The ball will have dropped; the champagne will have been drunk; the confetti will have been swept away; and with the New Year’s Eve festivities behind us, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event of 2015 will stand before us. A grudge match years in the making will come to fruition at UFC 182 on Saturday, as Jon Jones defends his light heavyweight title against Daniel Cormier at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Related » UFC 182 Preview
HOW WE GOT HERE: It all started at UFC 165, where Alexander Gustafsson gave Jones the first real fight of his career. Until that night in Toronto, “Bones” rarely experienced a round in which he was not in complete control, let alone an entire contest. Even before the scorecards were read -- Jones won a unanimous decision -- after Sherdog.com’s 2013 “Fight of the Year,” everyone watching knew those two would fight again. The rematch was booked for UFC 178 after both men won separate bouts. However, Gustafsson was forced to withdraw due to a knee injury, so Daniel Cormier stepped in, and the grudge match was set. The rest is history. Cormier shoved; Jones punched; Cormier threw a shoe; and everyone wanted to throw money at their television sets for the pay-per- view. The bout faced another delay when Jones injured himself training, but there was no way the UFC was putting together the original matchup with Gustafsson; the heat between Jones and Cormier had reached solar levels. If only Gustafsson had thrown a Swedish clog. All pageantry aside, Jones and Cormier have run roughshod over everyone in their path for the last five years.
Destiny, it seems, pulled these two together ... Do not forget about the important lightweight co-main event. If one is inclined to believe Donald Cerrone, his fight with Myles Jury stems from the unbeaten Alliance MMA rep’s recent win over teammate Diego Sanchez at UFC 171. The 26-year-old earned his fifth UFC victory over the original “Ultimate Fighter,” and Cerrone took offense to Jury’s dismissal of Sanchez’s skills. Revenge match or not, both lightweights are on the hottest winning streaks in the weight class. It is the toughest test to date for “Fury.”
BAD BLOOD: UFC President Dana White never met a feud he did not like. Mention you have trained with your opponent before, and White will say, “These guys have unfinished business.” Tweet a comment questioning the punching power of your opponent, and he will mention, “They just don’t like each other.” With the head of the UFC touting every main event like rival bullies meeting behind the science lab, the narrative starts to lose its muscle. When you go to the bad-blood storyline too often, the well runs dry. There is no question the animosity between Jones and Cormier is legitimate and based on years of building frustration. The sour feelings spilled into a pre-fight press conference brawl in the MGM Grand lobby and overflowed out of the famed hotel like the toxic slime from “Ghostbusters 2.” Anticipation for UFC 182 is running higher than any event in recent memory, but it should be even hotter. Jones-Cormier should stand out as a true grudge match and not a small glimpse into reality, the latest in a line of fabricated storylines.
G.O.A.T. DEBATE: Prior to UFC 181, the “Smartest Guy at the Bar” explored Gilbert Melendez’s all-time standing at 155 pounds should he best champion Anthony Pettis. A “Showtime” guillotine crossed that discussion topic off the list in less than two rounds. However, the Greatest of All-Time door opens again, this time for Jones. His career statistics in the UFC’s most storied weight class are just obscene. From championship bouts and winning streaks to the number of former champions he has defeated, Jones’ numbers alone tell a dominant tale. He enjoyed arguably the greatest calendar year of any fighter ever in 2011. As a spry 23-year-old, he defeated Ryan Bader, Mauricio Rua (becoming the youngest UFC champion in history), Quinton Jackson and Lyoto Machida. Other than a laughable, token title defense against traditional middleweight Chael Sonnen, he has consistently faced -- and defeated -- the best the weight class has to offer. Handling Cormier could be just what he needs to put him over the top. “DC” is undefeated, and in only 15 professional bouts, he has knocked off five former UFC champions or title challengers. Jones has faced rivals before, like Evans and Jackson, but never with this level of animosity.
If Jones wins his ninth consecutive UFC title fight, he enters the conversation for best MMA fighter of all-time.
SAY WHAT: Both men in the UFC 182 headliner came to the organization unquestionably classified as wrestlers. Jones was a national champion at Iowa Central Community College, and Cormier qualified for two Olympics following an All-American run at Oklahoma State University. With that said, the ticket-paying public is not dropping its money to see who performs best in a singlet. Still, when the two fighters appeared on Fox Sports Live earlier this week, Cormier found solace in the fact that he will not be sharing the cage with his wrestling equal: “I’ve always stated that when push comes to shove in a mixed martial arts fight, I’m not standing across from an Olympic gold medalist, [and] I’m not standing across from Cael Sanderson. I’m standing across from a guy that wrestled some -- and not at the level I did.”
AWARDS WATCH: Presenting one of the best main events in recent memory means the UFC saves its undercard depth for another night. Even with all eyes rightfully set on the featured title bout, there is some compelling action elsewhere. Jury finally gets his first big showcase bout against a top-five opponent in Cerrone. Now 15-0, Jury puts his excellent game planning and execution skills to the test. “Cowboy” enjoyed one of the best years of any fighter’s career in 2014 and clearly found his stride. Jury is game, but Cerrone possesses a predatory finishing ability Jury has never faced before. It will be enough to keep this bout exciting and competitive, making it the likely “Fight of the Night” … Both Japanese flyweight prospect Kyoji Horiguchi and former Bellator MMA middleweight champion Hector Lombard are massive betting favorites in their respective matches. Horiguchi faces Louis Gaudinot in a showcase scrap for a weight class and country that needs fresh blood at the championship level . Lombard, meanwhile, welcomes back Josh Burkman to the Octagon for the first time since 2008.
Burkman revitalized his career in the World Series of Fighting, going 4-1 in the promotion, including a submission win over former UFC title challenger Jon Fitch. He will have his hands full against Lombard, whose concussive power and world-class judo make him a tough nut to crack. There is a good chance Horiguchi and Lombard cash performance checks.