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The Fight for Redemption

Jones-Cormier 2 at UFC 214 is the greatest rematch in UFC history — and its most divisive

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Three years into the rivalry between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier, it’s safe to say there has never been a more personal feud in UFC history. What those two have going on between them can’t even rightly be called a rivalry so much as a saga: a very public, tabloid-like epic between two of the world’s most dangerous men. If the beef between Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell felt big back in the day, multiply that by 10 and throw in a shrink for what’s going on with Jones and Cormier. They want to hurt each other.

When the whole thing started back at UFC 178 in 2014, Jones was not only cruising along as the seven-time defending light heavyweight champion, but he was already considered by some to be the greatest of all time. The Olympic wrestler Cormier — the only believable challenger left for Jones at that time — was an undefeated heavyweight coming down a weight class to meet him. Given that those dueling momentums were chuffing straight toward one another at the height of their careers, the setup was extraordinary. And when they came together for the first time at a press conference at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas that summer, it became even more so as the face-to-face staredown got physical, resulting in a brawl.

The fight at 178 never happened, which might as well be the refrain of this grand ballad. They’ve been scheduled to fight five times, yet so far have made it to fight night once. But since that first press conference brawl, it’s been a soap opera, full of deceit, gossip, ruin, scandal, second chances, hot mics, jealousy, cocaine, and title polygamy. There has been rehab, death threats, and falls from grace. Before it got all the way there, they did actually fight at UFC 182, where Jones defeated Cormier via unanimous decision to keep his title. It wasn’t the barn burner that some hoped it might be, but it gave Jones the distinction of being MMA’s GOAT, and it gave Cormier the chip on his shoulder that he is carrying all the way to the cage Saturday night in Anaheim at UFC 214.

Everything that has gone on between UFC 182 and now is what makes Jones-Cormier 2 the biggest rematch in UFC history. This fight is the UFC’s great prolonged cliff-hanger. Before he was scheduled to defend his title against Anthony Johnson at UFC 187, Jones was stripped of his belt after a hit-and-run incident in Albuquerque (in which he returned to stuff his pockets with cash, witnesses said), and was replaced with none other than Daniel Cormier (who won the vacated title and has never let it go). Jones returned and won an interim light heavyweight title over Ovince Saint Preux at UFC 197 after Daniel Cormier fell out with an injury, but was then stripped of it for popping a banned substance ahead of the rematch with Cormier at UFC 200 (which he blamed on the "dick pills" he took for a boost in sexual performance).

Otherwise, "Bones" Jones — the sport’s most dominant champion and its most uncontrollable force — has watched the MMA world go on without him through the past two and a half years of his prime. Every time he’s gone astray, he has vowed to come back a changed man, and every time there’s been some other incident. After a DUI crash in upstate New York busted up his original puritan front, there was the cocaine, and the drag racing, and the hit-and-run. By the time he got busted for the banned substance at UFC 200, many considered him a lost cause.

Truth is, nobody knows for sure. Jones wasted all those years and many millions of dollars while people like Conor McGregor came along and soared into stardom. (Let’s not forget, back when Jones and Cormier got into the brawl at the MGM Grand, McGregor was there, too, and was completely overshadowed by Jones.) It got to the point that, after Jones was forced out of UFC 200 just a few days before the card, UFC president Dana White said that he would never be trusted in a headlining spot for a pay-per-view again. Everyone knew that wasn’t going to be the case, but it still bears mention that the poetic promo packages for UFC 214 aren’t about Jones’s greatness — they’re about Jones’s epic fall after becoming the youngest champion in UFC history. The UFC is marketing its best fighter as its biggest fuck-up. The real question is whether UFC 214 will play out as a story of salvation. It’s big business for the UFC either way.

As for Cormier, since UFC 187 he has been treated by many as a kind of impostor. He didn’t beat Jones; Jones lost to his own demons. Yet what Cormier has proved through two title defenses — even as the stand-in champion — is that he’s one of the game’s great antagonists. Cormier has paraded that 205-pound belt around like Ric Flair did in his prime. He has chided Jones on the microphone, dismissed him on television, and discounted him as nothing more than the UFC’s most magnificent wastrel.

What makes the Jones-Cormier sequel bigger than the original is that — as with all great rivalries — each man has changed the other considerably. Cormier’s singular purpose in competition is to beat Jon Jones and remove the asterisk from his light heavyweight title reign. As a 38-year-old fighter who’s 19–1 and has achieved just about everything he can, Jones remains his lone failure in MMA. There’s a do-or-die feel to what Cormier is experiencing, and he’s been beautifully articulate about what the fight means to him. If he loses to Jones on Saturday, there’s a great chance that Cormier will call it a career. But nobody makes you think about the psychology of a fight quite like Cormier does. "We may see Jon become the person that he’s always tried to convince us that he is," he said in the UFC 214 trailer. "The only way he becomes that person is he loses to me July 29."

Meanwhile Jones’s biggest criticism before Cormier came along was that he was in search of an identity. He wasn’t committed to being a heel, nor was he cut out to be the good guy he purported to be. His former training partner Rashad Evans said Jones was a "fake and a fraud" because you never knew which side of Jones’s Janus face you were talking to. No matter which Jon Jones showed up to a press conference, there was a hypocrite.

That’s all over now. Jones has returned, and in his time away he’s morphed into an all-business supervillain who has accepted that all his dirty laundry is out in the open. He’s no longer hiding the secret life he lived (he told Cormier he beat him after a weekend of cocaine during one exchange recently), nor does he seem overly interested in whether people love him or not.

"It’s a freeing feeling to be looked at as a piece of shit by so many people," he said at the UFC 214 press conference Wednesday.

Can this fight live up to essentially three years of build? Jones-Cormier is like Ali and Frazier reading aloud from each other’s diaries. There’s so much bad blood, you get the feeling they wouldn’t be able to find the hatchet to bury it. When you have a fighter like Jones, who’s 22–1 — with his only loss coming via a disqualification for dropping 12-to-6 elbows — and motivated to take back what is his, the sense is that it will. Especially when Cormier says he’s willing to die in there before giving up the belt.

Fights like this one don’t come along often. When they do, it becomes something more than a fight — it becomes a shared experience. Given the situation, the sequel has the kind of magnitude of a big reveal, the long sought-after resolution to a bitter conflict. If Cormier should land the big shot, who knows — this could just be the pivotal middle chapter.

And that fight tops off a rare UFC PPV with three total title bouts. Here’s a quick look at the other two.

Demian Maia Finally Gets His Shot

Since Tyron Woodley won the welterweight title against Robbie Lawler at UFC 201 last July, the division has gotten angsty and restless. Woodley was booked to defend his title against Stephen Thompson at UFC 205 in November, which would have been fine … except he retained his belt through a dissatisfying majority draw, meaning both guys got their arms raised. Because the fight was a good one, and because nothing was really resolved, the UFC ran it back nearly four months later. This time Woodley won a majority decision.

Which was good, because had it been a second majority draw, here’s guessing poor Maia — who has won seven straight fights, including two title eliminators — might have instantaneously combusted. Maia is a quiet jiu-jitsu practitioner who rarely takes a hard punch. I’ve said in the past that he’s the closest thing to a pacifist as you’ll find in MMA, because he doesn’t even dole out a ton of punishment, either. He gets the fight into his domain — that is, to the ground — and he just sort of packs people into invisible suitcases. He’s a submission master, so highbrow in his style that the most bloodthirsty fans can’t see the beauty in it. His fight with Woodley is intriguing because it’s a true style-versus-style matchup. Woodley is primarily a wrestler with heavy fists, yet he is just as cerebral with his game plans as Maia.

It’s a tough spot for Woodley. The lame rematch with Thompson that was basically 24 minutes of neutralization — with an exciting couple of moments where Woodley went on the offensive — didn’t do him any favors. He’s one of the most unpopular champions in the UFC right now for a variety of reasons, one of which is that he has been vocal about ditching the contenders rankings for money fights with Nick Diaz and Georges St-Pierre. Yet if he doesn’t have a breakout performance against Maia (who brought the worst out of Anderson Silva when he challenged for the middleweight title at UFC 112) it’s only going to get worse.

The good news is that it appears longtime welterweight champion St-Pierre — coming out of what will be a four-year pseudo-retirement — is the prize for the winner. A potential Maia-St-Pierre fight will be headier than that GIF where Zach Galifianakis is seeing equations floating in the air. There’s a lot to love about it, yet Woodley has a way of being selfish with the narratives.

The UFC Women’s Featherweight Division Gets Going (For Real This Time)

Back in February, UFC 208 centered on an inaugural women’s 145-pound title fight between Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie. It was, to put it mildly, a total disaster, namely because neither one of the principals was named Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino. De Randamie won a controversial decision (having hit Holm on two separate occasions after the horn), and immediately cast a funereal hush over the Barclays Center in Brooklyn by saying she’d need to get hand surgery instead of calling out Cyborg.

The whole thing was ultimately meaningless. The women’s featherweight division in any promotion — Strikeforce, Bellator, UFC, whatever — begins and ends with Cyborg. She is the most dominant fighter in the vicinity, and always has been. Her hypothetical fight with Ronda Rousey was thought to be the biggest conceivable for a time there. Her fight with Gina Carano back in Strikeforce helped put women’s MMA on the map.

To kick off a division without Cyborg was perhaps the most preposterous mistake (thus far) in the WME-IMG era of the UFC.

UFC 214 is the great righting of the ship for Cyborg loyalists. De Randamie wanted no part of her and unceremoniously vacated the title, so that whole thing can be purged from the memory bank — Saturday night is kicking off the division for real. Justino will fight for the belt against Invicta FC’s reigning bantamweight champ Tonya Evinger, who is gutsy as hell taking this fight against the Hantu Kopek of all women’s MMA. Cyborg is 17–1-(1) since debuting in 2005 (her only loss occurring in that debut). You’d have to flip back to 2008 for the last time she hung around long enough to hear the judge’s scorecards against Yoko Takahashi. She destroys her playthings in devastating ways. Her past dozen fights have ended via TKO or KO, with seven of those occurring in the first round. (A 2011 fight against Hiroko Yamanaka, which Justino won by TO in 16 seconds, was later ruled a no contest after Cyborg tested positive for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid.)

Cyborg has waited her whole career for her chance to shine in the UFC. Ronda Rousey came and went, while Holm, Miesha Tate, and Joanna Jedrzejczyk have all celebrated various degrees of fame. Despite her obvious appeal, Cyborg has never been in a fight that will deliver her to the broader public. That changes at last on Saturday night. She will be one of the great pariahs on display in Anaheim, one of two fighters on the card who can arguably be called the greatest pound-for-pound MMA practitioner in the world.

The other, of course, is Jon Jones. It’s rare to get two greats on a card, each in their prime, emerging from different kinds of shadows. But that’s what’s on deck Saturday. Throwing in the brawler’s delight between Donald Cerrone and Robbie Lawler, UFC 214 is about as deep of a fight card as you’ll see in MMA.