mma / Columns

High Stakes for Cormier vs. Johnson

April 3, 2017 | Posted by Dan Plunkett

This Saturday’s UFC light heavyweight title match may be the second-to-last battle in a long-waged war of legitimacy. It’s the story of three men, all intertwined for the past two-plus years, but with one sitting high above the others, and the others battling to climb up to and then past the untouchable, uncrowned king.

Jon Jones has fought only once in the past two years. In that period, he’s been suspended twice, been stripped of two championships, and looked understandably rusty in his last outing. Although he isn’t fighting on Saturday night, he is the first mentioned of the three in this story because it can’t be told without him. Jones was once easy to find, downing challengers with regularity. However, for the past two years he has eluded his two chief pursuers, who compete for the right to continue that pursuit on Saturday.

It is fair to neither Daniel Cormier, the world champion, nor Anthony Johnson, the title challenger on Saturday, that Jones is such an integral part of this story to the point it overshadows their upcoming fight. If this fight had taken place at any time before 2011, or if there was no Jon Jones in MMA, Saturday’s bout would be anticipated as a historic clash.

They have fought once before, after Jones was suspended, removed from a scheduled title defense against Johnson, and stripped of his title due to a hit and run incident. Cormier replaced Jones on short notice to fight Johnson for the suddenly vacant championship. The fight itself was one of the most compelling in recent memory, with Johnson making the stakes immediately apparent with an overhand right that knocked Cormier to his belly.

It was a game of inches after that. Johnson’s booming punches and kicks just needed to land close to the right spot, and Cormier was done; Cormier needed to get as close to Johnson, where his opponent couldn’t launch powerful strikes and where Cormier could wear him down with wrestling. When each round began, there was extremely little margin for error on either side, because one wrong movement had tremendous consequences.

That night, Cormier recovered from the knockdown to implement his game, grinding the stamina out of Johnson on the ground before submitting his exhausted challenger in the third round.

The matchup on Saturday is largely the same, with the added story of Cormier, now 38, battling age and the wear and tear that come from years of high level wrestling and MMA training. Johnson, 33, has not lost since that bout, scoring three scary knockouts over top contenders in the past two years. The loss to Cormier is his only loss since 2012, when his body shut down during a weight cut and he came in at 197-pounds for a middleweight bout that he never should have been allowed to compete in. Cormier has only lost to Jones, and, in a career that has taken him to the highest levels of heavyweight and light heavyweight, only Jones and Alexander Gustafsson have won rounds over him.

Cormier has excelled at the highest levels of wrestling and MMA, but he was never reached the top spot in either sport. He never won an NCAA championship because he was unfortunate enough to compete at the same time as all-time great Cael Sanderson, who defeated him in the 2001 tournament finals. He was a medal favorite in the 2008 Olympics, but never had the chance to prove himself as he went into kidney failure during his weight cut and was not able to compete. In MMA, perhaps he could have been the heavyweight champion, but he moved down a weight class so he did not have to fight his friend and training partner Cain Velasquez, who then reigned as the heavyweight champion. Cormier moved down into a light heavyweight division lorded over by perhaps the most talented fighter of all-time in Jon Jones.

For Cormier to have the opportunity to reach the peak of that athletic mountain he has been climbing for more than two decades, he must defeat Anthony Johnson on Saturday. He had earned his way back to the opportunity a year ago, but an injury and other circumstances out of his control have forced him to fight back to it. At 38, time is working against him; any missteps could cause him to miss his narrowing window.

For Johnson, the circumstances are different. At 33 and with a shallow light heavyweight division behind him, his window is wider than Cormier’s. Although a loss to Cormier would be a setback, with the right turns of fortune, he could be competing for the title again by year’s end. That is not to underplay the significance of the fight for Johnson, as a win would easily be the biggest of his career. With a win, he ensures that the current era of the light heavyweight division is not remembered with two fighters standing tall among the rest, and earns the opportunity to shake up the sport and alter the course of history against Jon Jones. Johnson’s need to win is not as pressing as Cormier’s, but a win will change the perception with which he is viewed when the history books are written.

Everything in the division comes back to Jones. No matter Saturday’s result, neither Cormier nor Johnson can be considered the best light heavyweight in the world until they beat the fighter that has beaten everybody in his path. However, it is an integral step into determining whether the past two years of the light heavyweight division have been Cormier’s story of redemption, the story of Johnson’s rise to the top, or just a brief break in Jones’ rule.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.