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The greatest light heavyweight of all-time cemented his claim as a legitimate contender for the coveted spot as the premier athlete in mixed martial arts’ relatively short existence. A devastating finish led to the historic hoisting of two undisputed belts. The new champ-champ is now in position for what could amount to be the biggest pay-per-view event in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s history. The greatest fighter meeting the greatest mainstream draw is simply too appealing to ignore, regardless of the obvious contradictions with sporting integrity.
If you read the above words a little less than a year ago, it’s only natural to assume that the unnamed greatest light heavyweight of all-time would be in reference to Jon Jones. He’s the greatest talent MMA has ever seen. After his since-overturned win at UFC 214, he talked about his desire to fight Brock Lesnar and flirted with challenging for the heavyweight belt. What a difference a year makes. What amounts to less than 365 days feels like a lifetime ago, as Daniel Cormier left the Octagon a tearful and broken man without the beloved championship belt he had successfully defended multiple times. Instead of having his redeeming post-fight press conference moment -- think Conor McGregor and Dominick Cruz following their latest high-profile losses -- the former Olympic wrestler was hospitalized following a brutal head kick and equally vicious ground-and-pound that forced the second-round stoppage.
What Cormier accomplished at UFC 226 on Saturday was nothing short of remarkable, as he stopped Stipe Miocic, the most successful heavyweight champion the organization has ever seen, in the opening round at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The context in which it happened makes it legendary. There will be more than enough attention thrown his way, and deservedly so. However, the question of what could have been lingers. If conventional wisdom prevailed a year ago and Jones was the one who moved up a weight class to dethrone the champion while still ruling over his own division, what would the conversation be like?
Jones’ indiscretions and missteps have been just as baffling as his superhuman fighting abilities. The destructive force behind the elbows that shattered Brandon Vera’s orbital are a fair comparison to the destructive force of “dick pills” overshadowing his post-United States Anti-Doping Agency career. The devastating body shots that dropped and overwhelmed Mauricio Rua are equivalent to the devastating effects of the still-unexplained turinabol that appear to have sacked what could have been one of the most dramatic redemption stories in the entire sports world. The suffocating standing guillotine that choked the consciousness out of Lyoto Machida is akin to his poor life decisions, as they squeezed out what could have been a lucrative side gig as an endorsement athlete.
It’s not hard at all to imagine a world where Jones legitimately changed his ways at the first signs of trouble. Had the often-forgotten intoxicated car wreck that saw the youngest champion in UFC history crash the Bentley gifted to him by his employers been the end of his out-of-cage troubles, his viability as major sports celebrity with enough pull to attract blue-chip sponsorships -- remember the Nikes that bore his name -- would have remained intact. Had the forced withdrawal from UFC 200 been the only time his credibility as a clean fighter was called into question, it could have been seen as a lone mistake and easily dismissed.
What would have been leftover without the blemishes is the best collection of skulls in the sport and a highlight reel to match. Before Jones’ most hated rival had his hand raised at UFC 226, the questions were there, and many considered the wasted potential that has lingered on the sidelines too long due to numerous suspensions. What now gives a renewed spotlight on this hypothetical scenario is the aforementioned greatness of Cormier’s accomplishment.
Seeing it happen in such a definitive fashion gives the thought a lot more weight. We’ve seen the stunned look of the crowd and shock of the oddsmakers, as Cormier’s short overhand in the clinch dropped Miocic. We saw the look of elation as he sat on the fence with both belts draped over his shoulders. We witnessed a delighted Cormier basking in the glory of his win while receiving the praise of fans, the media and his promoter. We watched as Lesnar entered the Octagon in his Sunday Best and gave his World Wrestling Entertainment experience another test run in promoting an unscripted fight. Imagine Jones in that scenario. Picture one of his many unorthodox and breathtaking striking displays dropping a reigning heavyweight champion and leading to a Sportscenter-worthy finish. Visualize the aftermath.
As incredible as those sights might have been, they pale in comparison to what was actually lost. The truth: Jones was rapidly cleaning out the light heavyweight division’s finest and was rapidly losing any worthy challengers, with Anthony Johnson left as the last man standing. The infamous hit-and-run incident in 2015 proved to be the death blow to that matchup and breathed life into Cormier’s title aspirations. It is possible “Bones” would have decided to at least test the waters at heavyweight if he had dispatched Johnson. It’s hard to picture Jones electing to rematch the winner of the scrapped Cormier-Ryan Bader bout, with the money, prestige and headlines that would have accompanied main events opposite Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos or Alistair Overeem.
This would have predated the dual-division reign of McGregor, the only other man to hold two belts simultaneously. The greatness of Cormier’s achievement notwithstanding, the brightest shine will always go to McGregor for simply doing it before anyone else could. That’s a notch on the Irishman’s belt that can’t be disputed. Jones could have possibly beaten him to the punch. The image of Jones with both belts in front of him at the podium during the post-fight press conference would have stood alone without anything to precede it.
Jones also broke through the glass ceiling American MMA fighters seemed to experience in reaching first-rate corporate sponsors. While Nike backed Anderson Silva and dos Santos before Jones, those campaigns had little to no impact outside of Brazil. Until Jones, the closest thing in North America was Georges St. Pierre, who inked a deal with Under Armour in 2009. Soon after Jones became an official Nike and Gatorade athlete, other major brands like Wheaties, Budweiser and Adidas began to take interest in American UFC fighters. When the Reebok deal single-handedly smashed the independent endorsement market, Jones was one of the first fighters signed to an individual deal. A sustained presence on TV commercials and merchandise attached to major brands would have only upped his star power and bottom line.
Jones could have also beaten McGregor to another milestone: a blockbuster crossover fight. The boxing match between McGregor and Floyd Mayweather Jr. was a cash machine for all involved. The only way it was even remotely possible was in a perfect storm of two dominant, famous and polarizing fighters of similar size existing in the spotlight at the same time. Is it far-fetched to picture Jones plowing through his contemporaries in MMA and attracting the eyeballs of the boxing world? After all, Bones was targeted as a potential associate of Mayweather’s all-encompassing Money Team as recently as last year. With or without the co-sign of the undefeated boxer, the dominance Jones displayed in the Octagon could have been the ticket to a huge payday with Wladimir Klitschko, Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury on the other side of the ring. The results would have likely been similar to the technical knockout McGregor suffered -- along with the nine-figure payday he enjoyed.
With Cormier planning to fight Lesnar, Jones will be the odd man out. As observers debate where Cormier stands in the never-ending Greatest of All-Time discussions, Jones’ legacy has a huge asterisk next to it. As Cormier shines in TV commercials and as an on-air personality, Jones is forced to attempt to use Twitter to re-insert himself in the conversation. UFC 226 was all about the elite distinction of Cormier. However, it also highlights the contrast of what we didn’t get to witness.