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Fortunes changed for five at UFC 214

For years, it was figured that some day Jon Jones would be the best fighter and biggest star in MMA. He achieved the first half and now has a shot at the second.

Jon Jones finished Daniel Cormier with aplomb at UFC 214 on Saturday night.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

After a year where pay-per-view shows have been mostly disappointing, both when it comes to action, as well as business, UFC 214 came across as the company's best major show of the year in both categories.

There were four fights that could have been in contention for the best of the night. That run started with the Fight Pass main event of Alexandra Albu beating Kailin Curran. Next came Brian Ortega's third-round, come-from-behind submission win over Renato Moicano. Another contender was Robbie Lawler's close decision win over Donald Cerrone. And the main event delivered as well, where Daniel Cormier gave a strong accounting of himself before his third-round knockout loss to Jon Jones.

The key to the show was Jones (23-1), playing out his redemption story after a suspension from an arrest and a second from a drug-test failure. He had only fought once in 2-1/2 years.

It ended up his night. It was similar, almost identical in some ways, to six years ago when Jones captured the light heavyweight title for the first time as a late replacement for teammate and training partner Rashad Evans, beating Mauricio Rua at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Jones became the youngest champion in UFC history that night.

At the time, it appeared to be a coronation of a future all-time great and top-tier box office attraction. Jones ran down a purse-snatcher at a park the afternoon of the fight, and then overwhelmed Rua, finishing him in the third round.

Everything changed from there. Jones ended up every bit as dominant, if not more so, than expected inside the cage. Many consider him the single most talented fighter in the history of the sport. But outside, things were nothing like they seemed they would be.

Perhaps the turning point was his third title defense against former teammate and training partner Rashad Evans. The theme of the buildup was that Jones was not the person he was billed as being. Evans noted that they had a bond that they would never fight each other, but when Jones in an interview opened himself up to fighting, Evans took it as disrespect.

While Jones remained dominant in the cage, his popularity started to fade. His refusal to face Chael Sonnen as a late replacement for an injured Dan Henderson, which Dana White roundly criticized him for and blamed him for UFC for the first time having to cancel a pay-per-view event, was another aspect. There was a late-night auto accident and DUI, and some other run-ins with police, culminating with a hit-and-run crash involving a pregnant woman.

Through it all, almost nobody could touch Jones in the cage. He had a few minor scares. He broke his toe early in a fight with Sonnen, but finished Sonnen before the doctor could see his toe, which would have stopped the fight. He was in an armbar against Vitor Belfort that would have finished most, but he refused to tap, eventually escaping. He dominated the rest of the fight even with an injured elbow. And he had a war with Alexander Gustafsson four years ago, a close fight that is generally considered the greatest light heavyweight championship fight in history.

But the perception by the public that his being portrayed as a role model was phony, backed up by incident after incident, threatened his career and took down his drawing power. After the retirement of Georges St-Pierre, Jones was expected to be the company's top attraction. But both Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor blew by him and his pay-per-view numbers were shrinking, barely doing 300,000 buys in his previous fight against Ovince Saint Preux.

Jones had some big numbers with the right opponents, when there was a big grudge like with Evans and the first fight with Cormier. Other than that, he was a better draw than most, but not commensurate with his ability.

On Saturday night, Jones knocked out Cormier and regained his championship. He was then more than magnanimous in praising Cormier, doing a 180 on his years of trash talk. He came off humble, and funny, and very much the same person on that night at the Prudential Center the first time the belt was in front of him on the stage.

Even that night in Newark, some behind the scenes were wary about it all being a facade. And in time, with example after example, they were correct. Was Jones playing the same game as he was six years ago, or is he the older and wiser version who learned from his mistakes in life?

For the first time in years, Jones seemed on the verge of being the second half of what he had the potential to be, not just the best fighter, but one with star power at the same level of his ability.

There are a number of keys to the second half of the equation, the part about being the mainstream superstar and having big drawing power. Of course, he has to continue to win in a sport in which nobody is invincible, even those who seem to be at a point in time. Jones has a great winning streak, but so did Anderson Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, Renan Barao, St-Pierre and Jose Aldo. He may have to prove that the Jon Jones that was in the cage after the Cormier fight, and on the stage later that night, is the real Jon Jones and not just a public relations presentation.

But perhaps the latter isn't as important as one thinks, given the much-publicized real track record of Floyd Mayweather Jr.

In many ways, Jon Jones could be the MMA equivalent to Mayweather, the greatest boxer of this generation. Mayweather was a child prodigy in boxing who became one of the best of his era. He was a world champion at 21, a couple of years younger than Jones. But until he was 30, the age Jones is now, his pay-per-views were hovering in the 300,000 to 350,000 range, less than Jones did at the same age most of the time at the same stage of his career.

Then Mayweather had the right opponent, Oscar De La Hoya, an established huge draw whose popularity transcended the boxing game. It had the right promotion and clicked with the public like no fight in years had. Mayweather won. The fight did 2.4 million buys, and since then, Mayweather was gold at the box office. Manny Pacquiao got a similar boost as an attraction when he defeated De La Hoya.

That's where Brock Lesnar fits in. Lesnar isn't quite the drawing card De La Hoya was, but he does have name value and an appeal that transcends the business. If Jones is to fight Lesnar, it will almost surely be the largest spotlight he's ever had, and a fight most think he will win. Perhaps that's why Jones wants this fight so badly.

Let's look at how Fortunes Changed for five fighters on Saturday night's show.

JON JONES - Jones' win gives him a second chance at the championship, at stardom, and perhaps most importantly, and not falling victim to the lures of being a star.

While a Lesnar fight is what is being talked about, that fight is seemingly unlikely to happen until next summer, due to Lesnar's own suspension by USADA and the WWE having its biggest shows of the year in January and April.

So the question becomes does Jones sit out a year, waiting for this fight and putting the division on hold for what could be until the end of 2018? Or does he fight once more before the end of the year, taking a fight that will pay him considerably less while risking the Lesnar payday?

There's no easy answer. The best answer for Jones may be the worst answer for UFC and the sport.

If he's going to fight again, Gustafsson (18-4) should be the opponent. Gustafsson never looked better than in his recent win over Glover Teixeira. Anthony Johnson (22-6) has the knockout power that makes him a threat against anyone, and more than hinted earlier this week on The MMA Hour that he's up for at least a discussion regarding a fight with Jones.

DANIEL CORMIER - Cormier (19-2) has a few options. At 38, he could retire and has a broadcasting job with Fox. He could continue to fight at light heavyweight, but the problem is being 0-2 against Jones it'll be tough for him to get another chance even if he wrecks the rest of the division. We've already seen with Joseph Benavidez and Miesha Tate in recent years how hard it is for UFC to book a third title fight when the champion already has two wins over the top contender.

So he could fight for paydays, and there are opponents like Jimi Manuwa (17-3) or Teixeira (26-6) who would make for a good fight. Or he could move up to heavyweight, a division he was 13-0 in before moving down largely because teammate Cain Velasquez was tops in the heavyweight picture and he thought he could take the title from Jones. At heavyweight, he could be in the top mix immediately. If Velasquez gets the next shot at champion Stipe Miocic, and wins, Cormier could be in the same position in two weight classes, in that no matter what fights he wins, there could be no title opportunity. And it's not like he can afford to be patient.

TYRON WOODLEY - If the goal of fighting is to win fights while taking the least amount of damage, and thus, having the longest possible career, then Woodley (18-3) has been a true master in his last two wins over Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson and Demian Maia.

Unfortunately to fans, it's not about wins and losses, but entertaining fights. For all Woodley's defenses of his game plan, the reality is the live crowd hated his fight with Maia. Whether Dana White should have buried him to the level he did is a different question, but you can't sugarcoat the public's reaction to that fight.

There's really only one viable opponent for the welterweight title right now: Lawler (28-11), who defeated Cerrone earlier in the show. Ironically, instead of campaigning for such a fight, Lawler downplayed wanting a shot right away, and talked about knowing he had improvements to make.

CRIS CYBORG JUSTINO - It's been nine years since Cyborg debuted in the U.S. against Shayna Baszler, and eight years since her win over Gina Carano proved that women can draw big in a main event position both at the arena and when it comes to television ratings.

Cyborg hasn't lost an MMA fight, or even been tested in one, during that entire period. Her results, going 14-0 since her U.S. debut, with one no contest in a fight she won in 16 seconds but was overturned due to a drug-test failure, can't be argued. At the same time, it feels like her last eight years were mostly a holding pattern. Her weight issue and contract issues held up a fight with Ronda Rousey that could have catapulted her to fame and fortune. She ended up being the star of a weight class with very little talent. She had clearly gotten too big, which was more than partially on her, to cut to 135, which is where all the competition was.

UFC created the featherweight title for her. And now she's the star of a division that has no other fighters in the UFC.

Tonya Evinger, her opponent, was a bantamweight moving up who was clearly too small to be competitive. Dana White brought up Holly Holm (11-3) as a potential next opponent. Holm is another bantamweight who would be giving up tons of size in such a fight, but it is also the biggest fight possible right now to get the most interest in a Cyborg title fight.

VOLKAN OEZDEMIR - Oezdemir (15-1) finished Jimi Manuwa in just 42 seconds Saturday. His next battle depends on what Jon Jones does. If Jones fights Gustafsson, then Oezdemir could face Teixeira, or possibly even Cormier next.

If Jones faces Lesnar next, then Oezdemir vs. Gustafsson could be argued is the fight to make to determine the next title contender for whenever Jones is ready.

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