The announcement last week that Jon Jones was reinstated by the UFC was taken by many as bad news for current light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier.
That thinking isn't wrong on the surface. It is inevitable that Jones will be getting a title shot. Dana White had already gone on record as saying if Jones was reinstated, he would get an immediate shot at the title he never lost. There is also no doubt that Jones poses the biggest threat to Cormier's title, given that he won four out of five rounds from the current champion when they fought on Jan. 3. When they next fight, both Jones and Cormier will be a little more than a year older than in the first fight. That's good for Jones, 28, as he's still a few years away from the prime years for a UFC light heavyweight. It's not as good for Cormier, who turns 37 in March.
But as much as Jones needs a fight with Cormier to get back the championship, Cormier needs Jones equally, if not more. The reality is that the greater public still sees Jones as the champion. Jones has beaten every single legitimate title contender except Anthony Johnson. Cormier vs. Alexander Gustafsson did not do well on pay-per-view. The earliest estimates look to be in the range of 250,000 buys. If that holds up, would be the lowest for a light heavyweight title fight since the UFC exploded in 2006.
Granted, the fight was criticized from day one, given that Gustafsson was getting a title shot coming off a first-round knockout against Johnson. But the other serious alternative, Ryan Bader, would have done around the same numbers at best — and very realistically could have done worse. Rashad Evans and Rampage Jackson were the only ranked fighters with past histories as draws in the division. But Evans was coming off a nearly two-year layoff and Jackson, even without his legal issues, couldn't have been reasonably considered for a title shot. Right now, neither Evans nor Jackson look to be realistic possibilities for another title shot any time soon, if ever.
The number was an indication that it is the man with the belt — and not just the belt itself — that people care about. Cormier drew big against Jones, a number believed to be well over 800,000 buys. That's the biggest of Jones' career. The reality is Cormier could go through every top fighter in the light heavyweight division, and the public would have looked back at the Jan. 3 fight and still considered Jones the real champion.
The only way that will change is for Cormier to beat Jones. Such a win would also end the narrative in Cormier's career about being an elite level champion in both wrestling and MMA, but never being able to get that career-defining win, whether it was in the NCAA tournament, the world championships or the Olympics, or facing the best MMA fighter in his weight division of his era. Cormier convincingly beat Johnson, and worked hard at promoting the Gustafsson fight, but the public remembered the Jones fight. People's reaction seemed to indicate they considered the belt Cormier owned as the placeholder title, not the actual title.
The rematch is an entirely different dynamic from the first fight. In the first fight, you had the best fighter on the planet against a guy who had never even lost a round in his career. After the brawl at the MGM Grand press conference and subsequent media appearances, it became the UFC's biggest grudge match in years. They did a strong number with no undercard support and on the same night as the NFL playoffs.
But a lot was lost as far as the conjecture aspect of the fight. The key is that many thought Cormier's wrestling would give Jones trouble, and didn't end up being the case. With this fight, there is the dynamic of it being Jones' first fight back in more than a year, and most fans will be expecting a title change. If the first fight had been closer, and there had been more controversy — if more questions were left unanswered regarding the outcome — the second fight would be a lock to do big business. Either way, when it's over, whoever has the belt will also be the guy the public views as the real champion.
Barring a key injury to a main eventer, 2015 should be UFC's best pay-per-view year since its record-setting 2010. The company has evolved long past living and dying on PPV, with its low nine-figure annual cushion from FOX. But pay-per-view is still, by far, the leading revenue stream for the company.
Current estimates have UFC closing in on five million pay-per-view buys for the year, with two shows left, featuring the company's two biggest stars, Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor.
More and more, a good year versus a bad year for the UFC depends on a little luck, its star power, and — most importantly — key fighters avoiding serious injuries. If the company gets the right breaks, 2016 could handily beat 2015.
There are a number of keys to next year:
*Conor McGregor beating Jose Aldo for the featherweight title on Dec. 12
While McGregor will remain a strong media personality, if he loses to Aldo he will not be nearly the pay-per-view draw that he is now. If he beats Aldo — and doesn't get hurt — he's pretty much a lock for big numbers.
*Ronda Rousey fighting at least twice, particularly if one of those fights is with Cris Cyborg
A Rousey vs. Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino fight looks to have the most economic potential of any conceivable fight that could take place next year.
*The right lineup for big shows
Most notably UFC 200 in July, as well the set-aside Madison Square Garden date in April, should the UFC pull that off with right main events.
*The return of stars like Jon Jones, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre
Jones looks to be back, and a fight with Cormier should be big. If Silva returns after his suspension expires at the end of January, and has an interesting opponent or two, he can be a difference maker. The GSP question is a lot bigger, because he's made no commitment. But 2016 seems like a do-or-die year for the talk of his return. Whether it's in his best interest to fight again is a question, but if he sits out another year, coming back clearly becomes a far worse idea.