“I guess if you win both fights,” said Daniel Cormier, “there is no rivalry.”
Cormier was concussed and slurring. The impact of a shin on his temple and a dozen follow-up punches and elbows—a few more than had been strictly necessary—had erased his memories of the last several minutes. Despite all that, the implications of a second loss to all-time great Jon Jones at UFC 214 Saturday weren’t lost on him.
Jon Jones is the best light heavyweight of all time, maybe the greatest fighter to ever step into a ring or cage. Daniel Cormier isn’t.
Cormier had been billed—and had billed himself—as the most accomplished, best-equipped contender for the 205-pound crown Jones has worn since 2011. He gave Jones a competitive five-round fight back in January of 2015, taking a round from the champion and hanging tough on his way to a decision loss.
For the first two rounds of the rematch, Cormier gave Jones a better version of the same, staying in his face and landing clean, hard punches and kicks. The moments of hesitation that had given the rangy Jones too much room to operate were gone: This was a more aggressive, more dangerous, better prepared Daniel Cormier.
It still wasn’t enough. It wasn’t close to being enough.
Take a look at the kinds of TV shows and movies that are popular right now, and think about the leading characters in them. Anti-heroes and outright villains dominate the scene. A genuinely heroic hero is passé, a preachy, moralizing reminder of a less complicated age. Maybe that’s why Cormier never truly connected to the fans. In the story of his career and his run at the title, he was unquestionably the hero.
He has overcome tragedy in his personal life, from his father’s murder to the death of his three-month-old daughter in a car accident. Cormier is a grinder, the epitome of the hard worker who shows up to work every day and tries to better himself, no matter the toll it takes. He’s the team captain and unquestioned leader at the American Kickboxing Academy, a gym full of hard, battle-tested fighters with decades of combined experience. He coaches youth wrestling and gives heartfelt, inspirational speeches about the importance of hard work and perseverance. It might seem corny, but it’s not an act. Cormier genuinely believes this stuff.
The sport of MMA in general, and the UFC in particular, has not the slightest idea what to do with a guy like that.
He isn’t cool or edgy; he’s a 38-year-old dad who tucks his sweatshirt into his sweatpants and has a little belt of fat around his midsection that never goes away no matter how fit he is.
The contrast between Cormier and Jones couldn’t be clearer. Cormier is short and stocky where Jones is long, lean, and lanky. Cormier is older and more world-weary while Jones is the still-youthful wunderkind. Cormier is a grinder, a relentless force whose durability and pace wear his opponents down, while Jones is a creative, unorthodox, and seemingly effortless mastermind.
Above all, their conduct outside the cage sets them apart. Cormier has never been in trouble; he’s an authority figure and a role model. Jones, on the other hand, has had issue after issue. There was the DUI in 2012 that left his Bentley smashed. He popped for cocaine in 2015, just days after beating Cormier. Later that year he was involved in a hit-and-run accident that left a pregnant woman injured and fled the scene. He violated his probation. To top things off, he tested positive for banned estrogen blockers just days before he was scheduled to rematch Cormier last summer.
Fans only really embraced Jones when he set aside the goody-two-shoes act he’d put on for the first few years of his reign at the top and embraced the role of the heel. He called Cormier a pussy; he hit him at a press conference brawl. After beating him soundly the first time, Jones said, “I don’t like Daniel Cormier. I don’t respect Daniel Cormier. I hope he’s somewhere crying right now.”
That was the authentic Jon Jones, the baddest motherfucker on Earth. If Cormier wanted to be the hero, Jones was happy to play the villain. In this place and time, villains—or at least the morally ambiguous—are what sell.
When the rematch rolled around, Cormier embraced the narrative: He was the grinder, the hard worker. He wasn’t a paper champion who only held the belt because of Jones’ indiscretions; he was entitled to it. At UFC 214, he would prove to everybody—Jones, the UFC, the fans who didn’t give him his due and proper—that he deserved to be the king.
Cormier was well prepared for the rematch. He looked quicker, more aggressive, and meaner. His pressure was sharp and effective, cutting off the cage and forcing Jones into a battle in the pocket and with his back to the fence. Cormier landed vicious punches that might have flattened anybody less durable. He finished his punching combinations with hard low kicks that chopped Jones’ legs out from under him. The clinch, normally one of Cormier’s strengths, had been an unexpected weak point in the first fight; this time, he blasted Jones with hard punches and made him work whenever they tied up. Whether Cormier won the first two rounds or not—he probably didn’t—he was competitive and doing everything he was supposed to do to put himself in position to win.
When Jones flipped the switch between the second and the third rounds, none of it mattered. He stuck Cormier with kick after kick and straight punch after straight punch. Cormier’s pressure sputtered, then ceased. When the kick slammed into Cormier’s temple, the momentum was all in Jones’ direction.
There’s a simple reason for that: While Cormier was giving Jones everything he had in the first two rounds and making them as close as he could, Jones was doing two things. First, he was gathering information, making precise reads on Cormier’s tendencies while testing out various responses. Second, Jones was banking work that would pay off later: Two-thirds of Jones’ strikes before the finish targeted Cormier’s legs and body. These were sharp, damaging strikes, the kinds of digging liver punches, cracking round kicks, and sharp knees that sap a fighter’s gas tank and will to fight.
When Jones decided to turn it up at the start of the third round, he had already figured out everything Cormier had to offer. Moreover, he had forced Cormier into fighting a pace he couldn’t match, all the while damaging Cormier’s ability to maintain that pace as the fight continued. Jones had taken a calculated risk: He exposed himself to the danger of a pressuring Cormier and set himself up to lose exchanges and rounds. The payoff, though, was putting himself in position to take the fight as a whole.
While Cormier was trying to win the individual battles, Jones was trying to win the war.
As much as we might focus on Jones’ physical gifts or his creativity, this sense for the overall strategy of winning a fight and how to make split-second decisions that serve his overall strategic goals is beyond compare. He’s literally—not figuratively, literally—the best ever at making reads and adjustments and figuring out how they support the overall goal of winning the fight. Cormier is a smart fighter in his own right, but it’s like comparing Bob Ross to Picasso. Jones is just that far beyond everybody else.
That’s what all this comes down to, all the stories and narratives that Jones and Cormier told themselves and which the UFC used to sell the fight to the public. Whether Cormier is a better person than Jones doesn’t matter. This isn’t about deservedness, or the obstacles that Cormier has had to overcome along the way. He wasn’t going to be vindicated, his status as an accidental champion laid to rest once and for all.
Jon Jones is the greatest to ever do it. Daniel Cormier is second best.