Daniel Cormier retains UFC title but shadow of Jon Jones looms large

Josh Gross
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Daniel Cormier celebrates his rear choke submission victory over Anthony Johnson. </span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images</span>
Daniel Cormier celebrates his rear choke submission victory over Anthony Johnson. Photograph: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Daniel Cormier thinks he broke Anthony Johnson twice when they were matched in the spring of 2015 for the UFC light heavyweight title. Cormier took possession of the vacant belt partway into the third round, when Johnson tapped to a rear-naked choke, but he walked away from that contest feeling as if his opponent’s will had been snapped in the previous frame.
When they were paired after Johnson stormed through three straight 205lb contenders since losing to the defending champion Cormier, a former Olympic wrestler, said if he made it past seven minutes with “Rumble” the fight would be his again.

Johnson blew up his previous opponents with punches. Heavy, nasty punches. But on Saturday at UFC 210 rather than engage as expected from the outside, Johnson decided to initiate a series of wrestling moments with Cormier that did little to help his cause.

“Rumble” moved to grapple with Cormier on the inside, which benefited the defending champion who smoothly pummeled away trouble. Only when Johnson let loose with his power — thanks to referee John McCarthy separating the fighters as they worked in a clinch along the cage fencing — did Cormier need to show his toughness. A wild sequence of kicks and punches made a chicane out of Cormier’s nose, but it didn’t seem to bother the champion as he went back to his corner at the end of the first.

Cormier has always felt if anyone could knock him out it would come from a shin to the head. He was happy to report that even a solid one from Johnson hadn’t taken him off his feet. The UFC champion will still need to visit a doctor early in the week to determine the status of the injury, but whatever the damage turns out to be it wasn’t enough to get in the way of another victory in MMA.

Even though his trainers asked for more fighting and less wrestling, Johnson sat in his corner and appeared in control of the action. He walked into the cage intent on keeping his composure and controlling the pace, and in large measure that’s what he had done even if it meant playing to Cormier’s strengths.

“I couldn’t believe he was forcing the wrestling,” Cormier said “If you’ve got a guy as big and explosive as Anthony and he’s going to engage on your terms, you’re going to concede one round and be like a boxer investing in body punches. Eventually I felt I was going to get him.”

Cormier was well aware that with the second round upon them he expected Johnson to break again. Roughly seven minutes into the fight was Cormier’s prediction. Johnson came out standing southpaw, seemingly to throw lead punches with his power hand at Cormier’s mangled nose. But he showed little conviction while standing in front of the champion and yet again meandered into close-range fighting. Johnson had success of sorts by forcing two takedowns on Cormier, but there was never any measure of control and the champion was quick to regain his footing.

“I was kind of thinking that Rumble has that big burst and starts to panic,” Cormier said. “At the end of the day he’s a wrestler. He took me down twice. Obviously it worked. But you got to keep me down.”
Cormier beautifully turned the tables and use a single-leg takedown to se-tup a trip that planted Johnson back-first onto the canvas. The seven-minute mark elapsed and the end of the fight arrived as Cormier anticipated it would. The challenger showed no real desire as Cormier worked him over from back-control. Johnson simply laid on his hip and took short strikes until Cormier locked in a textbook strangle at the 3:37 mark.

Johnson made the surprise announcement following his second failed attempt at winning a UFC title that he was retiring. Johnson leaves MMA with a 22-6 record. The fighter from a small town in Georgia spent several years toiling from 170lbs (when he could make the weight) up to heavyweight. As a light heavyweight he proved himself to be most dangerous.

Cormier said he hopes Johnson returns and suggested that this loss will be painful for a weight class that appears thin – the next crop of talent looks at least a couple years away from maturing. Johnson’s performances in the UFC were mostly marked with vicious knockouts and exciting results.

Against Cormier, however, Johnson was merely average. “Daniel’s just a determined guy,” Johnson said. “He has the will power to keep going and he knows what he wants. He wanted to fight me, beat me and get to Jon. That’s what he’s doing. He’s completed his mission so far.
The retaining champion has settled in nicely atop the light heavyweight class filling in for the troubled ex-titleholder Jon Jones. Cormier (19-1) took the chance to call out British contender Jimi Manuwa, who was in Buffalo to watch the contest, before turning his attention to Jones.

On 7 July, Jones will be eligible to return from suspension for a failed drug test. The light heavyweight division has stalled in Jones’s absence. Cormier has been unable to gain traction as a fan favorite, and recently turned his energy towards playing the heel.
“The only thing I have not done is beat Jon Jones,” Cormier said. “I have the drive to be the best. Competitively he beat me and I’ve got to get it back.”
It may turn out that the only win that matters for Cormier would come against Jones, however he said he was more than content with his MMA career whether or not the Jones fight happens. Cormier remains confident it will, suggesting his prediction of a series of fights between him and Jones will come to fruition.
“When we’re older we’ll have made each other a lot of money,” Cormier said.

Fans at the sold-out KeyBank Center would surely love to see a future fight between Jones and Cormier. As it was, the first UFC event to hit Buffalo since since 1995 left many disappointed when controversy upended the important co-main event between Empire State native Chris Weidman and European middleweight Gegard Mousasi.

When the Association of Boxing Commissions modified the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts at the end of last year there was concern that the changes to rules and judging criteria might play havoc with the outcome of matches. States across the US have been inconsistent in adopting the updated regulations, though the New York State Athletic Commission, which recently began regulating MMA and oversaw UFC 210, had.

Weidman looked the more physical fighter in the opening period. When he chose to grapple with the experienced Dutch-Iranian, Weidman was better. Mousasi showed quality displays of defense, but Weidman’s grappling advantage manifested as the bigger, stronger American used quality guard passing to mount Mousasi midway through round two. The skilled grapplers jockeyed for position, and eventually returned to their feet as Mousasi defended Weidman’s move to secure back-control.

Still in the second round, Mousasi ensnared Weidman in a front headlock and threw two knees that collided with Weidman’s head. Already bleeding from the bridge of his nose, Weidman seemed hurt by the strikes. Referee Dan Miragliotta moved quickly to intervene and labeled the moves illegal. Replays, however, showed that Weidman’s hands were off the canvas when the knees connected. Officials from the NYSAC conferred and eventually it was determined that the fight would be called as a technical knockout in favor of Mousasi. “That’s not my fault,” Mousasi said. “I don’t know. I wanted to continue.”

Mousasi (42-6-2) offered up a rematch to Weidman, the former 185lb champion who has lost three straight fights since holding the belt. “I wanted to come out there and show that you can comeback from tough times,” a disappointed Weidman (13-3) noted. “Comeback even stronger. The setbacks are the platform for your comeback. I’m so sorry.”

The result closes Mousasi’s contract with the UFC, and the ramifications of the should prove to be significant. He said if the UFC offered him a title shot he would consider agreeing to the fight. “I’m one of the most active fighters,” Mousasi said. “I fight four, three times a year every year because I don’t have injury. I think I show what I do for this company. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Also on the pay-per-view portion of the card, Cynthia Calvillo (5-0) impressed against Pearl Gonzalez, finishing the bout at 3:45 of the third round. Following Friday’s weigh-in, the contest was put in jeopardy when the NYSAC said its regulations prohibited a fighter with breast implants from competing. The UFC argued those rules only applied to boxing contests in the state of New York, and the commission backed off its position after a review.

Welterweight veterans Thiago Alves (22-11) and Patrick Cote went the distance of their three-rounder, leading to a clear decision win for the Brazilian fighter. Montreal’s Cote signaled his retirement following the result. The former UFC light heavyweight title challenger, a contest he took on short notice in his Octagon debut against Tito Oritz in 2004, exits the sport with a 23-11 record.

Will Brooks’ transition from Bellator to the UFC continues to be disappointing. He was manhandled in the opening round by Charles Oliveira, who looked great stepping up to 155lbs but expressed afterwards a desire to return to featherweight, where he has had trouble making weight on several occasions.

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