Jon Jones has reduced the UFC's 205-pound weight class to a supporting cast of characters, and he's done it by barely fighting at all. The long-reigning light heavyweight champion lost his belt for out-of-the-cage infractions in 2015, hid out for a year, and won a shiny, meaningless interim belt with a lackluster decision over an overmatched Ovince St. Preux in April. Before a planned rematch with nemesis and current 205-pound champion Daniel Cormier in July, Jones tested positive for a pair of banned substances and pulled the rug out from UFC 200 just days out, shed some tears at a press conference, and faced a potentially years-long suspension in the aftermath.
And yet here we are, talking about what Jones deserves, if anything, when he returns to fighting and how the rest of the elite players fit in to his comeback story.
The big disclaimer is that Jones' rebound depends on how hearings regarding for those positive tests for clomiphene and letrozole play out. But Jones has said that he expects to fight again "really soon", and that possibility appears strong enough that last month UFC President Dana White floated the idea of him facing Anthony Johnson—the heavy-handed light heavyweight who knocked Glover Teixeira stiff at UFC 202—in his first bout back. Soon after on UFC Tonight, Cormier said that he spoke with Johnson and they agreed that Jones needed to "gain some trust of his peers" before getting the spotlight again. "[Anthony Johnson] feels like [Jones] should have to earn his way back, and you know what, I agree. I agree, I think I should be fighting 'Rumble' Johnson, but that's between Anthony and Jon."
This week on color commentator and former UFC middleweight Brian Stann's radio show, Cormier dug in deeper in his Jones-related indignation. "Now one thing I completely disagree with completely—and I don't care who hears it—why in the hell would Jon still be the interim champion? That makes no sense. That makes absolutely no sense. I don't even know why he would still be the interim champion. His ass was disqualified. Take that freakin' belt off of him. That's stupid. If they fight, they fight to determine the number-one contender, it's not some interim championship fight. That makes no sense at all. You'd have an interim champion defending the interim championship, while the actual champion is actually still there. That makes no sense whatsoever."
Put it that way and yeah, that would be weird. The UFC would effectively have created a parallel dimension where interim champions fought interim challengers for interim stakes, all while a champion (with no qualifiers) who's healthy and on good contractual footing with the promotion for which everyone competes was clear to fight—all in the name of giving titular weight to Jon Jones' return. Johnson, for his part, is aiming for a championship fight with Cormier, their second meeting after a third-round submission loss when Cormier stepped in for the deposed Jones back in May 2015. And while Cormier's and Johnson's semblance of collegiality cracked yesterday during a dull Twitter dustup about whether they should fight in November or just before the New Year, Johnson managed to clarify his feelings about potentially fighting for an interim belt in the process:
The threat of bending the rules to accommodate Jones has created about as much solidarity as you could expect among grown men who in some cases have beaten each other up and might do so again soon. On The MMA Hour, contender Alexander Gustafsson said, "It wouldn’t be fair, giving [Jones] a title shot…it's not fair to other fighters too, who've been working their asses off…" And when Jones invoked the possibility of fighting UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, he widened his circle of critics to include top heavyweight (and Cormier's teammate) Cain Velasquez, who said, "I think it'd be B.S. if he came back and got a title shot right away."
When Jones is allowed to return, he first needs to settle things in the division where he seemed unstoppable for nearly four years. A comeback fight with Ryan Bader or another fighter further down in the light heavyweight rankings would be an understandable penance. Jones's instincts for spinning elbows are matched only by instincts for self-destruction (and terrible driving), and it's easy to paint him as a petulant kid enabled by his pushover parents in the UFC. Denying him a high-profile match upon his return would signal that he couldn't keep screwing up and expect his promotion and his division to bend to his whim. It'd be a stand based on principle.
But there's an immutable truth to Jon Jones: while champions have been recently dethroned across nearly every division, no one's been able to beat Jones but himself. Cormier's successful title defense, Johnson rebuilding his case as a contender with arm-stiffening knockouts, Alexander Gustafsson trudging forward—the goings on in the 205-pound weight class have never had a dimmer spotlight on them because everything that happens occurs relative to what's going on with Jones, the titleholder who's never truly lost in the Octagon. The longer he lurks in the background, the more he undercuts everyone else's best efforts. You'll watch Cormier or Johnson or Gustafsson fight, and part of you will wonder how badly Jones would smash them all until he gets to try his luck.
What a frustrating place to be in that constellation of great light heavyweights: the star that was once on the verge of burning out now shines so brightly that it gives you a fucking headache.
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