Thursday, September 21, 2017

In the Shadow of Bones

By Jerry Chandler

If you are competitive by nature, you strive to be the best there is at what you do. You see it in all walks of life. We even turn entertainment into a serious competition with teams of fans rooting for their film or television show to be the one to get the big awards. Certainly for athletes- especially for athletes in combat sports where things are decided on a one on one basis –it’s almost impossible to not be competitive. Even when dealing with teammates, there’s a comradery that pushes each other to be the best that’s based in large part on that competitive drive. You even see the competitive drive in individuals who perform in the “fake sport” of professional wrestling. Everyone involved in such endeavors wants to be able to point to their career when it’s all said and done and say that in their prime they were the undisputed best in the world during their day.

Typically, by whatever metrics one uses to quantify this, it’s fairly easy to make this claim. Various awards and titles exist that make it clear who is the best in their time. With boxers and mixed martial artists, there’s both the win/loss record and the title to point to. Usually, pointing to these things gives one a clear-cut answer. Sadly, now and forever more, that cannot be said for Daniel Cormier and Jon “Bones” Jones.

A 21-year-old Jon Jones made his UFC debut at UFC 87 on August 9, 2008 with a professional record of 6-0. He defeated André Gusmão by decision victory in a fight that perhaps didn’t truly give us a true glimpse of what was to come. The same can be somewhat said for his second fight and the decision win over longtime UFC veteran Stephan Bonnar. It really wasn’t until his win over Jake O’Brian and his short performance with a DQ loss against Matt Hamill (his only career loss) that we started to see the real signs of what was to come from Jon Jones as a UFC competitor. He would proceed to go on an absolute tear through the light heavyweight division, decisively winning the title on rather short order, and maintaining a 22-1 record through 2016.

Daniel Cormier would take a somewhat different path to UFC stardom. DC was a powerhouse Division 1 wrestler in his early days, eventually becoming an all-American. DC was the senior U.S. national champion from 2003 to 2008. Additionally, he represented Team USA at the world level for each of those years. At the 2004 Olympics he took 4th place after losing to Khadzhimurat Gatsalov in the semi-finals and was also a member of the 2008 Olympic wrestling team for the USA, where he was named team captain.

After a short while, he ended up joining American Kickboxing Academy and embarking on an MMA career as a heavyweight; quickly winning two championships. After a short time in the smaller companies he signed a deal with the now defunct Strikeforce and began a rapid climb to the top of their heavyweight division. When the UFC purchased Strikeforce, he won two fights in the heavyweight division and was seen as a major prospect for that division, but one of his best friends, Cain Velasquez, was the UFC Heavyweight Champion at the time. Not wanting to fight his training partner and best friend, he announced a move down to the light heavyweight division for his next fight in 2014.

This immediately created talk in MMA circles of fast-tracking a match between Jones and DC. Jon Jones was fast cleaning out the division, and DC possessed a skillset that, on paper at least, showed the signs of giving Jones no end of trouble in the octagon. But a major issue was DC’s past health issues perhaps interfering with his ability to cut the weight he would have to drop to compete at light heavyweight.

The UFC scheduled DC for two fights at light heavyweight in 2014. He was able to safely make the weight, and he decisively won both fights. The fight with Jones was originally set to be DC’s third fight in 2014, but the UFC Light Heavyweight champ sustained an injury in training and the fight was called off. Once Jones was cleared to return, the UFC made set the fight for their January 3, 2015 card, UFC 182. The fight for the Light Heavyweight Championship would be decided in five five-minute rounds in front of a live audience and for a PPV audience.

In the fight that won the Fight of the Night award bonus, Daniel Cormier lost a unanimous decision to Jon Jones. Many people commented that DC did not look like the fighter he normally was, and that it seemed that Jones had gotten into his head and knocked him off of his game. His training partners commented the night of the fight that the fight he fought in the octagon was not the fight they had trained him for or on point with the game plan the training camp had devised. But, no matter what may or may not have happened, the fight was won by Jon Jones, who also became the first fighter in MMA to successfully execute a takedown (three in fact) against DC in a fight.

And then he got suspended.

It came out that Jones had failed a pre-fight drug test by testing positive for benzoylecgonine, the primary metabolite of cocaine. Because this was not a banned out of competition substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency, it didn’t prevent him from fighting. But the news hit right after the fight, and it didn’t sit well with many considering the fact that Jones had a previous DUI conviction on his record stemming from him wrecking his car. So, a few months later when the news broke that Jones was involved in a hit-and-run incident where marijuana was found in his vehicle, there was zero tolerance for his actions.

The UFC stripped him of the title and set up a fight between his next opponent, Anthony Johnson, and Daniel Cormier for the vacant Light Heavyweight championship. It was a fight DC won fairly easily, securing a rear naked choke for a stoppage in the third.

Daniel Cormier was now the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, and he would successfully defend the title against the man many people felt beat Jon Jones, Alexander Gustafsson, as well as in a rematch with Johnson. He would also secure a non-title win in a fight against the man seen by many as the longstanding pound for pound greatest in the sport, Anderson Silva.

As champion, many saw DC as an undisputed best in the division, but not as THE undisputed best. After all, didn’t beat Jon Jones for the title. It was something brought up continuously by MMA fans, and it was surely something that ate at Cormier.

When Jones returned from suspension, the already bad blood between the fighters had seemingly only gotten worse. Jones was slotted to face Cormier for the title as his first fight back, but an injury in training caused Cormier to be pulled from the fight and replaced with rising MMA star Ovince Saint Preux in what was now to be a fight for the interim title. On April 23, 2016 on UFC 187, Jones defeated OSP for the interim title and was slotted in as the next fighter to have a shot at Cormier.

The match was set for UFC 200, and once again the bad blood between the two of them only seemed to get worse. Then, on July 8, just one day ahead their July 9, 2016 fight at UFC 200, Jon Jones was pulled from the fight for failing a pre-fight drug test. Both the primary and secondary samples showed two banned substances associated with performance enhancing drugs. Fight fans were furious and Cormier was devastated. Cormier was kept on the card when the previously mentioned Anderson Silva stepped in for their non-title fight. Jones was stripped of the interim title and suspended, making him the only UFC fighter to be stripped of two titles.

Eventually, Jones would return to the UFC in 2017 and the rematch fight was set once again between Jones and Cormier. Jones vs Cormier 2 would take place July, 29, 2017 on UFC 214. Once again the bad blood between the two was on full display before the fight, and then later to some degree during the fight. Cormier seemed determined to prove the first win by Jones was a fluke and stuck to a much better game plan for their rematch. The extremely competitively fought contest was ended in the third round when Jones landed a head kick to Cormier, becoming the first fighter in MMA to finish Daniel Cormier in a fight.

When asked in the post-fight interview what this meant for their rivalry, a clearly dispirited Cormier declared that there was no rivalry, that there couldn’t be a rivalry when one fighter has two clear wins over the other in their only fights. The MMA world and Cormier himself came to terms with the fact that Daniel Cormier was the best fighter on his division by far when placed against anyone else in MMA, but, even as Cormier was head and shoulders above everyone else, Jon Jones was simply that much the better fighter than Cormier.

It was a hard thing for Cormier to come to terms with. It was also something that meant career decisions had to be made. Was there any point in his staying at light heavyweight? His friend Cain was no longer the champion in the heavyweight division, and his history of injuries and time on the shelf was casting doubt on a viable, long-term return and run at the title again. Age was also discussed as a factor. Cormier was 38. The heavyweight division had a much more shallow talent pool. It was a division where he could likely enter, work his way to the title in short order, and ride out his last few years in active competition as the champ. But it was also discussed as a reason for him to hang it up as well. Cormier was already working as a host for the Fox Sports MMA events and doing a good job at it. He could certainly end his fighting career and move into that fulltime with a high likelihood of success. All of this had to be going through his mind as he grappled with having to tell himself that he would have to settle for being only the second best at what he does.

Then, on August 22, 2017, Jon Jones was flagged for having failed a drug test taken on the day of the weigh-ins. His primary sample tested positive for Turinabol, an anabolic steroid and a banned substance under USADA. Jones declared his innocence, and most everyone waited as the powers that be went through the motions. On September 13, 2017, the CSAC announced that it had overturned the result of the fight to a no-contest due to Jones failing the drug test with the secondary sample taken the same day. He was suspended with the possibility of facing a total of four years suspension, and the belt was returned to Daniel Cormier due to the fight now being ruled a no-contest.

With both samples having tested positive for Turinabol, it’s likely that Jones is not coming back to MMA any time soon. Even if he does return, the odds are highly likely that the now 38-year-old Cormier will no longer be an active competitor. The chances of seeing Jones vs Cormier 3 are pretty much nonexistent. Plus, even if there was a Jones vs Cormier 3 fight down the road, fewer and fewer will likely be interested in it as more time passes. Arguably the two best light heavyweight fighters in all of MMA right now will never have a rematch that’s not clouded by things like out of octagon actions or failed drug tests. But there’s something worse that spins out of this. It’s here where the bad boy nature of Jon Jones taints not one, but two legacies in MMA.

Jones will always be considered one of the all-time greats in MMA. Despite the antics, the drugs, and the banned substances that will forever follow any history of him as a fighter, the simple fact of the matter is that Jon Jones was a once in a lifetime fighter. At a young age his skills were already terrifyingly formidable, and he only seemingly had the potential to become better by leaps and bounds. While the asterisks that will forever be next to his name now will bring criticism as a cheat and someone who sought unfair, artificial advantage when he most needed it, the drug test results will not, frankly, matter to most in many ways. Steroids may give you a competitive edge on a physical level, but they do not train for you and they do not give you natural skills that set you above most of the rest of the competition. The most damning and most accurate criticism I’ve heard about Jones in the last week has been that he’s so damned good he doesn’t need to take PEDs. The consensus view of Jon Jones is still that he’s the best fighter in his division of this era, but the consensus view is also that Jon Jones used PEDs when he thought he needed the help. For anyone outside of the hardcore Jones fans, it damages his legacy.

But what it does to the legacy of Daniel Cormier is far, far worse.

Let me say upfront that there are still a number of factors in play here. Jones and his camp are sure to appeal this as they’re already claiming that he took no banned substances during or after his training camp. Giving Jones any benefit of the doubt here, there is always the chance that he will in some way, shape, or form be partially or fully exonerated in this. But the likelihood is that he won’t be. As such, we’re discussing this based on that line of thought.

As of right now, Daniel Cormier, rightly or wrongly, is seen by some as not the real champion and certainly not the best in the world. Daniel Cormier was already seen as the man who never beat the champion in order to wear the title he had, but now he’s seen as the man who was beaten by the champion and still kept the belt. The issue of the Turinabol showing up in his tests makes the matter clear cut for the hardcore Cormier fans, and indeed failing a drug test from the day before a fight due to a PED should make the no-contest and the return of the belt to Cormier a no brainer. But for many it it goes back to what I mentioned before.

Turinabol may have given Jones a physical advantage, but it did not make his skills as a fighter better. The truth around the head kick that put Cormier’s lights out is that Jones used strategy and skill. Jones was repeatedly landing lower kicks to the side of Cormier. Whenever he saw an opening, he landed one of those hard kicks. As the fight went on, you could see Cormier begin to lean into the kicks when he saw them coming and started to try to block them. When the head kick in question landed, Cormier had become conditioned by the lower kicks to put all of his defense into the probability of a lower kick and was leaning hard into the oncoming kick. This was basic Fighter No-No 101 that Cormier ignored. This is a basic and well established tactic used by some fighters. Get your opponent to start acting thusly and when they’re blocking the low kick and leaning into it you switch to the head kick and hopefully land a clean shot in the sweet spot. Turinabol had nothing to do with strategy.

But Turinabol (or any other PED) still comes into play here when making the ending of the fight controversial. PEDs don’t do the grunt work in camp for you. They don’t train for you. But they do allow you to train harder and recover faster. They do allow you to go into a fight stronger than you might otherwise have been or with a higher level of cardio endurance than you might otherwise have had. That creates a question about whether or not Jones would have been able to land the power kicks he was landing to begin with and as to whether or not Jones would have had the cardio endurance to have executed a kick of that precision and power at that point in the fight without the physical aid a substance like Turinabol would have given him going into the fight. It doesn’t even matter if he took it of his own free will, if he was given it by someone else without his knowledge, or if he had been using a tainted supplement. The fact is that there is now a question around his physical capabilities entering the fight when it comes to clean vs on a PED.

In the minds of many, we saw a fight where Jones was competing against Cormier with the assistance of performance enhancing drugs. We saw a fight that Jones won, but it was a Jones given a strength and endurance assist from PEDs. The question then becomes one of whether or not the outcome remains the same in a fight between a clean Cormier and a clean Jones.

But we will likely never see that fight at this point. All we have is the fight we got, and based on that fight we will forever in the minds of many have an asterisk by the listing of Cormier as champion. We will never know how much or how little performance enhancing drugs Jones was or was not using in preparation for this camp. In the minds of many, all that matters is that Jones knocked Cormier out with a head kick, but Cormier ultimately remained the champ. In the minds of many, Cormier will never be the best of his era no matter who else he beats and no matter how well he defends and represents the belt he holds.

Likewise, an asterisk sits next to any listing for Jones as well. Here’s a man who cleaned out his division and stood as a once in a lifetime fighter, but who couldn’t control his personal demons and perhaps couldn’t control his own insecurities when facing in a rematch one of the only two men who legitimately stood a chance to beat him. This is a man who should be considered one of the greatest of all time, but in the minds of many now faces a tainted legacy. How do you justify calling someone the greatest of all time if they spent their prime years being suspended from fighting thanks to their person demons as much or more than they did facing the rising crop of fighters who might otherwise have challenged them? In the minds of many, the same question arises that many baseball fans have had to face over the last decade. How do you award someone the title of one of the greatest or the greatest of all time when their physical ability- a huge factor in combat sports –comes under question due to repeated “mistakes” with PEDs?

The tragedy in this is what has happened to Daniel Cormier through no fault of his own. To some degree, it’s hard to feel sympathy for Jones over what he might have done to damage his own legacy as a fighter through his own actions. But Daniel Cormier, a man who strives to be the best at what he does and wants to know in his own mind that he is, will forever have that status denied to him by many because of the actions of Jon Jones. Daniel Cormier will now always be for many the champion in name only, holding the title because “the real” champion of this era for the lightweight division wasn’t able to be there to hold it. It’s unfair to Cormier, but it’s already being said in various ways by many fans.

Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.

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