Daniel Cormier takes on Anthony “Rumble” Johnson for the UFC light heavyweight championship on Saturday night. In other words, the winner claims the title of “second best.”
Jon Jones, who won a clear victory in a competitive fight over Cormier in January, watches in Albuquerque after Albuquerqueans watched him run from a car accident. The man who broke the hulking Cormier’s spirit in January broke a pregnant woman’s arm in April. So, the UFC took away his title.
But because the UFC calls Saturday night’s winner “champion” doesn’t mean the fans must. Nobody beat Jon Jones but Jon Jones. He didn’t duck anyone or take years off. Instead, he defeated a murderer’s row of light heavyweights: Shogun Rua, Rampage Jackson, Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort, Lyoto Machida, Alexander Gustafsson, etc. He fought and beat the best. But we’re supposed to pretend that either a shrunken down heavyweight defeated by Jones a few months ago or a blown-up welterweight choked out quickly by Belfort a few years ago becomes the best at 205 with a win Saturday night?
Jon Jones needs help. But so does anyone who believes Johnson or Cormier the legitimate champion. Stripping Jones of the belt and awarding it to a lesser fighter makes the UFC more like the WBCIBFWBAWBO alphabet soup of boxing and less like undisputed king of MMA. Belts should get lost in rings and cages, not bureaucracies.
A lot of crazy things happen on Saturdays. Calling the winner of Cormier-Johnson “champion” ranks somewhere above crashing your Bentley into a telephone pole but slightly below snorting lines of coke a month before the biggest fight of your life.
This isn’t to dismiss the wrestler and striker as a pair of schleps.
Johnson enters the Octagon on a nine-fight winning streak that includes victories over Gustafsson, Phil Davis, and Andrei Arlovski, a former UFC heavyweight champion who takes on Travis Browne at UFC 187. Perhaps “blown-up welterweight” fails to capture Johnson, who looks far from small next to his opponent. And Cormier might now be the heavyweight champion had he remained in the division. He dominated Frank Mir, Antonio Silva, Josh Barnett, and Roy Nelson before dropping weight—a lot of weight—to compete at light heavyweight.
Cormier entered the UFC a great fighter and Johnson returned to the UFC a great fighter. But “great” and “Jon Jones great” operate on unequal planes.
“To be the best,” the philosopher Ric Flair noted, “you’ve got to beat the best.” Neither Cormier nor Johnson does so with a win.
When asked about the legitimacy of the championship by Ariel Helwani, Cormier strangely talked about how he loves his fiancée and son: “I’ve been as good a person as I can be.” If Cormier competed with Jones for the title of humanitarian champion, DC’s claims to the belt would certainly eclipse Jones’s. But Jones never claimed to be good. He merely regarded himself as “the baddest man on the planet.”
“When you look in the history books, this championship is the lineal UFC light heavyweight championship,” Cormier insists. “It’s not an interim. You won’t see an asterisk.” He says it to convince himself as much as anyone else.
Bruce Buffer will announce a new champion. But just because he’s the UFC’s dummy doesn’t mean fans have to be his. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Everywhere else, people will still regard Jones as the champion.
Another accomplished wrestler, long and lanky like Jon Jones, famously asked crowds: If you call a dog’s tail (or was it a cow’s tail?) a leg, how many legs does a dog have? “Five,” audiences inevitably responded. No, Abraham Lincoln told them, calling a tail a leg does not make it so.
Call Anthony Johnson an explosive, powerful striker. Call Daniel Cormier a dominant wrestler boasting excellent boxing. Just don’t call one or the other “champion” until he beats Jon Jones.