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The Kick That Saved the UFC

Jon Jones’s return lived up to the hype — and the dreams of the UFC

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The modest hope coming into Jon Jones’s return fight was that he simply be there on fight night. After 15 months away, and given his track record of late, nobody was exactly taking that for granted. The more ambitious hope was that after all that time off, he would show up against Daniel Cormier looking like a freak of nature — the one who aged the UFC’s entire light heavyweight division in dog years during his unprecedented GOAT stomp between 2011 and 2015. So what did "Bones" do? He rolled into Anaheim for UFC 214 and knocked Cormier out before the bout could reach the championship rounds. When the belt was wrapped back around his waist, it wasn’t "and new" or "and still" champion — or even "and again" — so much as it was a middle finger raised to the sky.

He even had a pretty good suggestion for his next fight: "Brock Lesnar, if you want to know what it’s like to get your ass kicked by a guy that weighs 40 pounds less than you, meet me in the octagon." He then dropped the mic, which made an interesting sound — ka-ching! Never mind that Lesnar isn’t eligible to fight until 2018 because of a failed blood test at UFC 200, that potential matchup just became big business. "Jones-Lesnar is the apocalypse," The Ringer’s David Shoemaker texted me right after. Somehow, in the gravity of the moment, that felt like an undersell.

The UFC is free to dream again. The greatest, most dominant fighter to ever call the octagon home is back, and at 30 years old, he doesn’t appear to have diminished at all. In fact, Jones looked better than he has since his fight with Lyoto Machida at UFC 140. He landed a high kick in the third round that led to a barrage of lefts against Cormier’s temple as Cormier lay turtling on the canvas. That head kick was a thing of beauty, a bladed shin to the jaw bone as Cormier guessed wrong on a low kick. He was concussed the moment it landed, and as he reeled to try to regain his bearings, the giddiness of Jones’s return began to register. Nobody has ever done that to DC, not even Jones himself back when they fought in 2015.

It was sharp elbows, and body shots, and a flying knee, and cold-blooded stalking at the kill moment. Jones backed up throughout to keep the range for his 84.5-inch wingspan and completely dwarfed the former heavyweight Cormier, who did his best to walk through his force field to get inside. For two rounds, Cormier looked to have made adjustments from their first encounter back at UFC 182. He was executing his game plan, winning the phone booth exchanges and holding his own. But in the blink of an eye, it was over. Jones jerked the drapes, jumped the division, and dropped the mic. He became the first man to stop Cormier in a fight — which in the aftermath, almost felt beside the point.

That’s how good Jones is. Cormier — along with perhaps only flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson — was the best pound-for-pound fighter on the roster in Jones’s absence. If Cormier had existed in any other mini-era of the UFC — during the reign of Randy Couture, or Tito Ortiz, or Chuck Liddell — he’d have ruled the domain. The trouble is that he happens to compete in the Jones era. The best couldn’t last against The Best. Somebody had to be second, and Cormier — with around a million households tuned in via pay-per-view — had to accept that it was him.

"I guess if you win both fights, there is no rivalry," Cormier said tearfully in the post-fight interview, clearly in no condition to make sense of things. It was a poignant moment, given that he and Jones have been in each other’s crosshairs for the better part of three years.

But Jones’s big return couldn’t have come at a better time for the UFC, which will stand by Conor McGregor for his historic fight with Floyd Mayweather on August 26. With McGregor leased out to the boxing ring and Ronda Rousey long gone (to WWE?), Jones reenters the rarefied space of being the draw. He’s the only fighter who can fetch the numbers he does, and he dishes out a collective sense of awe while doing so. Jones rarely gives PPV viewers buyer’s remorse. He’s the only fighter you can dream up potential opponents for all day without coming up with the name that can beat him. He’s the only man who can beat anybody on the roster, which makes him — in a game that thrives on hyperbole — the baddest man on the planet.

The fact that he’s been arrested on multiple occasions and had his titles stripped from him barely matters when he takes his shoes off. Once he’s in the cage, he’s no longer a flawed millionaire who enjoys a good party. He’s Jonny "Bones" Jones, the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, whose arms flow on and on like the shadow of a bogeyman standing in your doorway.

You need only look at the rest of UFC 214 to get an idea of all that Jones brings to the table. In the women’s featherweight title fight, Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino took out Tonya Evinger in a slightly less vicious manner than her fans are used to. Justino isn’t a box-office hit (yet), and she doesn’t have anything resembling a rival. Part of the problem is that nobody wants to fight her, but right now the appeal of watching a Cyborg fight is to see how fast — and how savagely — she can lay waste to her opponent. And welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, who fought Demian Maia in the comain event on Saturday, did just enough to dominate Maia. How’s that possible? He stuffed 24 takedown attempts to keep the fight standing, making prevention the plot of a 25-minute fight. It was a manifestly impressive and boring title defense. The boos at the Honda Center were deafening.

But then Jones did what he did to Cormier in the main event, and just like that all bad feelings left the room and the UFC had its GOAT back. Now it’s up to Jones to stay out of trouble. Whether he gets a rematch with Alexander Gustafsson next (playing back one of the best fights in UFC history), or a new challenger like Volkan Oezdemir (who KO’d Jimi Manuwa on the card in just 42 seconds), or a monster fight with his new nemesis, Brock Lesnar, one thing is certain — Jones is the draw. That’s the part that never went away.

Because of a production error, the original version of this piece didn’t contain its final three paragraphs, which have since been added.