It must be incredibly hard to wear the crown but be seen by the masses as the keeper of a throne usurped.
This no doubt is doubly true for current UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, whose only defeat in MMA came at the hands of the man who many feel is still the true champion, Jon Jones.
Say what you will about the circumstances that allowed Cormier to ascend to the throne, the fact is that Jones basically ran himself out of the sport due to actions outside of the cage, and in his absence, Cormier was the next best fighter in the division, hands down.
The idea that anyone else was going to get the vacant title was pretty far-fetched considering just how dominant Cormier had been against anyone not named Jon Jones. Be it at heavyweight or light heavyweight, Cormier was head and shoulders above the rest, a fact that is not really up for debate.
This coming weekend, on Oct. 3 at UFC 192, Cormier will attempt to make the first defense of his new title against the only man to ever really test Jones when he was king: Alexander Gustafsson.
The fight itself, while somewhat sellable on paper, is problematic due to the fact that Gustafsson is coming off a brutal TKO loss to Anthony Johnson — the fighter Cormier creamed in order to get the vacant belt at UFC 187 in May of this year.
The idea that Gustafsson is the best challenger for Cormier after suffering a serious beat-down — at the hands of the man who couldn’t take Cormier past Round 3 — makes the entire affair look like heavy polishing of second-hand silver, and that is no way for Cormier to stake a claim for legitimacy in the hearts of the fans.
Obviously, he has to start piling up some wins while keeping the belt around his waist; that is just the simple mechanics of reign establishment. The goal for Cormier — in the absence of conquering Jones in a rematch — is to build a reign so large that it rises above the record of Jones and hence casts a longer shadow that all the rest.
But it’s going to be very hard to do while eating the food Jones has previously chewed up and spit out.
I know, that sounds terribly dismissive of a great fighter in Gustafsson, and I do not mean it to be in any way, shape or form. But the sad facts are that without a new set of impressive performances by Gustafsson, against very dangerous fighters, his notability cannot subsist on being the man that came very close to beating Jon Jones.
History if full of fighters that came close to beating the champ, only to falter and never rise so high again.
Think about how the record of Gustafsson would be judged by many, were he to retire tomorrow. He is 1-2 in his last three fights, and his greatest accomplishment to date was being the surprise threat that Jones never saw coming until it was almost too late.
History is a harsh judge in the combative sports, and the fans are even harsher. It would be noted that his form against Jones was fantastic, but also perhaps an anomaly (based upon surprise and opportunity), and even then it was not enough to topple Jones, nor was it ever to be found again, evidenced by the thrashing he took at the hands of an up-to-then middling fighter.
That is not a compelling argument for excellence and certainly not a compelling argument for title contention.
Now, he’s being handed another shot at a title and the damnable tragedy of it all is that it does nothing to uphold the standards of combative sport that say while fighters may come and go, the title remains as the gold standard of excellence.
Had the UFC waited and had both men racked up another series of wins, then this matchup could take on a new luster all its own, bolstered by the fact that time improves all fighters at this level and thus, neither Cormier, nor Gustafsson, are the same fighters they were when they suffered defeat at the hands of Jones.
But that is not what has happened.
The shadow of Jones is still as large and undeniable now as it was when he handed Cormier the first and only defeat on the now-champions record. Just as Larry Holmes was never really seen as a legitimate champion because he won the title from a man (Ken Norton) that never had to defeat the great Muhammad Ali, so too does Cormier face an uphill battle.
It’s hard to beat an incredible fighter in the cage, but it’s damn near impossible to beat their legend, especially when said legend is fortified by a victory over the next in line.
Cormier has the title now, but everything he does from this moment forward will see him trying to conquer two opponents; the foe in the cage and Jones.
If he’s going to do that, at worst he needs to defeat all previous opponents of Jones — whenever faced with them — with an authority that Jones himself could not impose. At best, he needs to defeat great opposition that was unknown to Jones; fighters so good that they could make fans debate how Jones would have fared against them had he not been stripped of the title.
That best case scenario is going to be hard for Cormier to cultivate given that the best fighters still active in the division are, by and large, men Jones has already beaten. If there is any good news for Cormier, it is that the sport is constantly changing and new names are being discovered and promoted with shocking passion, which could see him face a slew of new contenders in years to come.
In the meantime, he can make the most of the worst case scenario by facing only those fighters that bring their sharpest blades to the fray; soundly defeating men like Ryan Bader and Rashad Evans will do much more for Cormier’s career than defeating this current version of Gustafsson and others of that fold, who are trying to reinvent themselves in response to hard losses and an ever-changing competitive landscape.
If Cormier can keep on winning (ideally by stoppage), he can establish a string of title defenses that will break the record of Jones. This could help establish him as the greater fighter, if only because the fanbase of tomorrow will always be a little bit bigger than it is today, and those fans aren’t going to be talking about fighters they don’t know.
Jones will be a footnote of the past, while Cormier will be the man of the now.
But until then, he needs to destroy everyone he faces in a way that will make even Jones shudder.
And crossing his fingers for Jones to announce his return certainly wouldn’t hurt.