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Two years into UFC title reign, Daniel Cormier still fighting for respect

The light heavyweight class in the Ultimate Fighting Championship once ran deep with enough star power to keep a sport afloat before helping propel it into the future. At a time of great uncertainty in mixed martial arts, it was the UFC’s money division.

There seems to be but one money fighter in the game now, a certain Irishman who fights nowhere near the 205lb limit (not yet, at least). Meanwhile, after a long run as the preeminent belt in the UFC, light heavyweight appears fractured, a shell of its glory days when bankable fighters like Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Vitor Belfort, Quinton Jackson and others up to Jon Jones, who was the best of them all before repeated missteps got in his way, did big business and attracted new fans.

Saturday night in Buffalo, New York, Daniel Cormier, the current UFC light heavyweight champion, is set to defend the title in the main event of UFC 210 against Anthony Johnson, whom he finished to claim the vacated belt in May 2015. Four months after losing on points to Jones, it was an impressive victory for Cormier, who took a massive punch, recovered and broke Johnson in the third round.

For all the frightful images Johnson has conjured during his career, including three consecutive vicious knockouts that positioned him for a rematch with Cormier on the weekend, he is not Jones. And herein lies the reason UFC president Dana White should look for when he tries to explain why fans haven’t embraced Cormier the way he would have expected when an affable fighter who can turn a phrase and is willing to mix it up rules the light heavyweight roost.

“Cormier is an exciting fighter,” White said of Cormier during an interview with Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd on Wednesday. “It’s a weird thing.

“They like the bad boy, Jon Jones. Last time we had a press conference for those two, they were cheering Jon Jones and booing Cormier. It’s fascinating. I don’t get it. It is what it is.”

There really shouldn’t be a mystery for White.

It’s one thing to be the best in a weight class that boasts limited history, like Demetrious Johnson, the UFC flyweight king poised to tie Anderson Silva’s 10 consecutive title defenses when he fights Wilson Reis on 15 April. Despite his great success and immense skill, fans seem to care little about Mighty Mouse, who suffers from the same fate as many fighters his size (125lbs) as he fails to drive any pay-per-view sales for the UFC.

It’s another to see Cormier, who has done all the right things in his career. All the right things except for beating Jones. The result at the start of January 2015 made sense. It signaled that Jones’ physical gifts – speed, length, aggression – were too much for the squat Cormier, and would always be too much.

A two-time US Olympic wrestler who wore the badge of freestyle team captain in 2012, Cormier was undefeated as a heavyweight before entering the UFC. His decision to drop weight classes and go after Jones had more to do with clearing the deck for his team-mate, Cain Velasquez, who looked primed to rule the heavyweight class. Cormier may be a better heavyweight than light heavyweight, yet at the age of 38 he has already made his choice regarding the course of his career.

Cormier noted that for the rematch with Johnson he expects “a more experienced, more composed, a more well-rounded fighter”. Cormier is intelligent in the realm of combat sports, and he understands full well that Johnson is improved since their first clash.

“I’ve made him better,” Cormier said.

Cormier may be speaking optimistically based on the experience following his lone MMA loss. Since falling to Jones, Cormier is 3-0 and has undoubtedly grown as a mixed martial artist.

The simple truth is Jones was widely regarded, and for legitimate reasons, as the best light heavyweight there’s ever been. Many people pegged Jones as the best ever, regardless of weight. Jones grabbed the mantle of greatness from some of MMA’s best known and beloved fighters. That’s who beat Cormier and there’s no escaping the reality that the current champion is only in that role because Jones imploded on multiple occasions.

When Jones beat Cormier that sealed the narrative which, perhaps unfairly, haunts him (he isn’t deserving of being the true “champion” and heir apparent to the foundation laid down by other light heavyweight greats). Poor decisions forced the relinquishment of Jones’ title outside of the octagon, leading to a pall being cast over the formerly glorious division. The only way that will be reconciled is for Cormier to defeat the opponents UFC lines up against him, and among that group must be Jones. With Jones’ latest round of indiscretions running their course, his return appears likely for sometime this summer. Until he does, the UFC light heavyweight class will suffer from the perception that the best fighter at that weight isn’t holding the belt.

Jones, a native of Endicott, New York, is expected to make the trip and attend the pay-per-view event in Buffalo. Cormier warned “something bad will happen” if Jones attempts to enter the cage should the defending champion retain his title.

That may be the one thing that breathes life into the light heavyweight class, though much more is required on the back-end, including and especially prospect development, to realign with the status the division once had.

There are other emerging factors at play.

The UFC finds itself in an increasingly difficult position regarding a class that it long relied upon to drive business. Competitors to the UFC, namely Bellator MMA, are siphoning off top talent. Following the sale of Japan’s Pride Fighting Championship to the UFC in 2007, it seemed a settled proposition that the best light heavyweights would compete in the octagon for years to come. The notion today that there are several top-tier 205lb fighters outside the UFC is almost shocking, but that’s exactly what’s happened.

Most recently free agent contender Ryan Bader departed the octagon, joining the likes of another UFC veteran Phil Davis, who stands as Bellator’s light heavyweight champion. Rather suddenly, there are fights at this weight beyond the UFC that are worth watching.

Could Davis beat Cormier? Yes, and it’s hardly a long-shot proposition that highlights questions about the state UFC light heavyweight division without Jones.

“The guy is the most talented human being I’ve ever competed against,” Cormier told the press. “He’s so good in every aspect of fighting but for him to have done the things he’s done to limit the history that he was making it’s crazy. It’s sad. But at the end of the day, I have to worry about myself and I have to worry about Anthony Johnson.”