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The Naked Gambler

On July 9 at UFC 200, Daniel Cormier will defend his UFC light heavyweight championship against interim champion Jon Jones.

In MMA, no rivalry has embodied the concept of divergence quite like the one shared by the two title holders.

Cormier, a former Oklahoma State University wrestler and U.S. Olympic team captain in freestyle wrestling, has led a career largely marked by greatness which has, through various misfortunes, eluded the apex. In 2004, he fell within a hair’s breadth of an Olympic medal, before returning four years later as captain of the US Olympic team, this time with renewed hope at the realistic prospect of a gold medal finish. In a tragic turn of events, Cormier’s body failed him during the weight cutting process, rendering him unable to compete.

Jones, a prodigious fighting mind with startling physical gifts, had demonstrated the sort of raw ability which defined him as a fighter with limitless potential. A high school and junior college wrestler with a child on the way, Jones turned to MMA at age 20, partially as a way to generate income. Making his UFC debut a mere four months into his career, he defeated André Gusmão by unanimous decision at UFC 87.

While still incredibly unpolished, Jones displayed otherworldly talent in his upset victory. It cannot be overstated how integral professional experience is in the success of a prospect. Many prospects have faltered in the big leagues due to inexperience alone, and Jones is one of the only fighters who has managed to defy this convention on his way to a UFC title.

Jones’ rise was swift and overwhelming, hardly dropping a round in his career en route to his title-clinching demolition of Mauricio Rua at UFC 128, less than three years into his professional career. Many saw Jones as the greatest talent the sport of MMA had ever seen. A man who could do no wrong inside of the Octagon, his standing as a future dominant champion virtually assured.

An elite heavyweight who moved to the light heavyweight division as the undefeated Strikeforce Grand Prix champion, Cormier was seen as Jones’ most difficult and credentialed opponent to date. However, on Jan. 3 2015, the spectre of inadequacy which had haunted him for so long loomed oppressively over the Octagon.

The two were diametrically opposed personalities with incredible disdain for one another and no grievances about making their differences known. Cormier lambasted Jones for what he perceived to be Jones’ fake public persona, culminating in a now-infamous interview between the two on ESPN’s SportsCenter. The interview was a microcosm of their mutual scorn as venom was spit and threats were hurled, and it (along with a highly-publicized physical altercation) resulted in their title match becoming one of the most anticipated fights of the year.

The juxtaposition between the two men was clear not only in their personalities; the short, barrel-chested challenger stood in striking contrast to the looming figure of the tall, lanky champion with the longest wingspan in the UFC. The two men were in a state of perfect asymmetry, walking fundamentally different paths to stand across the Octagon from each other. For Jones, his destined greatness seemed to face its most perilous roadblock. For Cormier, the pinnacle was once again within his grasp, an opportunity to put those old ghosts to rest.

What resulted was perhaps the most technically dazzling clinch war in the history of mixed martial arts; a fight in which both men’s strategies were clearly defined, each tapping into an unthinkably deep bag of tricks in order to gain momentary advantages.

From the opening bell, Cormier pushed an incredible pace. Much has been made of Jones’ reach and its ability to stifle opponents, but his distance striking is more staunchly predicated on the length of his legs than the length of his arms. Jones’ boxing (while by no means bad) is the weakest element of his game.

The challenger, despite a twelve-inch reach disadvantage, seemed the superior boxer, throwing countless jabs in the early going, landing many. Forcing Jones backwards while repeatedly attacking with his left hand, Cormier quickly revealed that his goal was not simply to catch Jones with jabs and hooks coming forward, but to use his extended left hand to grab the back of Jones’ neck, forcing a basic tie-up known as a single collar tie, a position from which he has a blistering array of right hooks and uppercuts.

Jones’ gameplan was equally well-constructed. Though often seen as an outfighter, Jones is naturally a tall, lanky in-fighter, perhaps the most difficult style to apply consistently in MMA at the elite levels. While most in-fighters are limited by a lengthy frame, Jones’ natural clinch aptitude, his understanding of leverage, and his incredible ability to adjust to his opponents’ offense has made him perhaps the greatest clinch fighter in the sport’s history. His early output was marked by discipline and consistency.

Knowing that kicking distance was the one range at which he held an overwhelming advantage, Jones focused on controlling Cormier in the clinch while using every single instant of separation to batter his opponent’s legs and body with long jabs, kicks, and knees. Instead of avoiding Cormier’s preferred distance, the matador would exchange with the charging bull, allowing Cormier’s momentum to carry him straight into brutal body kicks and left crosses.

Conversely, Cormier stalked Jones swiftly across the Octagon, repeatedly suffocating Jones’ lead right hand with his own left before firing hooks at Jones’ head from the same side, using his aforementioned collar tie to launch quick bursts of hard right uppercuts wherever possible.

The fight was defined by this dedication to attrition and adjustment from both men. The champion took little time to notice his opponent’s propensity for the lead left hook, and similarly discerned that it was a weapon intended to open up opportunities for Cormier to land his right uppercut.

In an adaptation which would serve him deep into the fight, Jones made his first rebuttal to Cormier’s clinch offense: wrist control. In a pivotal sequence, Jones grabbed Cormier’s lead wrist with his own right hand, before pulling Cormier towards him, directly into a left elbow to the head. Feeling his grasp on Cormier’s wrist slip away, Jones ducked his head forward, preventing Cormier from clutching onto his neck as he had correctly anticipated Cormier would attempt. Soon tightly grasping Cormier’s wrist with his left hand, Jones created a pattern which would emerge frequently throughout the encounter. While maintaining control of the right wrist, Jones would use overhooks, underhooks, bicep control, and even double wrist control to rob Cormier of his offense on both sides.

Once Jones felt secure in his positional control, he would open up, releasing Cormier’s wrist to fire off brutal left elbows to the head. Soon, Jones caught a body kick and flung Cormier to the mat, lodging the first successful takedown against the former Olympian in his MMA career. With the threat of the takedown established, he began to set up his straight punches and knees with level change feints, catching Cormier on multiple occasions.

Early in the second round, Jones switched to orthodox stance but quickly found his probing left hand being smothered, unusually, by Cormier’s rear hand which was followed by lead left hooks, ducking his head to avoid Jones’ inevitable counters. This was the round where Cormier’s jab was most prevalent and a consistent weapon, and also his best round, one which he clearly won.

“I want those low kicks. I want those low kicks,” Cormier’s corner told him after the second round. Previously very heavy on his lead foot, Jones found his stance completely thrown from under him as a result of low kicks in his fight with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Unlike Jackson, who did nothing to capitalize on these opportunities, Cormier showed that he was deliberately targeting Jones’ off-balanced state, despite his stance being much less heavy in recent years.

Off-balancing the champion with a low kick in round three, Cormier wasted no time throwing a left hook, a cross, and a right uppercut as the champion struggled to reset. At this point, both men attempted single-collar ties, and another pattern was beginning to emerge; Cormier was attacking from distance almost entirely with his left hand in order to secure the collar tie, while in close, his offense was almost completely restricted to the right hand. While the two battled for position, Cormier changed levels, momentarily off-balancing Jones once again, as he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that these were the exact moments he was waiting for. Without resetting, Cormier instantly blitzed the champion with a flurry of punches. While Jones refused to waste even a moment of opportunity at distance, Cormier was dogmatic in his dedication to creating moments of vulnerability.

Round three was the round where hints of fatigue first began to appear. Though both were slowing, Cormier faded faster. Jones had begun to trap Cormier’s lead hand with his own, disallowing him from pursuing the collar tie, and Cormier reacted by pulling his lead hand back whenever Jones touched it. Sensing this, Jones quickly tapped the floating hand of Cormier, baiting him to draw it back, before attacking with straight punches, his right fist returning to his chin to dissuade a left hook counter.

Jones’ adjustments began to take hold in this round in other ways. Having measured Cormier’s jab, he repeatedly stepped back and countered it with body kicks. Realizing that Cormier was no longer buying his level change feints, Jones decided to make the threat a reality. Ducking a left hand, Jones immediately shot into a knee-tap takedown, which was quickly stuffed. Physical strength was no issue for the challenger up to this point, often stalemating or even muscling Jones around the Octagon.

As had become a recurring theme, however, Jones’ tactical advantages began to turn the tides of the clinch battle. Gaining control on both sides of Cormier’s body was his obvious goal, attacking immediately upon establishing said control and, after every clinch break, continuing his strength-depleting body assault. Over the course of 15 minutes, Jones had found several methods of neutralizing both of Cormier’s hands at distance and inside the clinch. While Jones never missed an opportunity to sap him of stamina, Cormier by contrast never missed an opportunity to strike during slight moments of vulnerability, but his close-range offense became less and less pronounced as he began to succumb to fatigue.

By round four, Cormier continued to show signs of exhaustion. Gone was most of the dynamism from his offense, along with the evenly matched battle of physical strength, which Jones now dictated, muscling Cormier to the fence with apparent ease. From here, he wrapped Cormier’s legs before scooping them out from under him, a Jon Jones classic, planting him on the mat and attaining top position.

Cormier fought the grip, and Jones, perhaps sensing his opponent’s fatigue, did not fight to maintain top control, instead flurrying with a cross, a knee, and an elbow to the face as his opponent reset. By this point, Jones’ wrist control seemed completely unbreakable, and Cormier was left weaponless, impotent in his strongest range. At the end of the round, Jones threw Cormier to the ground, placing his hand mockingly on top of Cormier’s head, his disdain and sense of superiority palpable.

Fading physically but far from conceding defeat, Cormier had one final rally left in him during the last round. Diving on a single-leg takedown attempt as he absorbed the champion’s brutal elbows to his ribs, he mustered all of his remaining strength before hoisting Jones into the air, slamming him with a decisive thud. Cormier was unable to establish top position on the quickly-scrambling champion and, ravaged by fatigue, the rest of the round was one-sided.

Jones returned to the clinch and took that same familiar wrist control with his left hand, before releasing it and launching straight into a crushing spinning elbow, landing flush. As the final seconds ticked down, Cormier clung desperately to a single leg as Jones, emphasizing his opponent’s futility, smirked and raised his arms triumphantly.

Cormier had executed an incredibly intelligent and well-studied gameplan with commendable consistency, but in a fight where both men scraped the bottoms of their bags of tricks, Jones’ natural predilection for mid-fight adjustment meant that he always had an answer.

There was no question in either man’s mind who the victor was. Cormier burst into tears as the belt was tied around his rival’s waist. Championship-level greatness is a path too narrow for two men to walk, and where the paths of victory and defeat diverged, Jones sprinted forward as Cormier stumbled over those same old ghosts.

In MMA, however, the roads of great men are traversed both inside and outside of the Octagon. Flash forward to 2016, and their trajectories have diverged in direct proportion to each other yet again. Jones was stripped of his championship as a result of a hit-and-run incident. Cormier faced Anthony Johnson for the vacated belt at UFC 187, surviving an early knockdown to submit the murderous power puncher and secured the championship which had eluded him for so long. Still, Cormier was denied the recognition of being the best in the world which he had sought throughout a combat sports career spanning more than two decades.

Cormier would go on to defeat Alexander Gustafsson in a razor-thin split decision, before pulling out of a rematch with Jones due to injury. Jones instead faced Ovince St-Preux for the interim title after a lengthy 15-month layoff, the longest of his career. Winning every round, Jones was criticised for what many called an overly-safe and uninspired performance.

Cormier went on the offensive after the fight, insisting that his rival did not look like himself, and that he would have defeated the Jon Jones who entered the Octagon on that night. Now, in what could easily be argued as the biggest fight in light heavyweight history, we’ll find out how much has truly changed between the two men who have fought tooth and nail to wrench greatness from the other’s grasp.

These interwoven narratives, contested both in the cage and in the public eye, have forced the two greatest light heavyweights of their era, perhaps of all time, to a breaking point. Their careers, and their greatness, are inextricably linked. In a sport where all that glitters is gold, Cormier refuses to walk a path paved with silver, a path which Jones has never known. One of these men will be forced to accept, perhaps with finality, that the diverging road in front of him does not lead to the summit.

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