What does Jon Jones’ absence mean for UFC’s light heavyweight division?
Jon Jones being stripped of the UFC light heavyweight championship creates opportunities for contenders just as it puts them in an unenviable position.
On the one hand, Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson will fight for the official 205-pound UFC title May 23 in Las Vegas. However, if Cormier becomes champion by beating "Rumble," many fans will focus on the fact that just one fight ago he was not able to beat Jones. If Johnson wins, he’ll be champ, but he would have done so by beating not a defending title-holder, but simply another challenger like himself.
As such, the entire light-heavyweight division will remain in the shadow of its effectively undefeated but deposed champ until Jones comes back from his indefinite UFC suspension — assuming that nothing prevents his return.
Of course, Cormier vs. Johnson is still an amazing fight.
So too would be Cormier vs. Gustafsson, or Ovince Saint Preux vs. Johnson or Ryan Bader vs. Cormier (what, after all, will be done with poor Bader now?). As great as these fights could be, however, they would only serve as teasers for Jones’ comeback.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the UFC should be able to make the most of promoting it if and when Jones comes back.
Questions of rust for Jones and improvement for contenders like Cormier would be much-discussed X-factors to consider. For now, all we can do is guess wildly what will happen in Jones’ absence.
One major reason for the speculation is that there really is no telling just how long Jones will be out. He faces serious criminal charges after a hit-and-run accident that left at least one driver, a pregnant woman, with a fractured wrist and arm.
If convicted, Jones could receive prison time. However, that scenario is unlikely and probably the only one in which Jones will have a layoff of longer than a year.
A few months of no bad news, contrition and a legal resolution that doesn’t involve prison time may enable Jones to fight again within a year.
But if he does end up out of competition for long enough, the light-heavyweight division very well could move on. Take, for example, Dominick Cruz’s unfortunate absence from the bantamweight division due to injuries.
Since no fighter took Cruz’s crown from him, for a while every other top fighter and bantamweight title fight seemed a bit diminished. After more than a year, is still missed. But with two new excellent champions, no one is claiming that T.J. Dillashaw or Renan Barao is anything less than a full champion.
That division has moved on, and so too would light-heavyweight. If that happens, there are many top fighters who are good enough to become champion. However, none seems suited to be as dominant as Jones.
For example, based on his 2013 performance against Jones, Alexander Gustafsson could make an arugment for being the second-best fighter in the division. With his wrestling skills and own solid fight against Jones, Cormier could make the same claim, and even be viewed as a favorite against Johnson at UFC 187.
After all, Cormier has more championship-level experience than "Rumble," and may have the quickness, striking and takedown ability to take Johnson out of his comfort zone on his feet. However, Johnson’s striking power is an equalizer for him as he showed against Gustafsson.
On paper, Gustafsson could have possessed the length, boxing and wrestling skills to hang with Johnson or beat him. In the Octagon, he couldn’t stay standing once the Blackzilian got his fists on him.
Perhaps the same will happen to Cormier. Johnson is hotter than anyone in the division and was the most dangerous person at light heavyweight, even with Jones available.
On any given night, Johnson has the ability to knock out anyone in the world and is extremely dangerous in the first and second rounds. That said, he’s a brutally dangerous fighter, not a perfect one.
There are people in the division who could take down Johnson (Cormier, Gustafsson, maybe Bader) and there are many who may feel confident their conditioning and ground ability are superior to his. Johnson is most dangerous, but it remains to be seen how he’ll do in the championship rounds against the best at 205.
In short, Johnson’s one-punch knockout power gives him the opportunity to run the table until Jones returns. But we also could see guys like Cormier drowning him in deep water if they avoid his initial onslaught.
If Bader beats whomever the UFC gets to replace Cormier at UFC Fight Night 68, and if Cormier wins the belt, we could forsee "Darth" being Cormier’s first title-defense opponent.
While Cormier would have to be considered a solid favorite, Bader has improved a great deal in the past couple of years, beating top fighters like Phil Davis and Saint Preux during his four-fight win streak with excellent takedown defense and offense, as well as big-power striking. You’d better believe he felt he had a chance at beating Cormier when they initially were paired up.
To everyone asking, no word yet. My preference is to fight winner of AJ – DC make it 5 wins in a row and get the belt. Let's make it happen
— Ryan Bader (@ryanbader) April 29, 2015
That wouldn’t change should Cormier become champ. Another long-shot possible champ is Saint Preux.
In short, we’re done underestimating the Haitian American out of Tennessee. He’s won two straight by KO and seven of his past eight overall.
The only man to beat OSP recently is Bader. Saint Preux has a crazy-good ability to end fights with lightning-quick and thunder-powerful counter punches, as he proved to Patrick Cummins and former champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.
More importantly, Saint Preux showed he’s become very hard to take and keep down. He got Cummins to rush in with punches only after he frustrated the wrestler with his takedown defense and ability to get up quickly.
With that type of improved grappling, and always dangerous one-punch KO power, Saint Preux could be two wins away from a title in the suddenly wide-open division.