Jon Jones is the greatest light heavyweight of all time, and he has Daniel Cormier to thank

Daniel Cormier didn’t know what happened. Can you blame him?

Things were going so well. One minute he was punch for punch with the greatest light heavyweight in MMA history, winning some respect and maybe even some rounds in the UFC 214 main event Saturday at Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

Then all of a sudden he was surrounded by officials expressing a concern for his health and safety after a third-round knockout. Just like that, his entire future had changed.

The heartbreak was all over Cormier’s face as the facts of the evening dawned on him. He was now a former UFC light heavyweight champion. He was now 0-2 against Jon Jones. The rivalry they shared?

“I don’t know,” Cormier said. “I guess if he wins both fights, there is no rivalry.”

That’s the flip side to greatness – that cold, empty feeling when you’re shivering in the shadow of the colossus. With a brutal knockout win over Cormier, Jones ended a chapter in MMA history, and he did it by ensuring that he would be remembered as the protagonist in the story.

The one true champ at 205 pounds. The best who ever did it. A champion so dominant that the only person who could take his title away was himself.

This time Jones (23-1 MMA, 17-1 UFC) was magnanimous in victory. The first time, when he won a decisive but still competitive decision victory over Cormier (19-2 MMA, 8-2 UFC) at UFC 182, he celebrated by gesturing to his crotch and reveling in Cormier’s tears.

But in the cage on Saturday night, Jones extended the olive branch. He thanked Cormier for pushing him to new heights. He praised him as a fighter and as a man. He insisted that Cormier would live the rest of his life as a champion.

If this might have felt like a sudden shift in position for Jones, who had never been known as a big Cormier fan prior to blasting him into unconsciousness, maybe it was. Then again, maybe we should have seen it coming.

Speaking to reporters a few days before the fight, Jones called Cormier “a (expletive) great guy.”

“You guys are all in the reporting business,” Jones said. “You guys get to see him a lot more than I see him. He’s funny, he has good friends and (expletive). He’s a (expletive) good dude. I want the best for him, I really do. I wish he was just man enough to realize that he’s (expletive) around with the wrong era. He just so happened to come into the sport, he’s (38) years old and he’s (expletive) around with a guy who’s in his prime, a guy who honestly believes that this is his era, and does everything in his power to make sure that it’s his era. If he could just swallow that and say, ‘You know what, I’m the baddest (expletive) outside of Jon Jones, and I can go to sleep with that, because I’m still a bad (expletive).”

In other words, why couldn’t Cormier just admit he was second-best? This seemed to genuinely baffle Jones.

In that moment, you could hear Jones trying to like Cormier, despite all that’s been said and done between them. But before he could get there, he needed Cormier to understand his place, which according to Jones was right below him in the pecking order.

It’s not unlike something Larry Holmes once said about Muhammad Ali. As long as everybody knows that he’s up here and you’re down there, Holmes said about the great boxer, he loves you. He thinks you’re wonderful. It’s only when you aspire to stand on equal footing with him that he can’t stand you.

Maybe this is a hallmark of greatness. From the moment he came into the UFC, all arms and legs and spinning elbows, Jones has aimed higher than the field that surrounds him. He talks about his abilities and his aspirations as if he has been handpicked by the gods for some glorious fate, and that understandably rubs some people the wrong way.

He also has a history of saying one thing when he thinks the world is listening, and something else when he thinks it’s just you and him.

But the Jones who reached out to the shattered Cormier seemed like a genuine one. He wasn’t feigning affection for the man; he was only able to fully express it now that he had crushed Cormier’s hopes and dreams and forever relegated him to being a character in the Jon Jones story, albeit an important one.

It took one headkick and a spasm of left hands to make it so. All the good work Cormier had done up until that point and all the suffering and striving that had gotten him to that point were nullified in an instant. The same way history’s winners get to write the stories of the losers, Jones has recast Cormier as an important foil. His role was not to become great himself, but to push Jones to new heights of greatness, which he did.

It’s a hard thing to swallow, to be a piece of someone else’s story rather than the star of one, but there it is. The Jones who knelt in the cage with the belt once more around his waist seemed like a changed man. After all the self-inflicted troubles, again he was rescued by this, by his talent and his drive and awesome capacity for terrible, beautiful violence. He had become great again. Greater, even.

For his role in it, Cormier got a likely concussion and a fresh identity crisis, along with some money and the familiar old sympathetic hugs from coaches and training partners. No one ever said greatness was supposed to be kind, or distributed fairly. At least now both men know where they stand in this power struggle. And with that, maybe both can finally rest.

For complete coverage of UFC 214, check out the UFC Events section of the site.

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