Being an MMA fan isn't always easy. Nice things are few and far between. For every truly compelling fight such as like light heavyweight champion Jon Jones vs. Olympian Daniel Cormier, we get our share of random and pointless dreck, a culture informed by the grossest misogyny imaginable and a dark cloud of steroid abuse that continues to linger over the entire sport.
The fights keep us coming back for more, making the rest of it manageable. At its best MMA is about the triumph of the human will—about science and tactics combining with strength and courage in the most beautiful ways.
Top-level MMA contests between the most gifted and stubborn fighters on the planet represent competition in its purest form. It's primal, ugly and magnificently regal, often in the span of just seconds. Nothing else comes close.
That's why the announcement that an injured Jones has pulled out of his bout with Cormier hurt so much. There are a lot of MMA fights on television. Most of them are random displays of violence between anonymous competitors that either end spectacularly or drone on for a seemingly endless 15 minutes.
This was not going to be that fight.
Jones vs. Cormier was the best fight of the year—not only athletically but as a spectacle. Jones, the first fighter who feels like a real-life professional athlete, is already the most dominant light heavyweight champion in UFC history. Cormier, an Olympic wrestler who has spent the last several years developing a surprisingly multifaceted striking game, was to be his greatest challenge.
That alone was enough to sell the fight. Then magic happened—the two spilling off a stage during a press conference staredown and rolling on the ground. The dustup was described as either bad for the sport, fake as can be or simply business as usual, depending on your source.
The brawl got people's attention. The interviews that followed, both televised and live on a hot mic, kept it. Even non-fans like Deadspin's Greg Howard were enthralled:
What makes this amazing is that neither fighter can see the other and they're in separate rooms, so without the added stimuli, they're both speaking rather pleasantly and calmly to one another while kind of staring into space. The conversation gets more and more tense without either man showing any signs of getting heated.
At one point, Cormier, sounding as exasperated as a substitute math teacher, said, "You are just terrible. You are the f*cking scum of the earth, you are a terrible human being, but you can sure turn it on, huh?"
"Thank you," Jones said, inclining his head.
We were on the edge of our seats as a fandom, waiting to see what was going to happen next. For once, our mainstream brethren were sitting right beside us. And then the folding chair collapsed—the entire apparatus betraying us just when we needed it the most.
Like that, UFC 178, scheduled for September 27, has been irrevocably changed. It's gone from a show likely to hit one million pay-per-view buys to one that will struggle to hit 100,000.
In boxing they'd cancel the event with the loss of the headliner like Jones, preferring to wait until the star was again ready to shine. In team sports the show would go on, with injuries and change built into the system long ago to make sure no one athlete could make or break any game.
Only in MMA does the promotion simply bump up the next best thing, shrug its collective shoulders and hope for the best.
The most appealing fight of 2014 has been replaced by Demetrious Johnson vs. Chris Cariaso. That's the MMA equivalent of replacing a Mercedes with a Vespa. It's fun to ride a Vespa, but there's nothing quite like a Benz. And, while the official word is that we'll get our Jones vs. Cormier fix next January, savvy fans know that in MMA "later" can become "never" with a painful suddenness.
|Fighter 1||Fighter 2||Event||Memorable Insult|
|Tank Abbott||Ken Shamrock||None||"Ken Glamrock"|
|Tito Ortiz||Chuck Liddell||UFC 47||Ortiz mocks Liddell's gut|
|Matt Serra||Matt Hughes||UFC 98||Serra calls Hughes "a d*ck of a person."|
|Rampage Jackson||Rashad Evans||UFC 114||Evans accuses Jackson of putting on a minstrel show.|
The MMA Encyclopedia
What will become of the fight, and the interest it engendered, is anyone's guess. Bitter blood feuds between top fighters, believe it or not, are few and far between. There are, however, several precedents for how it might play out.
In the early days, as fighters first made their mark in the UFC, the hottest potential fight was between Ken Shamrock and Tank Abbott. The matchmakers wanted to see the fight in the worst way. Fans were equally enthused. Even the two men's entourages were circling each other like packs of rabid dogs.
"Ken had the Lion's Den guys, and they were marching around. And Abbott had his guys, and they were marching around," former UFC president David Isaacs told me in Total MMA. "You got the feeling if those guys turned the corner at the wrong time and stood there looking at each other it might get pretty hairy."
At the Ultimate Ultimate 96, they were put on the same side of the bracket in an eight-man tournament. But when Shamrock broke his hand in his first fight against Brian Johnston, his night was through. He wouldn't fight again for almost four years, leaving a dying sport for professional wrestling. When he finally returned, it was Abbott who was chasing big-time money in World Championship Wrestling. The dream of finally seeing the World's Most Dangerous Man against Abbott was dead.
Ten years later, little had changed. The hottest feud in the sport was Matt Serra vs. Matt Hughes. An improbable UFC welterweight champion, Serra had overcome both Georges St-Pierre and the odds to earn gold. Hughes, the former champion, was Serra's polar opposite.
One was a Midwestern wrestler, twangy and cocky in a polite and old-fashioned way, the kind of fighter who made traditional sports writers smile; the other was a fast-talking New Yorker with a hot temper and a loud mouth. It was a combination that sent sparks flying on The Ultimate Fighter, both when Serra was a contestant on the show and later when the two men coached against each other in Season 6.
Fans were ready for the grudge match to end all grudge matches.
Then a herniated disc forced Serra out of the Octagon and onto an MRI table. By the time the two finally met in the cage almost two years later, some of the energy had dissipated. Now in the co-main event spot, the fight became a middle-of-the-road performer for UFC at the box office. It was an opportunity lost.
More successful was another battle of TUF coaches, Rashad Evans and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. Former light heavyweight champions and future Jones opponents, the two seemed to clash over matters large and small. It was a battle over no less than what it means to be a black man in MMA, and the timing couldn't have been better—thanks to YouTube sensation Kimbo Slice, their season of The Ultimate Fighter was the most watched ever.
Their showdown, set for UFC 107 in Jackson's hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, promised to be one of the most exciting bouts in UFC history. But when Hollywood called in the form of B.A. Baracus, a role popularized by the iconic Mr. T, Jackson jumped at the opportunity.
The A-Team was in. The UFC was out. It was a decision, he says, that has haunted his career ever since.
"I was wrong, I did the movie instead of fighting Rashad (Evans) in Memphis. I admit I was wrong for doing that, but I had to do it," Jackson told Bleacher Report. "That killed our relationship, and nothing went right after that."
Still, when the two finally got around to business five months after their originally scheduled dance, the crowd stuck with them. At least until the bell rang. That's when the expected grudge match became a tactical struggle instead. Yahoo's Kevin Iole was not impressed:
The fight was a letdown after literally months of over-the-top trash talking from both men. It was a tactical, technical affair that would have been a perfectly acceptable match had it been stuck in the middle of a card somewhere.
After all the trash these men talked, through a season of "The Ultimate Fighter," three episodes of a preview show, during a circus-like conference call, throughout innumerable media appearances and on their personal Twitter accounts, Evans' unanimous decision before a sellout crowd of 15,081 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday was clearly a letdown.
Will Cormier and Jones Still Be Box Office Gold?
While the fight was no barnburner, for our purposes here that hardly matters. It survived a delay whereas Serra vs. Hughes did not, in part because pressing pause didn't make the underlying issues disappear. Nor was the time off significant enough to change fans' perceptions of either man.
On January 3, Cormier will still be Jones' most significant challenge to date. He will still be the best wrestler in MMA, still train with the best heavyweight in MMA in Cain Velasquez and still hate Jones with a burning passion.
Likewise, on January 3, Jones will still be a genetic freak. He will still be the meanest and smartest fighter in the sport. He will still be looking to cement his legacy as the best to ever step in the Octagon.
This fight doesn't get worse with age—it gets better. Jones will be healthy. Cormier will have a chance to put in a full training camp. Both will have plenty of time to let every insult simmer in their souls.
No, Jones vs. Cormier won't be able to save UFC's dismal 2014 on pay-per-view. But it will be a heck of a way to jump-start 2015.