Jon Jones was nowhere near the Toyota Center in Houston on Saturday night, but his presence was felt throughout the show.
The former light heavyweight champion and arguably most talented fighter in the sport's history was in the back of everyone's mind all night. As Ryan Bader and Rashad Evans were battling for the next title shot, the caveat was that if UFC reinstated Jones, they would have to wait in line.
And as Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson had one of the greatest light heavyweight title fights in history, the ghost of Jones was even stronger. As thrilling as round five was with the feeling every punch and counter could decide the championship in what appeared to be a razor-close fight, and as both men showed the heart and will of true champions, the thoughts of Jones were still ominous. You couldn't escape thinking about whether Jones could beat both of them, and the reality is, he would be favored, perhaps heavily, against each.
It may be the reason that the fight felt like something less than what light heavyweight title fights have usually felt like. In UFC, the marquee division changes, based on who the stars are at the time. But ever since UFC adopted a second weight class at the end of 1997, when the current light heavyweight division debuted as the middleweight division, no division has been as consistent a marquee division. From Frank Shamrock as the star of the dead era, Tito Ortiz in the early Zuffa years, Chuck Liddell as the sport exploded, and then with Rampage Jackson, Forrest Griffin, and onto Jon Jones, the champion was always one of the guys who drew the most interest.
Cormier always pushes the idea that he had nothing to do with Jones not being around, and that of the guys in the UFC, he won his fights against the two top contenders, Anthony Johnson and Gustafsson. But as great as Saturday's war was, Cormier will always be known as the guy who talked the talk going into the Jones fight, but in the end everything Jones said before the fight was what rung true.
Individual sports are different from team sports. When Michael Jordan disappeared from the NBA, and the Houston Rockets won the 1994 championship, nobody talked like they weren't the real champions because if Jordan was around, the result could have been different, and they had never beaten the Jordan Bulls when it counted.
Jones was having his fun after being sentenced to only probation in his hit-and-run case from earlier this year. Right before the fight, he released a video showing a bigger and stronger Jones lifting weights to mess with the heads of the rest of the division who hadn't found the key to beating the old version.
But if there was a theme to Saturday's show, it was that there were several key wins to contenders at the top of divisions, including Cormier and Bader at light heavyweight, but none put together the win that would turn heads.
Cormier won a great fight, but as noted, he didn't convince people from the performance that he was better than Jones, who was the champion who was never defeated in the cage for the title. Bader clearly beat Rashad Evans, but not in a manner where people are clamoring for a showdown with Cormier, nor would such a fight do big business. Julianna Pena clearly beat Jessica Eye and challenged Ronda Rousey, but didn't beat Eye in a manner where viewers would see her against Rousey as a big fight past the fact anyone against Rousey is an event. And Joseph Benavidez, the perennial bridesmaid at bantamweight, clearly beat former title contender Ali Bagautinov, but not in a manner that has fans now clamoring for a third fight with Demetrious Johnson.
If anything, besides all the buzz about how great the main event was, the most talked about fighter on the show may have been 19-year-old Sage Northcutt, whose hand speed and ferocity in finishing Francisco Trevino was reminiscent of Vitor Belfort's debut against Tra Telligman and Scott Ferrozo in winning a UFC tournament in 1997, at the same age.
Let's look at how Fortunes Changes for Five stars from UFC 192.
DANIEL CORMIER - Even though he lost to Jones, Saturday's fight seemed to be the physically toughest of Cormier's career. Cormier never even did striking training until the age of 30. He was giving up six inches in height, if not more, seven inches in reach, 12 years of stand-up experience, and is 36 as compared to Gustafsson being 28.
That all seemed to mean that Cormier needed to get the fight to the ground. But the last four rounds were almost exclusively stand-up, and Cormier more than held his own. If not for a hard knee that had him in trouble late in the third round, he actually clearly got the better with his constant forward movement and uppercuts from the clinch, which were the key difference makers in the fight.
Cormier's career in being on the biggest stage with all-time greats, whether it was Cael Sanderson in the NCAA finals, Khadzhimurat Gatsalov in the Olympics, or Jones in MMA, is well documented. His legacy in sports will always be someone who competed and excelled at the highest level in two different sports. He's won national titles in wrestling and a world title in MMA, but his career defining moment is still likely to be another fight with Jones.
ALEXANDER GUSTAFSSON - Gustafsson is now the guy who came close on two occasions of taking the title. With a little more aggression at certain points in the fight, the result could have been different. The same could be said for his 2013 loss to Jones, where if one blow by Jones that changed the fourth round didn't land, it was Gustafsson's round and he would have almost clinched winning the fight by decision.
So even with three losses in his last four fights, Gustafsson is absolutely championship level. But he's in a tough position. The only opponents that seem to make sense for him that he hasn't fought in the division are Rashad Evans (24-4-1) and Glover Teixiera (23-4), provided Teixeira beats Patrick Cummins on Nov. 7. The best fight for him to rehab would be a rematch with Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, but that fight makes no sense for UFC to make right now, with Johnson having knocked Gustafsson out earlier this year.
RYAN BADER - Bader (21-4), with five straight wins, is clearly, by fighting merit, the next guy who should face Cormier if Jones isn't reinstated. But the problem is, once again, it would be a title fight matching two guys who Jones already beat.
It is possible UFC could go with Glover Teixiera for a title shot. Teixeira beat Bader in 2013. If Teixeira scores an impressive win over Patrick Cummins, he could face Cormier, but Bader would still be the favorite if Jones isn't around. Teixeira has also lost to Jones.
Bader himself talked of wanting to avenge the Teixeira loss if Jones got the title shot. But if Bader is going to fight again and Cormier faces Jones next, it makes more sense for UFC to put Bader vs. Johnson (20-5). Because of his one punch knockout power, Johnson is always a threat in any fight, whether it be Cormier, who beat him the first time, or Jones, who was scheduled to face him when he was suspended.
JOSEPH BENAVIDEZ - At 23-4, Joe B's only losses have come twice to Demetrious Johnson and twice to Dominick Cruz. He's only been stopped once in a career where he's been constantly facing top guys in the welterweight and flyweight division for more than six years.
In the flyweight division, Henry Cejudo, if he beats Jussier Formiga on Nov. 21 in Monterrey, Mexico, is likely to get the next title shot at Johnson. If he loses, Benavidez would be the clear top contender. But Benavidez's win over Ali Bagautinov was a three round decision that fans booed. If Formiga gets an impressive win, he could come in with more momentum and get the shot.
If Cejudo or Formiga gets the next shot, Benavidez likely opponents would be John Dodson (17-7), Kyoji Horiguchi (16-2) or Zach Makovsky (19-6). Dodson makes the least sense because he's also lost twice to Johnson, and his second loss was one month ago, and one-sided. So Dodson knocking off Benavidez eliminates a contender while adding nothing. The problem is, Horiguchi isn't all that much different, given the way Johnson beat him.
SAGE NORTHCUTT - Northcutt, at 19 years and seven months, exploded onto the scene with a good deal of hype, and lived up to it with a 57 second win and all kinds of backflips after the fight.
His debut received substantial attention due to his being part of a You Tube reality show where Dana White was scouting new fighters, and his look and physique, already being tabbed as the male Paige VanZant.
At this stage, the featherweight fighter is 6-0 and all we really know is that he can deliver wild kicks and has very fast hands. He's got a lot of time to improve, and UFC should be patient before sending him to the wolves. That said, he probably should be featured next on FOX, in a main card opener. Historically, fans love to see a star develop in front of their eyes over the years. It is way too early to gauge his real potential, but people like him don't come around often in this sport. UFC rarely builds fighters like boxing does, using the strategy of prospects given people to fatten their record for a long time before facing serious opponents. But that's the best route here. It should be a ,slow build as far as competition. But UFC should also make sure it's a big audience stage to see that build, meaning FOX and PPV shows, where he's marketed hard in the process.