There's a moment in the latest episode of UFC 200 Embedded when UFC President Dana White tells promotional light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier that Jon Jones has been notified of a doping violation. Their fight is off, and Cormier reflexively turns distraught, stomping his feet and holding his head in his heads. Then he asks: "Like, is there anything I can do? I'll sign a release and we can just fight."
If you want proof of how badly Cormier wants to fight Jones, there it is. It's also the proof of how badly he needs to fight Jones.
Jones—interim light heavyweight champion and perhaps the most talented MMA fighter to ever put on four-ounce gloves—is Cormier's unfulfilled obligation. It's an upside-down dynamic in which the champion needs to fight the interim challenger to prove his own legitimacy. But now, given the terms of the challenger's suspension and the champion's age, the fight might never happen. And if Jon Jones remains a shit-talking ship passing in the night, Daniel Cormier's reign as UFC light heavyweight champion will be forever marred by circumstances beyond his control.
It was a hectic stretch between Wednesday evening, when Jon Jones was pulled from the main event at UFC 200 after testing positive for undisclosed banned substances during an out-of-competition drug test, and late last night when former middleweight champion Anderson Silva was slotted as Cormier's surprise, short-notice opponent in a non-title match. It seems like forever ago that Cormier showed up to a hastily assembled press conference looking like a basset hound, still soaking in the news that Jones had been pulled from the fight. A reporter reminded Cormier that, if the result of the test result stands, Jones could be suspended for two years. For a 37-year-old fighter like Cormier, that number might as well be a decade. His face contorted like he was bracing for a tetanus shot before responding.
"This chapter in my life has been dragging me and dragging me, and it's made me ugly," he said. "And that's not me normally. You guys have seen me over the course of my career, and some of my behavior in regards to [Jones] is very different. And I guess we’ll see what happens in his appeal process. But as of right now, I've got to move forward. I can't live in this space right now. I've got to start to move forward and start to clear my mind of anything in regards to him." He didn’t trash Jones alongside the rest of the world. He just looked tired.
And why not, considering how long the roads have been to get these guys to the same intersection? Cormier chose to slim down to 205 pounds instead of fighting his American Kickboxing Academy teammate Cain Velasquez—the now-deposed UFC heavyweight champion—just before Velasquez was sidelined with injuries and, eventually, a title-relinquishing loss. After Cormier notched two wins at light heavyweight, he met Jones for a ballroom-clearing scuffle and a long, ugly feud. After they finally met in the cage in January 2015, Cormier became another pelt on Jones' wall. Then Jones went into an impressive tailspin, first with a positive test for cocaine, then an alarming hit-and-run accident that ended with him being stripped of his UFC title. Cormier filled the vacancy left by Jones against Anthony Johnson last May, stopping his opponent in the third round and claiming the title, then defending it with a bloody split-decision over Alexander Gustafsson.
And yet even as Jones carried out community service and an apology tour, Cormier—with his affable personality and high-road taking—still hadn't caught on as the true champion in the eyes of the public; lackluster pay-per-view buys for his main events with Johnson and Gustafsson proved it. So did a press conference in March, where he couldn’t get a word in above his booing audience, while Jones soaked up their good vibes. Cormier was the "undisputed" light heavyweight champion in name only. Rightly or wrongly, until he rematched and beat Jon Jones, he was a pretender. Last April, a foot injury that forced Cormier to pull out of a scheduled match-up with Jones left him angry that he wasn't the one in the cage during the piss-poor unanimous decision Jones earned in his return against Ovince St. Preux.
But days from UFC 200, Cormier's chance at validation disappeared. He has a prestige replacement in Silva, but it's not who he needs in order to vanquish the demons that have followed him since he dropped to 205 pounds. Silva is not the rival who undermines his championship credentials for as long as they don't fight. The shadow of Jon Jones still looms over Cormier, maybe forever this time.
In front of the microphone on Wednesday night, Cormier mentioned that with USADA's protocols part of the UFC's landscape, "you're going to have casualties." The loss of Cormier-Jones 2 is the biggest casualty so far, though it also affirms the integrity of the system in place: the UFC ripped apart the main event of its biggest fight card of 2016 in the name of self-imposed standards.
That's good news if you care about clean sport, but it's cold comfort for Cormier. A rematch with his biggest rival and the only MMA fighter to ever beat him at UFC 200, with all its drummed-up, round-number significance? That would have been something. That would have been pinnacle-of-your-career stuff. That would have been a chance to find redemption in front of an audience of doubters. That's the sort of thing you'd sign a waiver for: to impose upon circumstance instead of suffer from it. Now it's nothing, and it might not be anything ever again.
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