Two men that have never been beaten by another man in this sport, meet in the prime of their careers for a world title. And the two hate each other so much they have been unable to be in the same room without clashing. This is sport at its very, very best.
More often than not in sport, rivalries are created out of mere circumstance. Sometimes manifestations of what is nothing more than competition and coincidence can combine to produce a compelling tale.
However, every so often, a rivalry comes about between two entities that are so contrasting yet so similar, with the competition so fierce and intense, it seems that it is two great innate forces of the cosmos that are battling it out, rather than two simple competitors.
Think Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi, Bjorn Borg vs John McEnroe, Joe Frazier vs Muhammad Ali. And now think Jon Jones vs Daniel Cormier.
On one side you have athleticism, aggressiveness and cockiness. On the other you have skill, determination and humility. This is one of the rivalries that has come about because of destiny. Beyond accolades and titles, it is the kind of rivalry that will amplify the greatness of each individual and elevate the whole sport itself. The two clash in so many ways it is only right they clash in the octagon. Separating the two is eight years in age, six fights in MMA experience, five inches in height and two polar opposite personalities.
A product of New York, what fans see from Jones veers between gracious Christian to aggressive curser, one day quoting the Bible on TV and the next sending insults over social media. Jones usually does both with a smirk on his face and oozing self-confidence. Cormier, born in Louisiana, gives off a more naturally friendly vibe, like the neighbour you can always ask to borrow a cup of sugar from. In most cases, people will agree Cormier is a guy people will find hard to dislike, while Jones is not.
As fighters, Jones is the peak of what MMA is whilst Cormier is what has made the UFC so popular.
Jones is a pure martial-artist. Although he had a high school background in wrestling, he abandoned it to directly take up MMA in his late teen years. Because of this, coupled with his own unique personality, Jones has an amazing style. Whether throwing a spinning back-kick, wrapping up a submission, or using ground-and-pound techniques, Jones looks completely comfortable in all areas.
Cormier on the other hand, is a product of the wrestling culture (real wrestling, not WWE, although there is some overlap), that runs through the schools and universities of America. It is a sport they take pride in and excel in. Cormier came through this system and went all the way to representing the USA in the Olympics as a wrestler. This wrestling culture is what has produced many a great UFC American champion – Matt Hughes and Randy Couture to name just two – and helped the sport become so popular in the US. Using the wrestling taught in high schools all over America as a base to overbear opponents and control them is the essence of this style, which has proved both highly popular and successful.
And wrestling is where the beef between the two started, according to both men. When they were first introduced at a UFC event in 2010, Cormier was introduced to Jones as the wrestling coach of Cain Velasquez, the current UFC heavyweight champion. Jones responded to the introduction by telling Cormier that he could take him down. Cormier, one of the most respected members of America’s wrestling alumni, took this as an insult. Jones didn’t and still doesn’t seem to care how Cormier took this.
However, what should have probably been mentioned to Jones is that Cormier was not just a wrestling coach. He was already 6-0 as an MMA fighter at that time, fighting as a heavyweight. And although as the years passed Jones was taking most the limelight as the best thing to have come out of MMA in years, Cormier was beating bigger men just as easily and emphatically. A year after Jones became the youngest champion in UFC history, Cormier won the Strikeforce Heavyweight tournament, in just his 10th fight. All this time, Cormier was talking about how he may drop down from heavyweight to light-heavyweight, and was respectfully mentioning Jones as a future opponent. In 2013 Cormier joined the UFC and the prospect of taking on Jones became very real.
At this point, the history of their rivalry was brought up and excitement grew about the potential of the match up. So, when injuries meant the number one contender could not face Jones, the match against Cormier was made. A press conference brawl, off-air insults and several backstage clashes later and we are here, on the eve of one of the biggest MMA fights of all time and possibly the fight of the year in the first week of January.
However, it was not purely the out of cage shenanigans that have made this fight so watchable. On paper, this is a magnificent match-up.
Jones’ only loss has come about because of disqualification. Although he has come close to defeat a few times – against Vitor Belfort and Alexander Gustaffson mainly – Jones has largely looked untouchable thus far in his career. However, although not as flamboyantly, Cormier has also looked near unbeatable. Thus far Cormier has only lost one round in his 15 fight 32 round career. That is one single round in fights against the likes of former UFC heavyweight champions Josh Barnett and Frank Mir, and also the likes of Antonio Silva, Dan Henderson and Jeff Monson.
Both fighters feel it is their destiny to be not just a UFC champion, but a great champion. Cormier feels this is why he finished fourth in the 2004 Olympics and then had to drop out of the 2008 Olympics altogether because of illness following a tough weight cut. Whilst Cormier’s Olympic dream was ending, Jones’ MMA career was just starting. Deprived of real glory for all his wrestling credentials, Cormier states it is because destiny led him to this fight. Jones, the middle brother between two NFL footballers, feels he is martial-artist unlike any other seen in the UFC before and wants to go down as the best fighter in history. This really is a clash of destiny.
In regards to how the fighters match up, it is a case of who will be able to impose their style and do what they want to do in the fight. Jones has a huge reach advantage (12 inches!) and more fluid MMA striking. However, Cormier always looks to do the same thing in all his fights; close the distance and physically control his opponent with wrestling. Cormier has very good MMA boxing too, with fast-hands and the ability to throw all kinds of punches.
Cormier will look to bob-and-weave towards Jones in between landing big punches and big takedowns. Jones will look to punish him on the way in and than use his long limbs to tie Cormier up and either come out on top in a scramble or gain a submission. Jones does also have a unique mastery of the short elbows, either in ground-and-pound or in the clinch, but Cormier also has good dirty boxing.
Jones may be a slight favourite, as he is the proven champion, but this is really a 50/50 fight. In another parallel universe, the two are probably still just as successful but this time it is the 6ft 4in Jones moving up in weight to take on 5ft 11in Cormier as the heavyweight champion. Cormier is only at light-heavyweight now because his friend and teammate Velasquez holds the title at heavyweight. In many, many ways, fate has conspired to give the fans this epic clash.
Although it was their third instalment – the Thriller in Manila – that gave us the most exciting fight between Ali and Frazier, it was the first fight that was dubbed “Fight of the Century”. Jones vs Cormier is not quite on that scale, and if Floyd Mayweather fights the largely faded Manny Pacquaio now, the hype around that will make this clash seem like any other event.
Nevertheless, it will be a long time before fight fans see this level of athlete with this much animosity for each other clash in the prime of their careers. Only one of the two will be victorious, but tonight, the real winners are the fans.