ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) – Jon Jones insists Daniel Cormier isn’t his rival, not even when their rematch at UFC 214 is the most anticipated mixed martial arts fight of the year.
Jones says he doesn’t even dislike Cormier, the man who has spent most of the past 2 1/2 years holding the light heavyweight title belt that Jones considers rightfully his.
Everything about Jones’ behavior suggests he might have stronger feelings than he acknowledges. When they finally hit the Honda Center cage on Saturday night, he’ll have a chance to show how he really feels.
“A guy like Daniel, he has my full, undivided attention,” Jones said this week. “He says that he’s in my head, and that’s exactly where I want him to be, because he is in my head. I think about him all the time. That’s what makes me do the things I do.”
Jones and Cormier are headlining the UFC’s best show of the summer, and likely the entire year, in Orange County.
UFC 214 features three title fights and numerous rising stars. Before Jones and Cormier, welterweight champion Tyron Woodley takes on Brazilian jiu-jitsu master Demian Maia in a compelling clash of styles, and pound-for-pound women’s superstar Cris “Cyborg” Justino faces Invicta champion Tonya Evinger for the vacant featherweight title.
But the remarkable main event could be the culmination of Cormier’s career or a monumental return for Jones, whose career and life have been severely fractured since their first bout.
“It’s pretty cool that it ends here,” Jones said recently, speaking of both his disputes with Cormier and his own winding path back to the top. “There will be no grudge match. There will be no trilogy. Like I say all the time, Daniel Cormier is not my rival. I have no issue with him.”
Jones’ biggest issues have always been with himself.
Jones reached the pinnacle of his sport when he soundly defeated Cormier in January 2015 to defend his UFC 205-pound title. Practically nothing has gone right in the ensuing 2 1/2 years for Jones, whose capacity for self-sabotage and lousy decision-making surpassed even his incredible MMA talent.
The UFC stripped Jones of its title twice – after a hit-and-run accident in which he broke a pregnant woman’s arm, and again after he was revealed to have failed a doping test four days before fighting Cormier at UFC 200 last July.
Jones’ yearlong suspension has ended, and the UFC put him right back in a title shot with Cormier, who dutifully defended the belt during the mercurial ex-champion’s absence. Cormier, an ex-Olympian and family man who also works as a television commentator, sees every flaw in Jones’ makeup.
“He’s a guy who can’t stop hurting himself and people around him,” Cormier said. “He’s a talented athlete, but mixed martial arts aren’t just about the best athlete. He’s weak mentally. He’s got problems, and I don’t know if he solved them yet.”
Jones plays it cool when talking about Cormier, yet their promotional staredowns have usually devolved into trash-talking and physical drama. They got into an infamous brawl in a Las Vegas casino lobby in 2014 during the early stages of their promotion of the first bout.
They exchanged harsh words again this week in a faceoff, but Jones has vowed to be classy after he wins their rematch.
“He’s a good dude,” Jones said. “I want the best for him, I really do. I wish he was just man enough to realize that he’s (in) the wrong era. He just happened to come into the sport, he’s 39 years old, and he’s (fighting) a guy who’s in his prime, a guy who’s doing everything in his power to make sure this is his era. I wish he could just swallow that and say, ‘I’m the baddest (man) outside Jon Jones, and I can go to sleep with that.'”
The UFC 214 pay-per-view card starts with two absolute corkers: Veteran brawlers Robbie Lawler and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone meet after light heavyweight prospects Jimi Manuwa and Volkan Oezdemir. Even the undercard is strong, featuring fights for Ricardo Lamas, Renan Barao, Aljamain Sterling and Brian Ortega.