Just before midnight on July 7th, the biggest event in the history of mixed martial arts lost its main event. USADA, drug-testing partner to the UFC, announced a potential doping violation on the part of Jon Jones, the former light heavyweight champion who many expected to regain his throne with a second victory over rival Daniel Cormier.
According to the Nevada Athletic Commission’s stricter new standards, a confirmation of USADA’s findings will result in a two-year ban for the man called “Bones.” Jones was once touted as the youngest champion in UFC history, but such a ban would keep him out of the Octagon till after his 30th birthday. Already called the greatest mixed martial artist of all time by many, Jones’ absence would smack of the three-year forced retirement of Muhammad Ali. The key difference being that Ali was banned from boxing for refusing to take part in the VIetnam War; should Jones receive a ban, it will have been for using a PED, or a PED masking agent in the leadup to one of the biggest fights of his career.
If USADA’s results are validated and Jones fails to unveil some suitable explanation, it will be a loss. For Jones, it will mean the loss of his prime years, the time when he would enjoy the perfect confluence of youthful athleticism and hard-won experience. It would mean the loss of a legacy, as well. If Jon Jones was doping, then how seriously can we take his remarkable run through the light heavyweight ranks? As for the fans, it would mean the loss of MMA’s most spectacularly gifted fighter, a true natural who gave us some of the greatest displays of martial talent the sport has ever seen.
But right now, in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, no loss is more poignant than Daniel Cormier’s, who was just yesterday readying himself to face Jones in combat.
Jones had beaten Cormier once before, in January of 2015. It was shortly after that win, arguably the greatest of his career, that Jones’ world began to crumble. News of Jones’ cocaine habit emerged just days after the Cormier fight. Those same tests revealed that the champion also showed suspicious hormone levels that may or may not have indicated steroid use. Jones was then scheduled to defend his title against Anthony Johnson, but crashed a rental into the car of a pregnant woman three weeks before the date. Not only did Jon injure the woman, but he shot himself in the foot as well: the UFC were compelled to strip him of his title. Jones fled the scene of the accident, but he couldn’t escape the cloud hanging over his head. Some would say it is a cloud of his own construction.
Despite all of this, Jones was heavily favored to defeat Cormier again at UFC 200. The first fight was just too decisive. Of the first three rounds, all of which were relatively competitive, Cormier had only taken one. The last two were all Jones, and he walked away with a lopsided unanimous decision, and the belt. Cormier just couldn’t get Jones down, nor could he strike with him without getting himself entangled in the spiderweb of Jones’ clinch. Cormier is the current light heavyweight champion, having won the belt in Jones’ absence, but the rematch was billed as Jones’ return, rather than Cormier’s defense. Some even called it 200’s least competitive matchup.
Given all of that, one might expect Daniel Cormier to breathe easy knowing that the Jones fight is off the table. I personally have no doubt that Cormier’s weekend will be marked by at least a few moments of curious relief. One might even expect Cormier to laugh at Jones’ misfortune, happy to keep the title away from the rival that has mocked and belittled him for nearly two years now, happy to see the fake one fall. And perhaps, in a private moment, Cormier will enjoy a small chuckle or two at Jones’ expense. I wouldn’t blame him.
But to watch Daniel stand and address the gathered press in the immediate aftermath of the news, there is no questioning his attitude: Cormier is devastated.
I spent a long time studying the fights of Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones in preparation for their rematch. I watched their first fight, and broke down the ways in which Jon stymied DC’s offense. Cormier left the Octagon that day a broken man, still bloated with confidence now spoiled like old milk. But while Jones took the spotlight for all of the wrong reasons, Cormier limped back to the gym, and got to work.
Daniel Cormier stares up at the big screen and watches himself lose to Jon Jones. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA Today Sports.
Cormier didn’t just take and defend the title while Jones was away. He became a better fighter in the process, refining the skills and the patience that might have led him to victory over Jones. He learned to apply cautious but relentless pressure. He proved his ability to fight five hard rounds against a dangerous opponent. He took each weapon in his arsenal and ground it to a razor’s edge, and waited for the day to come.
So when the fight with Jones was canceled, Cormier was devastated. He seemed near tears at last night’s press conference, recalling the long and winding road that, it turned out, had led to nowhere. The rematch with Jones was more than just a career-high payday. It was more than a chance for revenge. It was a chance, even if just a small one, for redemption.
When Daniel was 22 years old, he made it to the finals of his weight class while wrestling for Oklahoma State. He earned the title of All-American, but lost convincingly to Cael Sanderson, widely regarded as the greatest college wrestler of all time. While wrestling for OSU Cormier suffered a mere 10 losses; six of those were to Sanderson.
When he was 25, Cormier came one place short of an Olympic medal for freestyle wrestling, losing to Russian Khadzhimurat Gatsalov. Four years later, he entered the Games again, but his irresponsible weight management led to severe kidney failure, and Cormier was forced to withdraw. After a decade devoted to wrestling, Cormier had repeatedly come within reach of the mountaintop only to tumble headlong back down the slope, over and over again.
For Daniel Cormier, Jon Jones is the last obstacle, and the same obstacle. Jon Jones is Cael Sanderson. Jon Jones is Khadzhimurat Gatsalov. Jon Jones is kidney failure. Jon Jones is the final hurdle that Cormier has never managed to overcome, and UFC 200 was very likely his last chance.
If Jones is banned, he won’t fight till he’s 30. But Daniel Cormier is 37. Already an oddity in the young man’s sport of MMA, Cormier will be 39 by the time Jones’ potential layoff is up. He might defend the title a few times in that period, but in two years Cormier’s time at the top will almost certainly be over. Like Cormac McCarthy’s mythical Texas, MMA is no country for old men, and Daniel Cormier isn’t getting any younger.
Jones’ test results raise questions about his career. If he was indeed doping in the leadup to this fight, then he may well have done the same in 2015. He may well have done the same throughout his entire career.
The asterisk that revelation would append to Cormier’s only defeat might satisfy other fighters, but something tells me it won’t be enough for Daniel Cormier. His life’s work has already experience far too many asterisks. Time and again, Cormier has established himself as one of the best, but never the best. Even his greatest victories against the toughest competition have taken place on smaller stages.
Cormier won gold at the Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix, considered one of the toughest competitions in wrestling; but it was not an Olympic medal. Cormier dominated his competition in the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix; but it was not the UFC title. And though Cormier now wears a UFC belt, the long shadow of Jon Jones will continue to loom over every defense.
When you place Cormier’s first and only MMA defeat in this context, you start to understand why he promised Jones that he was “willing to die” before conceding defeat in their rematch.
As you watch Brock Lesnar and Mark Hunt slug it out in the main event of UFC 200, don’t cry for Jon Jones. His own road to redemption will be hard, but he has tasted his fair share of dominance. Whether or not the test result is verified, Jones will probably fight again, and people will still turn up to watch him perform. Don’t cry for yourself either. You may miss two years of the greatest fighter to ever live, but there are others, and there will be more.
Cry for Daniel Cormier, a great fighter and a good man, who deserved one last chance to stand on the necks of his demons and declare, without a shade of doubt, “I am the champion.”
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