It All Comes Back to Cormier and Jones
And then, once again, there were two.
In the final bout of a wild card, Daniel Cormier submitted Anthony Johnson in the second round to retain the light heavyweight championship. Johnson, 33, baffled fans and his coaches – and delighted Cormier and his coaches – by initiating grappling exchanges with the two-time Olympic wrestler. Although Johnson, a national champion wrestler in junior college, had some success in the clinch muscling Cormier against the fence and even scoring a takedown, once he began to play that game, his time was limited.
Cormier bounced right back up from the takedown – taking him down a tough feat, but keeping him down is another task entirely that nobody has been able to accomplish – and he was not fazed by an emphatic takedown from Johnson just after round one ended. Of course, it was not a perfect performance, but Cormier has never had a perfect performance in a championship bout.
In addition to the takedown, he was hit with some solid shots, including a flush kick to the face that mangled his nose and likely would have fallen a lesser fighter. Nevertheless, Cormier survived, as he survived a Johnson right hand that dropped him in their first fight, as he survived an Alexander Gustafsson knee that brought him down, as he survived an Anderson Silva liver kick that made him wince in pain. You can wear Cormier down, but he will wear you down just the same and keep coming for you. Maybe you can take him down, but he will make you work for it and get back up before you have a second to gather yourself. You can hit him with big shots and hurt him, but evidently, it takes something more than that to finish him. “Perfect” fighters eventually run into some form of trouble and many crumble in the face of that hardship. Cormier has the rare mental and physical capacities to press forward in the face of that adversity. That is what makes him great.
Cormier now returns attention to his greatest adversary, the fighter who will be the defining opponent of his career. This will be the third time Cormier and Jon Jones have been set for a rematch of their January 2015 title bout. First, the rematch was slated for April 2016, but Cormier withdrew from the contest with an injury. Rescheduled for that July at UFC 200, the fell apart in the final days when Jones failed a random drug test.
Their first match was one of the highest-level bouts in mixed martial arts history; a contest with real historical weight. Beyond a press conference brawl and endless trash talk, it was a meeting of two effectively unbeaten fighters; Jones had only faced one real challenge in Alexander Gustafsson and breezed through most everyone else, while Cormier had only lost one round on one single judge’s scorecard in his 15 career bouts. Some would have argued the idea that it was a matchup of the two best light heavyweights in the world at that time since Gustafsson was not involved. In hindsight, Jones and Cormier were not only the two best light heavyweights in the world; they may have been the two best light heavyweights the sport had ever seen.
After that first fight, Cormier has undeniably established himself as the best light heavyweight in the sport outside of Jones. He has decisively beaten Johnson twice, and won his own close decision over Gustafsson. Jones is universally regarded as the greatest light heavyweight of all-time, and it is about time Cormier’s all-time greatness is recognized. Although today’s light heavyweight division doesn’t quite have the depth that it had throughout its history, the top four or five fighters stack up favorably against the top four or five light heavyweights from any other era. Of those modern four or five, Jones is on top. Then there is Cormier, who has beaten everybody but Jones. Everybody else trails those two.
The first fight was competitive, but it was a decisive victory for Jones, which speaks volumes about his ability. Jones, who his coaches will note has freakish stamina, is the one fighter Cormier was unable to wear down. He flourished in the grueling contest, leaning on Cormier to make him feel his weight and strength and working his body to beat the air out of him. The first three rounds were strongly competitive, with Jones taking the first and third, with Cormier taking the middle round. By the fourth round, Cormier had slowed, and Jones won the most decisive round of the fight. Cormier went to work in round five, but he could not overcome the gap Jones had built over the prior rounds.
Assuming the rematch does not suffer from additional delays, Cormier will have the benefit of meeting a Jones returning from more than a yearlong layoff. That may slow him down, and give Cormier the edge he needs.
Cormier does not need to fight the perfect fight to beat Jones. He needs three of the best, toughest rounds of his career and two rounds of solid work. Those three rounds will likely need to be three of the first four, since it is difficult to imagine Cormier having more left in the tank than Jones in round five. The task is tall and the greatest challenge of his career, but Cormier is capable of the feat.