The term “rivalry” is often overused in sports. When it comes to UFC 214 headliners Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones, though, the disdain is all too real.
Throughout the history of combat sports, tension between opponents has been a chief selling point around the biggest fights. The hatred between UFC Light Heavyweight champion Cormier (19-1 MMA, 8-1 UFC) and former champ Jones (22-1 MMA, 16-1 UFC) is as authentic as it gets, and the next chance to one up each other finally takes place Saturday at Honda Center in Anaheim, California (10 p.m. ET, pay-per-view).
Over the past three years Cormier and Jones have been scheduled to fight five times. Issues spanning from injuries to positive drug tests have limited the adversaries to just one Octagon encounter, which Jones won by unanimous decision at UFC 182 in January 2015.
More often than not, when two athletes battle for 25 minutes, the bad feelings are left in the Octagon. That’s far from the case with Cormier and Jones, who are arguably the two greatest 205-pound fighters to ever compete in mixed martial arts.
“I don’t like Daniel Cormier,” Jones proclaimed immediately after UFC 182. “I don’t respect Daniel Cormier. I hope he’s somewhere crying right now. I’m sure he is. I can’t wait until he earns his way back, so I can whoop him again.”
Surprisingly, it was actually Jones who was forced to earn his way back. Jones’ win at UFC 182 marked his eighth consecutive UFC title defense, and while he’s frequently treaded the line of self-destruction, a remarkable stretch of illegal activity and poor decision-making following the fight with Cormier completely derailed his career.
A drug test result that came out days after UFC 182 saw Jones test positive for cocaine. A few months later, “Bones” was involved in a well-documented hit-and-run, which left a pregnant woman with a broken arm and resulted in him being suspended from competition and stripped of the title he held for four years.
In Jones’ absence, Cormier overtook the championship throne. He won the vacant belt and has since gone on to defend it twice. Jones, meanwhile, was forced to get his life together. He parted ways with alcohol and recreational drug use and, along with being put on probation, was required to make 72 community service appearances as punishment for the hit-and-run before the UFC regained enough faith to reinstate him to the roster.
The pair were supposed to rematch at UFC 197 in April 2016, but Cormier suffered a knee injury that caused him to withdraw from the scheduled contest less than two weeks out. Jones won a fight against replacement opponent Ovince Saint Preux, setting up a main event showdown with Cormier at UFC 200 in July 2016, which was supposed to be the biggest event in company history.
Then it all went wrong again. Jones tested positive for a banned substance just days before UFC 200, forcing him to be removed from the contest by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which oversees the UFC’s drug testing program. Although he claims the result stemmed from taking an off-brand sexual enhancement pill, he was still suspended one year, further harming the career of the man many consider to be the greatest fighter in MMA history.
Cormier’s negative feeling toward Jones originated from an interaction at an awards ceremony several years prior to their first fight. All of Jones mistakes since have provided him with a full clip of ammunition to hurl at his foe. He’s labeled Jones as a junkie, steroid abuser, sub-par person and more, but more than anything, his hostile attitude stemmed from Jones being the only man to beat him. All the current champion really wants is to get that back.
“Jon and I are like oil and water – we don’t mix,” Cormier tells Rolling Stone. “We’re never going to be friends. I’ve done everything: I’ve won the Strikeforce title, regional titles, I’ve been the UFC champion. The only thing I have not done in this sport is beat Jon Jones. Everything else I’ve done.”
For a time, it seemed all the criticism over Jones’ decision-making from both Cormier and the rest of the world truly dug at him. For years he was labeled as “fake,” because the persona he portrayed in public did not align with what was known when the cameras were off.
Jones, who in March 2011 became the youngest fighter to ever win UFC gold at age 23, told Rolling Stone in an in-depth, revealing interview last year that an aggressive level of partying would routinely occur in the weeks leading up to his fights. However, due to his unique talent level, he never paid the price inside a competitive setting. It eventually caught up to him outside of fighting, though, and over the past 30 months his actions have cost him dearly.
Jones claims he’s been clean of any substance abuse for more than a year. He’s also finally learned to relish his true nature. He’s no longer trying to put on the act he once thought the world wanted to see.
“I never intended on having an image of being the bad guy,” Jones says. “Somewhere along the way, I got lost. I got caught up in my own shit and I started having fun and partying and still winning. I just took it all for granted. I really wanted to be an inspiration to other people and to inspire people and be a role model. That was my original thought. Somewhere along the line I just stopped caring and started living for myself.
“I don’t need ‘DC’ to try to convince everyone that I’m this terrible human being. People can judge me for how they want. It’s all out there in the public. That’s a freeing feeling to be looked at as such a piece of shit by so many people. To be able to just be real for yourself and just take responsibility for the things you’ve done wrong. I feel so free to be who I am.”
Although Jones, who is a father of four and brother of established NFL players Arthur and Chandler Jones, believes deep down that he is a quality person with righteous intentions, he’s no longer bothered by those eager to paint him in a negative light. He feels winning back the title will be a significant step toward rebuilding his image, an image he believes Cormier has spent several years dragging through the mud out of nothing other than spite and envy.
“It’s become an attack my character – that’s all this thing is,” Jones said. “When people ask Daniel what he thinks about me inside the Octagon, he has shit to say about me. I’m here to fight. I’m not here to protect whether you think I’m a good person or not. I’ve given up on that. I don’t give a crap what people think about me at this stage of my career; not even an ounce.
“This is the first time I’ve been against someone that’s literally fighting just to prove that I’m a bad guy. … When Daniel loses, he’ll be able to say, ‘Well I’m a fucking good guy, and at least people respect me for being a good champion when I had that belt in Jon’s absence.’ He deserves respect because he is a good guy. But you don’t have to shit on other people to try to make yourself seem that much better.”
Despite unleashing a seemingly endless stream of criticism, Cormier claims he’s finally moved past the point of worrying about how Jones conducts himself in his personal life, and “couldn’t give two shits if he goes to church every day and he’s reading his Bible.” For the former Olympic wrestler, who has been the model citizen and athlete throughout the entirety of his career, his driving motive is to validate to himself and the world that he’s now the best, and Jones is not. No one has been able to accomplish that feat, but Cormier believes with every fiber of his being that he’s capable.
“All the anger an animosity, I don’t care about that anymore,” Cormier tells Rolling Stone. “It’s just about getting in there and competing. Going in there and doing what I feel I’m able to do, and that’s getting the job done. I don’t question myself in regard to this competition. I don’t feel like I can’t beat Jon Jones. I don’t question whether or not I’m going to get my hand raised.”
Naturally Jones doesn’t intend on allowing Cormier to prove his greatness at his expense. In fact, Jones argues Cormier’s greatness has and always will be limited. In individual sports, there’s only room for one top dog, and in Jones’ mind, “DC” has done nothing to prove he’s superior.
“I believe I’m already the greatest fighter of all time,” Jones says. “I’m the one. I’m something special. … Either you got it or you don’t. Throughout (Cormier’s) career it’s been proven time and time again that he is not the one. If he was the one he would have beat Cael Sanderson (in wrestling), if he was the one he would have won the Olympics. If he was the one he would have beat me the first time. I believe that I’m the one and I’m going to prove it again.”
Part of Cormier understands Jones’ harsh stance. From a personal standpoint, there’s nothing manufactured about their ruthless relationship. Competitively, though, Jones proved in the first fight that he’s a level above. 938 days have gone by between fights, though, and much has changed in that span.
Jones feels when the final story is written Cormier “will be remembered as one of Jon Jones’ great contenders,” and nothing more. Cormier knows going 0-2 would be detrimental to his legacy, but if he wins at UFC 214, it would almost certainly set up a deciding chapter in the form of a trilogy fight. He’s not looking that far ahead, but Cormier knows how crucial victory is to create balance.
“This rivalry is a rivalry when I win the fight this weekend,” Cormier says. “If you don’t win the fight it’s just two guys that were fighting on more than one occasion. It’s a rivalry when I win.”
For Jones, meanwhile, he views victory as the most important step in putting the demons of recent years behind him. He’s finally ready to move on to the next chapter both personally and professionally, and regaining the belt would provide him with the ultimate closure.
The fact he can make Cormier suffer in the process just makes it that much sweeter.
“I feel like I’ve really done the right things to get my life back in order,” Jones says. “This win on Saturday, it’s going to allow the fans to almost forgive and forget a little bit about that hit-and-run car accident and start to get excited about my future. Getting this belt back is just going to set everything in the right direction. People are going to remember why I’m an exciting fighter. People are going to remember why I’m one of the biggest pay-per-view draws in the sport. I think people forgot about the things that make me special.”