Friday, April 7, 2017 | 2 a.m.
The only three transcendent talents currently competing in mixed martial arts at the light heavyweight division will spend Saturday night within a few feet of each other.
Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson will share the octagon in the main event of UFC 210, with the pay-per-view beginning at 7 p.m. from the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y. Jon Jones, set to come off suspension in three months, will watch the action cage side — and the former champion better stay there, according to the current champion.
“He better not come in my cage after I win,” Cormier told reporters on Thursday. “He’s not welcome in there. He’s still suspended. When he’s eligible to fight, he can walk in there. But if he dares to step foot in that octagon ... something bad will happen.”
Maybe a reprise of the infamous brawl between Jones and Cormier three years ago in the MGM Grand lobby wouldn’t be the worst thing. It feels like the 205-pound division could use the push.
Long the UFC’s glamour weight class, light heavyweight has arguably skidded ever since Jones instigated the whole throat-grabbing, shoe-throwing incident. Their fight, which Jones won via unanimous decision, performed well with 800,000 pay-per-view buys but that wound up as only the fifth best-selling of the year, a shell of what could have been if it wasn’t delayed by injuries.
Once the UFC stripped Jones of his title after a hit and run, the division’s next championship fight, where Cormier submitted Johnson, attracted less than half that amount of buys. Cormier’s first defense, a unanimous decision over Alexander Gustafsson, saw another drop-off of more than 100,000 viewers.
Even when Jones and Cormier were booked for a rematch to headline the titanic UFC 200, it drew a tepid response compared to a potential Conor McGregor-involved main event. Then Jones ran into his latest patch of trouble, and left Cormier to fight Anderson Silva in a non-title bout on two day’s notice.
Cormier earned the victory with a lopsided unanimous-decision verdict in a wrestling-heavy match, but the sold-out T-Mobile Arena crowd rained boos on him while the referee raised his hand and questioned if his best was past him afterwards.
“I beat a guy that people consider the greatest fighter of all time 30-26 across the board,” Cormier said. “There was no danger in that fight. That was the easiest fight of my entire career. I don’t know how I lost a step. If anything, I showed I could still get the takedown whenever I chose to.”
It’s a sad state when a champion is left to defend himself, especially at light heavyweight. This is the division that brought the UFC to prominence, with a procession of stars like Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell keeping the promotion afloat in the early 2000s.
When those three faded, a crop of up-and-coming fighters was waiting to replace them and maintain light heavyweight as the most prestigious division. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua each held the title over a three-year span.
Now the 205-pound class has neither the depth nor the superstars. The UFC has sacrificed the former by letting fighters like Ryan Bader and Phil Davis defect to Bellator.
Cormier, Johnson and Jones are more than skilled enough to merit superstardom, but a large part of the fan base has shown that Jones is the only one it’s willing to pay to watch fight. That means there’s added incentive for the UFC 210 headliners.
The winner will likely benefit from a financial windfall with a bout against Jones, possibly at UFC 213 on July 8 at T-Mobile Arena to top off International Fight Week.
“Him returning to anything like that just isn’t in my thought process whatsoever,” Johnson said. “It’s just not relevant to me right now.”
Johnson’s wrong. Jones’ impending comeback might be the most relevant part of his fight this weekend.
If Jones keeps his act together and returns on schedule, then UFC 210 might wind up as the moment light heavyweight started to fight its way back up the divisional hierarchy. If not, it might be time to strip its reputation as the money class.