen kingdom. It fuels the perception Cormier is left behind.
The fact is Jones’ UFC title stretch saw his hand raised against six former champs—the one that elevates him over Cormier is Cormier himself.
It’s not Cormier’s fault Jones lost his title due to self-sabotage. Yet Cormier is treated like he stole something he earned. The 37-year-old doesn’t have the same time ahead Jones does, so he must end up on the right side of the rematch, pushing for a sport-defining trilogy.
The only way for Daniel Cormier to be a king unchallenged—revered, not forgotten— is to vanquish Jon Jones. It's the truest route to conquering the ghosts of coming up short in the NCAA Division I championships, the Olympics, and in the UFC's undisputed title picture.
The next installment in this tale of unrelenting kings breaks ground for the UFC at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
On July 9, Cormier-Jones II headlines the milestone UFC 200 event seven years in the making. It's a fight about redefining their respective kingdom's pasts, as much as it is about defining MMA's future greatness.
(Images via MMAWeekly.com)