It may not be a huge stretch to call UFC 210's light heavyweight title rematch between Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson the most anticipated fight of 2017 so far.
It may not be much of a compliment, either.
When Cormier and Johnson meet Saturday at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York, their main event bout will boast not only a pair of easily recognizable faces but discernible stakes as well. Considering the UFC's turtle-slow start to the first quarter of this year, that ain't too shabby.
It wouldn't be 2017, however, without a couple of elephants in the room. This fight has pachyderms lurking in every shadow.
Jones will likely win that bout, which could put a damper on things this weekend.
Joining me to discuss the merits and drawbacks of Cormier vs. Johnson, Part Deux—and whether UFC 210 is just a precursor to the return of the rightful 205-pound titlist—is Bleacher Report lead combat sports writer Jonathan Snowden.
Chad Dundas: Jonathan, I'm going to let the giant that is Jones' return sleep a moment longer to discuss the secondary weakness of UFC 210's main event: We've already seen this fight.
Cormier and Johnson met for the vacant light heavyweight championship nearly two years ago at UFC 187 in May 2015, and Cormier won by third-round submission. Despite the fact both guys have fought multiple times since then, it still feels like yesterday—at least to me.
Cormier is still Cormier. Johnson is still Johnson. We haven't seen anything to convince us either guy has grown much since they tangled in 2015. Given the shallow nature of the light heavyweight division, it seems as though the matchmakers' only option was to again pit Cormier and Johnson against one another once Jones' personal problems continued to mount.
On the bright side, Johnson's fearsome punching power makes this redux a pick 'em, according to OddsShark.
In their first fight, Cormier weathered the early adversity of a Johnson right hand that flung him to the mat like a child's toy, and he regrouped to successfully work the blueprint opponents have used against Rumble for years now. Cormier dragged him into deep water, overtaxed his cardio and ended up locking in a rear-naked choke in the third round.
This second fight will undoubtedly feature both fighters trying to do the same thing all over again. Cormier will try to outwork Johnson, break him psychologically and win via late stoppage or decision.
Conversely, Johnson will try to knock Cormier out.
Jonathan, does the fact we've already seen this play out dampen your enthusiasm for this bout? Or does the knowledge that Rumble can end things with one mighty swing keep you on the edge of your seat?
Are you expecting a different outcome than what we saw in the first go-round?
Jonathan Snowden: Cormier had an easy time with Johnson in their first fight. That helps explain why there's a shocking lack of hype for a title defense in what was once the UFC's marquee division.
But Cormier is fighting another battle in the cage, one he has no hope of winning over the long haul. Father Time eventually catches up with every fighter. And when he does, it's often not pretty.
Randy Couture, once thought to be ageless, ended his career as an ancient-looking geezer getting kicked in the face by Lyoto Machida. Boxing champion Evander Holyfield was competitive long after logic dictated he would slow down. By the end of his career, he was taking beatings for an endless string of paychecks.
It's a fight no one wins.
Daniel Cormier is 38 years old. He was 36 when he fought Johnson the first time. At this stage of his career, those two years matter. He's fought just once in the last 18 months. That matters as well.
The Cormier who steps into the cage Saturday is not the man who made his bones at UFC 187. And while Johnson may not be able to bring that to the fore, there's a gangly former champion in Albuquerque who is itching for a chance at redemption.
Chad: That's the biggest mitigating factor here, isn't it? As good as the Cormier-Johnson rematch might be, it's still viewed as a bout to determine who Jones gets to beat up this summer.
The light heavyweight title up for grabs Saturday is the one the UFC stripped from Jones after he turned himself in on felony hit-and-run charges back in April 2015. Jones later pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident (also a felony) and avoided serving jail time, but he also hasn't recaptured the 205-pound title he owned from 2011 to the moment the UFC took it from him.
In April 2016, Jones defeated Ovince Saint Preux in a bit of an underwhelming return to the cage to claim an interim light heavyweight title. The UFC stripped that belt from him last November after he was pulled from a scheduled rematch with Cormier at UFC 200 due to a failed drug test.
And so the Jones soap opera rolls on and on into infinity.
The former champ turns 30 years old in July, which is around the same time he's expected back to the UFC. His various transgressions have turned down the volume on the greatest-MMA-fighter-of-all-time conversation for now, but nearly everyone still considers him the best-ever light heavyweight and likely still the rightful champion, too.
Some of that is based purely on memories and guesswork at the moment, though. Sure, Jones whipped Cormier when they fought the first time at UFC 182, but he's appeared in the Octagon just once since then. His bout with Saint Preux also gave us little indication about which version of him might show up to take on the Cormier-Johnson winner.
Are you buying the notion either of these guys could eventually beat Jones? Or are they just keeping the belt warm until the king returns to the kingdom, assuming the king can stay out of trouble long enough to make said return?
Jonathan: Jones will be an interesting fighter to ponder when his career comes to a close. In some ways, he's a different animal than the aggressive man-child who first won the light heavyweight title back in 2011. That version of Jones was fueled by the anime videos and pro wrestling finishers he saw on YouTube. He would try anything once, practically becoming the spirit guide for "spinning s--t."
That Jones finished five of six opponents in light heavyweight title bouts, at one point besting five consecutive former UFC champions. It remains an unprecedented, unmatched achievement, one that would punch his ticket into any MMA Hall of Fame if he stopped fighting today.
We've seen a different Jones since his near-miss experience on the mat with Vitor Belfort back in 2012. Jones either underestimated Belfort, a 7-1 underdog, or overestimated his own abilities. Maybe both.
Either way, the result was nearly one of the biggest upsets in UFC history, as Belfort grabbed onto an armbar and refused to let go. Jones, showing impressive grit of his own, refused to yield, eventually winning with a submission of his own. But the psychological damage lasted longer than any physical ailment.
Since that fight, four of his five wins have come by way of decision—and it's hardly coincidence. The new Jones is much more cautious, both standing and when the bodies hit the floor.
That Jones, the one who went the distance en route to a listless decision against the unremarkable Ovince Saint Preux, could certainly fall victim to either Johnson or Cormier.
I'm interested to see what Jones, the greatest MMA fighter ever, has left. Will he resume his legendary career as if nothing has happened? Or will his demons do what no mere man could ever manage? That's the compelling story to be told at 205 pounds.
Jones, as he's been for six years—an eternity in MMA—remains the division's protagonist. UFC 210 is simply establishing the foil.