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After the chaos of fight week, which saw the Ultimate Fighting Championship forum shop its way to Inglewood, California, to host its UFC 232 card and avoid the regulatory consequences of Jon Jones’ “atypical” drug test, seeing “Bones” do his thing in the cage was almost the most anticlimactic thing to have happened on his third obstacle-ridden return to MMA glory.
Whereas the first meeting between Jones and perennial contender Alexander Gustafson was an edge-of-your-seat affair with radical swings in momentum precipitating a wildly contentious set of scorecards, the sequel was a clinical display of dominance by the former champion book-ended with a resounding finish. Jones nullified the Swede’s vaunted boxing and picked apart his legs and body with kicks before taking him down in the third round and ending it with a volley of right hands from back mount. With “The Mauler” safely in the rearview mirror, Jones took to the microphone to taunt longtime nemesis Daniel Cormier, who relinquished his 205-pound title the day before Jones recaptured it.
With a different set of principals, the callout wouldn’t have made much sense. Jones has wasted “DC” twice in the past three years, first via unanimous decision in 2015 and then via a vicious knockout courtesy of a head kick and follow-up ground-and-pound two and a half years later -- a result that was later overturned to a no-contest after Jones failed his pre-fight drug test. Along the way, three other attempts to make the fight happen were aborted -- the first two due to injury and the third due to Jones’ failed drug test at UFC 200 -- and history tells us that if the two men were to fight a third time, it would be a one-sided affair, if it comes together at all.
However, there’s a caveat to that assessment, and it applies even if you ignore the vortex of acrimony between the two men that the UFC can’t wait to unleash in another series of press conferences and video packages, the general dearth of compelling alternatives for Jones’ first 205-pound title defense and the lingering questions over the man’s doping history. That caveat? The weight.
Jones has had a grand total of one fight outside the light heavyweight division, a 210-pound catchweight bout in his professional debut over a decade ago. Since then, he has carved out a legacy as the consensus greatest light heavyweight ever, winning 11 UFC championship bouts and turning away six former or future champions in the process. He has followed a model of greatness set by the likes of Georges St Pierre and premised on defending the throne against all comers. He is custom-built for the division, with his height and reach giving him an undeniable advantage over men generally lacking in those dimensions while possessing less knockout power than counterparts to the north on the scales. Combined with his once-in-a-generation fight IQ and athleticism -- and perhaps a pinch of the special sauce -- he has climbed every major mountain that light heavyweight has to offer and made it look easy, with a change of scenery at heavyweight the only conceivable arena where he might be challenged.
Who better to kick off a heavyweight odyssey than Cormier? He began his MMA career with 13 fights -- and 13 wins -- at heavyweight before dropping down to 205 pounds in 2014 to avoid a showdown with teammate Cain Velasquez, then the undisputed champion of the heavyweight division. Over that period, Cormier fought seven men and beat six of them, his lone official blemish being his loss to Jones at UFC 182.
While Cormier was a dominant caretaker champion, we were unquestionably seeing a depleted version of the former Olympian. During his fight weeks, he frequently looked gaunt and jaundiced in the midst of his cut down to 205 pounds and scored fewer knockouts on account of his diminished power; and at UFC 210, a few months before he fought Jones for the second time, he could barely limp his way to the scales. Conversely, when he was given the opportunity to challenge for the heavyweight title in July, it took him less than a round to dispatch the winningest champion in the division’s history, Stipe Miocic, via KO. In November, he barely broke a sweat while defending the mantle of “The Baddest Man on the Planet” against Derrick Lewis. Put simply, heavyweight Cormier poses threats and intrigue that light heavyweight Cormier does not, and if Jones is serious about fighting him next -- and cementing his status as the greatest fighter of all-time -- it must be at a weight class where neither man is operating at a natural disadvantage.
That Jones has baulked at this idea in the aftermath of UFC 232, purportedly out of a desire not to destroy Cormier’s legacy, seems uncharacteristic if not outright disingenuous. Quite apart from his chronic narcissism and genuinely disturbed approach to trash talking his archrival, Jones has long flirted with moving up to heavyweight, and with little more to achieve at 205 pounds beyond a squash match with Anthony Smith, the argument against moving up to heavyweight smacks of self-preservation. That’s not necessarily a criticism -- and anyone who witnessed the Bellator 206 headliner in September will understand why -- but it does underscore the point that by staying put Jones is placing limits on his greatness.
To call out “DC” made all the promotional sense in the world, and it will be an economic success no matter where it takes place. However, for Jones’ legacy, for Cormier’s closure and for MMA as a whole, it should happen at heavyweight.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.