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The competitive triangle of Daniel Cormier, Alexander Gustafsson and Jon Jones is extraordinary

Daniel Cormier came out to do his UFC 192 post-fight press conference with a mouse under his eye, cuts on his face and a potentially broken foot hiding under the dais. Still, he spoke in a clear-headed, one might even say neighborly voice to the media that waited him out late into the night in Houston. He answered every question thoughtfully and rationally. He said he respected the hell out of Alexander Gustafsson, the man who gave him the lumps on Saturday night, that Gustafsson’s ability to absorb punishment — to transmit it to the endless pool of his resolve — left him astonished as he slammed uppercuts into his chin from the clinch.

Gustafsson, of course, was at the hospital. His face was far worse off than Cormier’s. No enswell was going to do away with the marks of Cormier’s masterpiece. The fight was a classic from horn to horn, Plastic Man dealing with an anvil come to life, brutality and beauty — and as classics go it was a hazardous, unsustainable, defiant of all common sense. Both men dished and both men received. Neither would yield an inch. One man had to win, and that ended up being Cormier.

Afterwards, Jon Jones — who is perhaps the catalyst of all motivations — put out a nine-second Instagram that he deleted less than nine seconds later. In it, he essentially expressed himself as exactly the right kind of fight game sadist, saying, "I think I miss it…I don’t know." Jones was exhilarated. Jones brought out the best of Cormier and Gustafsson, and now they brought out the best of each other in his stead. Both Cormier and Gustafsson brought out the best of Jon Jones.

For some reason, the idea of being put on the ledge, battered and swaying and well into the shadowy confines of will, has a way of making competitors giddy. It’s what makes them competitors.

And this is how greatness works. That belt should be more than a symbol but an actual conveyance of the extreme inner workings that go into its weight, that for 25 minutes of cage time comes out in the open. That has been the case at the top of the UFC’s light heavyweight division whenever any of these three get together. Everything is personal and real. Jones had the belt and lost it out of competition. Cormier has the belt and now has a death grip on it. Gustafsson has nearly destroyed both men — and in the process, himself twice — trying to wrest it free and deliver it to Stockholm.

It’s one of the great triangles in the sport’s young history.

Gustafsson may be 0-2 in the series, but it’s a lie that undercuts the whole story. Gustafsson has now given both Jones and Cormier the fight of their lives. He’s the hard earth that had to be dug through. He could fight either one of them again and if there were any objections they would be mercy-based. Because after what’s already been done — two Fight of the Year candidates, 10 rounds of skilled, primitive annihilation — how much more can these guys take?  

See, that’s the difference.

No offense to Ryan Bader, who has more than earned his shot to fight for the title, but Gustafsson, Cormier and Jones are out to ruin each other. When any of them come together, the thresholds are crossed early and soon it becomes extraordinary. They bring out the best of one another.

After Saturday night, it was the case again. Cormier and Gustafsson were punching holes through each other as well as the hovering specter of Jon Jones. Neither would (or could) conceive of losing. It’s almost inhumane watching fighters refuse to budge as their physical beings are being diminished so visibly, but that’s been the combination for Cormier-Gustafsson-Jones through all encounters.

Bader enters the space, more so than Anthony Johnson, as a fresh face and interloper. It’s almost unfair that Jones handled Bader so easily at UFC 126 back in 2011, back when Jones had a sterling reputation and Bader was just a hurdle. Bader is clearly a better fighter now, shown again on Saturday when he defeated former champion Rashad Evans in the co-main event.

Yet Bader is winning methodical decisions en-route to his shot based on the idea of the meritocracy; Gustafsson is taking years off his life whenever that belt is in play. If there’s a difference, it’s in that literal understanding. Bader is a pro athlete; Gustafsson is the spirit of the sport. When "Rumble" Johnson knocked him out, it was one of those things. It was digressive. Yet put Gusty in there against Jones or Cormier, and he’ll make for every kind of hell.

What happens next in the UFC’s light heavyweight division? The smart money would say it’s Jones and Cormier II. It’s the fight, laced as it is with poetic back-story, guaranteed to inspire the most from both fighters. It’s the natural intersection for two greats, in which Gustafsson was the proverbial iron that sharpened the iron. It’s the natural conclusion to an involved narrative.

And, realistically, it could be the last chapter in what will have to go down as one of the best, most brutal three-way rivalries this sport has yet seen.

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