The steadiness of the UFC fight schedule tends to make everything feel routine. Knockouts become indistinguishable, names become interchangeable, and even the extraordinary struggles to stand out.
There are exceptions to that, of course, and one of them walked into a UFC arena last night for the first time in over a year. Jon Jones, the 30-year-old former wunderkind, was back from a suspension, the latest in a series of problems that have plagued his remarkable professional career.
When Jones competes, a buzz carries through the mixed martial arts world. For all of the criticism of his personal problems, it’s impossible to ignore his brilliance at his chosen profession. And in case anyone forgot, he reminded them Saturday night, defeating Daniel Cormier in the main event of UFC 214 to regain the undisputed UFC light heavyweight championship that was stripped from him over two years ago. He did it with style points, too, becoming the first man ever to finish Cormier, with a third-round knockout via head kick and punches.
"I made it back," he told Joe Rogan in his post-fight interview. "Such a beautiful moment. I did a lot of right things to get back in this position. I tell you what, for anyone at home who let yourself down, let your family down, let your peers down, your coworkers down—it’s never over. As long as you never quit, it’s never over. I’m back here."
And just like that, the world opens up to him again. Just like that, he’s back in the driver’s seat. After politely praising Cormier’s professionalism and class, Jones quickly turned the page to his next professional challenge.
"Brock Lesnar," he said, letting the crowd rise to the moment, "if you want to know what it’s like to get your ass kicked by a guy who weighs 40 pounds less than you, meet me in the Octagon."
Jones dropped the mic and walked off, and really, what else did he need to say?
His performance was enough of a statement, a finish that reminded us he is the greatest talent the young sport has ever seen. Fighting for the first time in 463 days, Jones was incredibly sharp, outlanding Cormier 95-60 according to FightMetric. And at this point, he has nothing left to prove at light heavyweight. He’s never legitimately lost a fight at the weight, his only blemish a disqualification for illegal elbows in a fight he was dominating. He’s defeated the biggest names in the top 10, leaving a move up to heavyweight as the most compelling move he can make.
"I’m up for it," he said on the FS1 post-fight show. "I think it’s about time for me to be involved in a superfight. I think it’s what the fans want to see, me challenge myself against a heavyweight. Why not do it against one of the biggest and most scary heavyweights? He brings a huge following, so why not?"
The prospective matchup brings with it a potential roadblock, in that Lesnar still has more than six months to serve on a suspension stemming from a positive drug test in 2016.
If it happened, it would be one of the biggest non-Conor McGregor matches the UFC could produce, a guaranteed home run of an event that could also continue to raise Jones' profile.
His legacy, though, is nearly sealed as he continues this legendary streak.
The pressure was ratcheted up for this in a way that he wouldn’t feel even against Lesnar. Because in this fight, he had to regain everything he once held so dear.
On the night Jones won his first UFC championship, his future appeared limitless. At 23, he featured a thrilling yet growing arsenal, he possessed a poise in the cage that seemed unbreakable, and he was the youngest titleholder in UFC history.
There were boundaries that tempted him though, restrictions that are often ignored or flouted by the risk-takers among us. The same audacity that made him great in the cage sunk him outside of it.
His career self-torpedoed. He could only sit on the sidelines and watch the ascent of his rival Cormier, a two-time Olympic wrestler who captured the belt in his absence.
By the time they got to the cage Saturday night, Jones and Cormier had you believing what you were watching was a battle of frauds, which is exactly what each fighter used to hurt the other the most.
For Jones, affixing the label to Cormier was the biggest professional slight he could offer. After all, the way he saw it, Cormier didn’t earn the UFC light heavyweight championship belt he carried around so proudly. At least not against Jones. When the youngest-ever champ in UFC history was active, Cormier could not defeat him. He could only capture the mantle of No. 1 when Jones was on the bench for his own string of transgressions.
For Cormier, the slight against Jones was personal. From the beginning, Jones had talked about his religion and family and positivity, only to see the squeaky clean persona he’d been building quickly tarnish in a series of legal and moral blunders.
In reality, they are two of the greatest light heavyweights ever to do it. What we learned Saturday—or perhaps what was reaffirmed—is that Jones is just a level above Cormier. Jones is the GOAT.
What we didn’t learn is just how high he can go. Can Jones move up to heavyweight and dominate the same way? A win over Lesnar—or heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic—would be quite the feather in his cap.
At this point, could anyone confidently say that’s impossible? The answer is no. Anyone who has been watching with an objective eye must acknowledge that when it comes to Jones, the limits of his talent might not yet have been seen. They can simply celebrate that the greatest is back, and that he's brought his ambitions with him.