If you are a UFC fan, it’s been a whirlwind 24 hours with a matchup we were expecting to happen sooner or later and another one that came out of left field.
UFC president Dana White announced late Tuesday afternoon that Daniel Cormier would be defending the heavyweight championship against Derrick Lewis in the main event of UFC 230 on Nov. 3 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Wait, it gets better.
ESPN.com reported Wednesday afternoon that former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones would be returning to the Octagon for his first fight since being suspended for 15 months in a rematch against Alexander Gustafsson for the undisputed 205-pound title at UFC 232 on Dec. 29 in Las Vegas.
Looking at these matchups, one could understand the excitement of seeing the UFC heavyweight championship being defended for the first time in the “World’s Most Famous Arena.” The historic MSG is where many legendary heavyweight boxing championship bouts have taken place, including the first bout between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in 1971.
In addition, we will see the rematch five years in the making after Jones beat Gustafsson by unanimous decision at UFC 151 in September 2013. The bout was deemed one of the greatest fights in UFC history as well as arguably the greatest light heavyweight fight to ever take place. It was easily Jones’ stiffest test with some MMA pundits giving Gustafsson the nod in Toronto.
Having these respective fights does leave questions for Cormier, Jones and the rest of the light heavyweight division, though.
Cormier has remained steadfast that he intends to retire on his 40th birthday on March 20. The light heavyweight (yes, we will get to that in a moment) and heavyweight champion’s plan had been to defend the latter against Brock Lesnar in early 2019, eventually defend the former against a top light heavyweight and then ride off into the sunset. However, taking the Lewis fight in November and being forced to relinquish the 205-pound belt once the opening bell sounds for Jones-Gustafsson II throws a monkey wrench into those plans.
It was going to be extraordinarily difficult for “DC” to fight Lesnar and then come right back for a quick turnaround in March against Jones, Gustafsson or someone else in the light heavyweight division. Because money talks and the fact no one in combat sports ever retires when they say they do, the best bet is if Cormier beats Lewis, the captain of American Top Team will battle Lesnar on Super Bowl weekend. Regardless of whether he beats Lesnar, he would engage in the ultimate trilogy bout with Jones on what is normally the UFC’s biggest card of the year in July to see who really is the baddest man on the planet at 205 pounds.
This couldn’t have worked out any better for Jones. He received a 15-month suspension for failing a second drug test after stopping Cormier at UFC 214 in July 2017 and now gets to waltz right back into a championship fight and take on the man with whom he had his toughest bout. The cherry on top is that his fiercest rival will be stripped of the belt because of it.
Jones told ESPN in an interview last week that he doesn’t want to face Cormier for a third time. Don’t believe the rhetoric coming out of Jones’ mouth for one second. Of course he’s going to say something along those lines considering that he has already defeated Cormier twice (once, officially). The comments were made to get under Cormier’s skin. And the world knows that Jones knows how to push Cormier’s buttons better than anyone.
The 31-year-old cares about what people think of him. He doesn’t handle criticism very well. Jones understands there’s a lot of doubt about his two victories over Cormier. A win (and a negative drug test) would erase any doubts people had and Jones can regain his place as the greatest mixed martial artist of all time.
Thirteen years ago, the UFC light heavyweight division used to be the glamour division led by UFC Hall of Famers Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz. All three played hot potato with the title, but new fighters were coming in including Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Lyoto Machida. Now, beyond Cormier, Gustafsson and Jones, you couldn’t name a fighter in the weight class if you lined them up against a wall without a name tag attached to them.
Yes, seeing Jones and Gustafsson lock horns and the thought of Cormier-Jones III is like a child getting their favorite candy on Halloween, but the division is in dire need of new blood.
No. 2-ranked Volkan Oezdemir got blasted by Cormier at UFC 220, No. 3-ranked Jan Blachowicz has won four consecutive fights but lost to Gustafsson in his biggest career test, and No. 4-ranked Ilir Latifi, while a favorite among hardcore fans, lost to Blachowicz in 2014.
There are two guys to watch: No. 6-ranked Dominick Reyes and No. 10-ranked Anthony Smith. They pack the hardest punches in the division. Reyes is undefeated in nine fights with eight stoppages (six knockouts, two submissions) and comes off a very impressive unanimous decision victory over perennial contender and former title challenger Ovince Saint Preux at last Saturday’s UFC 229. Smith has busted through the door since entering the division in June, knocking out legends and former light heavyweight champions Evans and Rua, respectively, in a combined 2 minutes, 22 seconds. “Lionheart” will get a chance to show if he’s for real when he headlines a UFC Fight Night card vs. Oezdemir on Oct. 27.
Once Cormier retires sometime in 2019, it will be refreshing to see either Gustafsson and/or Jones face new competition. There’s light at the end of the tunnel and it is coming at the right time.