The other similarity: They’ve both been defeated by ex-UFC champ Jon Jones, who would likely be part of the main event contest if not for an April hit-and-run incident in which he fled the scene of an accident involving his SUV and a pregnant woman’s vehicle. He was stripped of the UFC title and suspended indefinitely from competition in the wake of the accident, and was not seen or heard until earlier this week.
On Tuesday, “Bones” appeared before a judge in Albuquerque and pleaded guilty to one felony count of leaving the scene of an accident. In exchange, he received a conditional discharge that will allow him to avoid jail time, but is required to serve up to 18 months of probation and make 72 appearances for youth outreach or charity programs. The court also agreed not to limit his travel – meaning that, while the UFC has yet to formally lift his suspension, the path is now seemingly clear for Jones to return to competition in the coming months.
Which means his shadow looms large over UFC 192.
Jones was on top of the MMA world prior to a rough 2015 stretch. Not only was he involved in the April accident, but in January he also tested positive for cocaine metabolites and spent one day in rehab. Despite his struggles outside the cage, many experts have Jones labeled as the sport’s No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter, and his resume is worthy of that distinction. Jones became the youngest champion in UFC history in March 2011, when he defeated Mauricio Rua for the Light Heavyweight title at just 23 years old.
Jones’ current 12-fight winning streak includes victories over Cormier and Gustafsson, as well as Rashad Evans and Ryan Bader, all of whom compete on the UFC 192 card on Saturday at Houston’s Toyota Center. Although the UFC belt isn’t officially in Jones’ possession, the reality is UFC 192’s athletes are simply jockeying for second best, with Cormier and Gustafsson fighting for the right to be a stopgap champion.
Jones was nearly untouchable inside the Octagon from the time he made his UFC debut to the moment he was stripped of the title. His most recent contest, a UFC 182 showdown with Cormier in January, was simply another indicator of his elite talent.
After months of build-up to the contest, in which Jones and Cormier traded verbal – and even physical – blows, the fight itself only had a handful of competitive moments sprinkled over 25 minutes. Jones left with a convincing unanimous decision that reduced Cormier to post-fight tears backstage. Jones was scheduled to face Anthony Johnson in May before the alleged hit-and-run incident. After he was stripped and suspended, Cormier stepped in as his replacement at UFC 187 and roughed up Johnson en route to a third-round submission to capture the vacant belt.
Even though Cormier, a former Team USA Olympic wrestling captain, had just achieved arguably his greatest athletic accomplishment, his post-fight interview with UFC commentator Joe Rogan spoke volumes to his awareness of a great truth – he must defeat Jones to be viewed as the true champion.
“I have a message for one man: Jon Jones, get your shit together,” he stated inside Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena. “I’m waiting for you.”
The disdain between Jones and Cormier is palpable. A rematch between the two is among the most significant bouts the UFC can book, especially in a scenario with a returning Jones positioned as a title challenger for the first time in nearly five years.
While Jones’ comeback is viewed by most as inevitable, a second bout with Cormier isn’t a given. “DC” has a tall task ahead of him – literally – in the form of Gustafsson, who is a 6-foot-5 striking specialist.
Gustafsson has earned knockout victories with the help of a movement-heavy, in-and-out style that’s caused confusion for the majority of his opponents. The lengthy Swede enters the title fight with an asterisk around his name, though, because in his most recent bout, he suffered a brutal first-round knockout to Johnson, whom Cormier handily defeated to win the vacant strap.
“The Mauler” is not the first in UFC history to be granted a title shot after a loss. But considering the Johnson fight ended with Gustafsson battered before a stadium of 30,000 fans in his native Sweden, the circumstances are less than ideal. His saving grace, however, is that he gave Jones his most difficult fight to date at UFC 165 in September 2013. He came out on the wrong end of a back-and-forth, highly dramatic decision, but Gustafsson pushed Jones harder than anyone. He became the first to ever score a takedown on Jones and had the ex-champ bloody, bruised and on the verge of defeat.
Gustafsson has been in pursuit of a rematch with Jones ever since, and a title-winning performance at UFC 192 would put him in position to welcome “Bones” back to the UFC and exact revenge. In fact, he wishes he was fighting him on Saturday.
“I’d probably fight Jon Jones again,” Gustafsson said. “That’s the fight everybody wants to see. That’s the fight I want to have again.”
When the time arrives for Jones to get back in the Octagon, UFC President Dana White already announced he’d be granted an immediate title shot. That means a second bout with either Cormier or Gustafsson is imminent.
Both are talented fighters – they just haven’t proven capable of matching Jones’ unique ability, and are currently being given a glimpse of life without the division’s top competitor. As much as Cormier spins his title reign as legitimate or claims he’s not looking ahead to a rematch with Jones, he’s answered enough questions about both in the lead-up to UFC 192 to know that, even in absence, the ex-champ casts an unavoidable shadow over his belt.
Defeating his rival is the only way Cormier can disperse that shadow, which makes winning UFC 192’s main event all the more important.
“For my journey to be complete, and for me to be complete as I finish this sport, I need him,” Cormier said recently. “I wish him all the best so that he can actually get back and I can stop playing around with these guys and get back to business.
“Everyone wants this fight. It’s not just me,” he continued. “I’m the one asked about it more because I have the championship, but I think everyone should want him to come back and have the opportunity to compete.”