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The Fight for Cormier’s Next Fight

Jon Jones or Brock Lesnar—what’s next for the UFC heavyweight champ?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last week, as Daniel Cormier was making final preparations for his historic heavyweight title defense against Derrick Lewis at UFC 230, the UFC dredged up some complicated feelings from his past. Shortly before the ceremonial weigh-ins at Madison Square Garden, a press conference was held at the adjoining Hulu Theater to hype up UFC 232, which takes place on December 29 in Las Vegas. On the stage sat Jon Jones—the only man to beat Cormier.

The man who continues to plague his legacy. The man who feels destined to face Cormier one last time, especially if he beats Alexander Gustafsson for the vacant light heavyweight title—the one the UFC is stripping Cormier of to keep the division moving—at UFC 232.

All week long, the 39-year-old Cormier—who insists he will retire no later than March 20, 2019, the day he turns 40—answered questions regarding a trilogy fight with Jones. The constant questioning made it feel as if he wasn’t just fighting Lewis—a 265-pound concussion monger capable of knocking any man’s jaw into the stands—but the demons of his past.

It was Jones’s first appearance in a fight setting after serving his 15-month suspension for banned substances, and it brought back to mind just how great he truly is. Not only did he hold court at the press conference by coolly discussing his checkered past with a renewed sort of joie de vivre, but he made it clear that it would be him giving Cormier a chance at his belt if they fought again, and not vice versa. He said there was no reason to fight Cormier a third time, having knocked him out at UFC 214 in their second encounter. The fact that the outcome of that match was converted to a “no contest” after he tested positive for Turinabol (an anabolic steroid) did little to diminish his swagger. Jones was back in control, and he knew it.

The next night Cormier went out and scored a second-round rear-naked choke submission over Lewis. He made it look incredibly easy, absorbing very little damage in the process. The win was historic in that Cormier became the very first UFC fighter to hold two titles and defend both of them. He made sure to pose with both his title belts, one slung over each shoulder. Now it’s on to Phase 2 of his ultimate plan to walk away from competition: a mega-fight with Brock Lesnar.

The question becomes: Is that really what comes next for Cormier? What if Lesnar doesn’t come back? What happens to Jones if he beats Gustafsson? What if Gustafsson falls out of the fight? Or if … Gustafsson wins? Let’s sort it out.

Cormier vs. Lesnar

Cormier has made it very clear that he intends to fight former UFC champion and current WWE Universal Champion Brock Lesnar next. That’s the fight he wanted before the Lewis fight was made, and that’s the fight he’s already selling, dating back to July, after he took the heavyweight title from Stipe Miocic at UFC 226. Lesnar stormed the octagon, and the rest is history.

All through the buildup to UFC 230, Cormier talked about his two-step exit from the UFC. His master plan was to take out Lewis and then fight Lesnar in the early portion of 2019, most likely at UFC 235 on March 2 in Las Vegas. Cormier even suggested that Lesnar bring his WWE Universal title to the octagon with him, just so he could add that one to his collection as well.

Even though it’s impossible for the UFC to justify the fight from the point of view of the meritocracy, Cormier’s vision is the one the UFC would very much like to make happen. Lesnar always has been a massive draw for the UFC, and there’s literally no bigger opponent to stick in there with him. Why not have “The Beast Incarnate” get a chance to topple one of the most dominant heavyweights of all time in what would be billed as his final fight?

Cormier is a world-class wrestler, but Lesnar’s amateur wrestling background from his days competing for the University of Minnesota is legitimate. Taking him down is a far more daunting proposition than taking down a living cannon like Lewis. Not to mention, Lesnar had some big wins in his day, even though he was battling diverticulitis through his run as the UFC champion from 2008 to 2010. Then again, that was eight years ago. Am I romanticizing Lesnar’s chances? Sure, but that’s a big, raging bull of a human being right there. Anything is possible.

Everyone knows that it’s a match tailored to Cormier. For all that he has meant to the UFC as a commentator and as a savior of events (like UFC 230, which he took on with a little more than three weeks’ notice), giving him one last big payday and a chance to go out on top is a high five from the UFC brass. A win over Lesnar would keep his undefeated record as a heavyweight intact and allow him to segue into the ever-expanding consciousness of the pro wrestling world. The WWE wants him become part of the broadcasting crew as it begins its partnership with Fox, and ending his MMA career with a win over Lesnar creates some interesting crossover possibilities.

UFC 214 Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones
Jon Jones
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Cormier vs. Jones

Cormier talks about his next fight like it’s Week 17 in the NFL with multiple wild-card scenarios still in play. If for whatever reason Lesnar decides not to come back to the UFC—or doesn’t want to fight within the window that Cormier has provided—Cormier has a Plan B. That would be to face Jones at light heavyweight, provided that Jones beats Gustafsson in December to win back the title. Would the UFC get behind this? Of course it would—it’s a no-brainer. The Cormier-Jones rivalry is the closest thing MMA has to Ali-Frazier. That rivalry wouldn’t have become the greatest of all time if not for the last encounter, the “Thrilla in Manila.”

The big question is whether or not Cormier—who weighed in last Friday at 251 pounds for the fight with Lewis—can get down to the 205-pound light heavyweight limit at this point, or if he’d even want to. He says he could (and would), and—given his lifelong history of weight cuts going back to his wrestling youth—you tend to believe him. If the Lesnar fight doesn’t materialize, expect Cormier to be in Vegas front and center ready to challenge Jones, probably already well into the process of slimming back down.

If Lesnar won’t fight and Jones actually loses against Gustafsson at UFC 232, what happens then? If this unfortunate set of circumstances plays out, Cormier would likely default back to the meritocracy. He would then—and only then—grant a rematch against Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight title. Miocic had broken the record for most heavyweight defenses before getting knocked out against Cormier in July. Because Lesnar resurfaced that night and Cormier was cunning enough with the forethought to challenge him, Miocic was 86’d from the conversation right before our eyes. He’s been vocal in the media about being looked over for a rematch in favor of Derrick Lewis and Brock Lesnar, and now it’s just a matter of waiting to see if the planets align.

Miocic might be waiting to see what happens to the heavyweight belt when all is said and done. There’s a real chance he’ll be fighting somebody for the vacant heavyweight title at some point in mid-2019, if everything goes according to Cormier’s plan.

UFC 200: Tate v Nunes
Brock Lesnar
Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Cormier vs. Lesnar and Jones

In the post-fight press conference on Saturday night, Cormier hinted that he had a lot of lucrative opportunities waiting for him for once he was done competing in the UFC. He said that these opportunities were too premature to divulge, but that they were on top of the anticipated gig with WWE and his continued commentary work with the UFC. He also casually mentioned that they would pay him more than he ever made in MMA.

In other words, Cormier doesn’t need fighting. He can make one last big seven-figure payday against Lesnar then move on to other seven-figure deals where he no longer has to dodge punches. But he didn’t get to where he is because of a love of money. Cormier became a dual champion in the UFC because he’s an obsessive competitor. He needs to believe he’s the best. He became a meme when he cried after UFC 214, having been knocked out by Jon Jones in what he believed was his last chance to fight him. It nearly killed him to think that it was over and that he had failed.

Would Cormier walk away content if he never gets another crack at his archrival, Jon Jones? His coach at American Kickboxing Academy “Crazy” Bob Cook told me this week that Cormier is “obsessed” with Jones. Cormier doesn’t deny it. He is 0-1 with one no contest against perhaps the greatest fighter of all time, but the rivalry doesn’t feel nearly resolved. Cormier feels he has to prove something against Jones. It’s beat him or live with the burden of knowing he couldn’t.

Given the circumstances, here’s what I think will happen: He will fight Lesnar in March then go back on his word to retire at 40 years old just so he can try—one more time—to knock off Jon Jones. He’ll do this because that’s who he is. He didn’t win a national championship in college because, back then, Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson was his Jon Jones. That bothered him. He worked his whole life to win Olympic gold at the 2008 Games and had that dream dashed when he suffered kidney failure during his weight cut. Those failures fueled him to try MMA at the age of 31. Now there’s one last failure that keeps him up at night. The trilogy fight with Jones. And the opportunity to leave the game as the GOAT.

If a third fight with Jones is on the table, it would be out of character for Cormier not to take it. So contrary to what Cormier says right now, there are two fights left for him out there for him: the payday and the payback.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Gustafsson vs Teixeira
Alexander Gustafsson
Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, About That Jones vs. Gustafsson Fight at UFC 232

Presuming Jones is able to steer clear of trouble going forward, things are bound to get a little wild at light heavyweight and heavyweight with him back in the picture. For starters, Jones is 31 years old and has fought just four times in four and a half years. Due to all his suspensions for substances and running afoul with the law, he has left countless millions of dollars on the table. Here’s guessing Jones will want to make up for lost time and put some distance between the beleaguered figure who nearly threw it all away and the man he believes he is now.

The timing is right for his comeback, too. With Cormier closing out his career, Jones can easily take up occupancy at the top of both the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions in his stead. Should he beat Gustafsson in his first fight back to win the 205-pound title, he could be talked into a punctuation fight on Cormier (because money talks to anybody who has squandered as much of it as Jones has).

After that, there are a slew of mega-fights with heavyweights. There is a potential fight with Miocic. There’s a dream matchup against Cormier’s training partner, Cain Velasquez. There is even Brock Lesnar. The only fight guaranteed to do better than Cormier vs. Lesnar for the heavyweight title would be Jones vs. Lesnar in general. Imagine the intrigue of Jones making his foray to heavyweight—an idea he has flirted with for half a decade—against Lesnar? They could throw their asterisks at each other like throwing stars and people would pay to see it. Jones even talked about the possibility of a Lesnar fight during last week’s press conference, saying that it’s a matchup he absolutely desires.

First things first, though, as Jones will have his hands full against the 6-foot-5 Swede who nearly beat him back in 2013. When Jones fought Gustafsson at UFC 165, he was being celebrated as the first fighter to carry Nike and Gatorade endorsements into the octagon. He was being talked about as MMA’s version of Michael Jordan. Little did everyone know that he was partying on weekends, on weekdays, outside of fight camps, during fight camps, and everywhere in between. The immature version of Jones didn’t take Gustafsson too seriously for that fight in Toronto and only realized he should have after 25 minutes of hell. Gustafsson became the first to take Jones down, the first to drop him, and the first to be up on the scorecards as late as the fourth round.

One spinning elbow saved Jones from having his title taken that night. This time Jones swears complacency won’t be a problem. He is coming back to prove that he’s the GOAT. If he shows up with the same intensity that he did for the Cormier rematch, it’s hard to imagine Gustafsson having the same kind of success he did the first time. Then again, much like Cormier, Gustafsson has spent every waking hour plotting his next chance at Jon Jones.

If Gustafsson beats Jones, a trilogy fight between those two becomes an option for the UFC, while a third fight between Jones and Cormier loses its vitality. If there’s ever going to be a Jones-Cormier trilogy, Gustafsson will need to cooperate by losing. Of all the threats that could keep Jones and Cormier apart for a third fight, Gustafsson is the biggest.

Cormier knows it. He wants Jones to win. If he’s doing color commentary for the broadcast that night in Vegas, don’t be surprised if he comes off a little bit like a Jon Jones fan. Don’t be fooled, either.