In The Shadow Of A Throne Of Bones
A fight exists in the crux of two elements: the past and the present, the physical and the mental, the ascending and the descending. A fight confirms the narratives we follow into the fight whilst creating entirely new narratives in front of our eyes.
Sometimes, these confirmations are obvious like when Ronda Rousey annihilated Bethe Correira. Other times these confirmations are head-slapping moments where we realize it was always going to be this way and we’re dumb for not realizing it such as Anderson Silva’s drug failure at an age most fighters couldn’t even come back from a sprained ankle.
The confirmations revealed in every fight have only one certainty: a fight is a step closer to the inevitable.
Which makes the light heavyweight title fight this weekend entirely meaningless from a meritocratic standpoint and still one of endless intrigue. Daniel Cormier defends his interim light heavyweight title against Alexander ‘The Mauler’ Gustafsson. Both men fight in the shadow of the one inevitability that will remain as the arena lights dim on this fight: neither man has bested Jon ‘Bones’ Jones.
This fight exists in a most uncomfortable realm. This is the middle movie in a trilogy. This is like eating a hamburger without the bun. This is The Beatles without John. It is and will always be remembered as a fight that was wanting. The one absence is the most important one.
Both Cormier and Gustafsson have theoretical claims as champions but neither has the merit to prove it. Gustafsson fought and lost to Jones but did enough to convince many he had won. Cormier fought and lost to Jones but did nothing to convince anybody he had won. Yet it is Cormier who walks into the Octagon on Saturday with any form of title.
With or without the reality of the belt at stake, there is this to ponder: no two fighters have gravitated to each other more inevitably than Cormier and Gustafsson.
It all begins as it usually does: a knockout. Cormier’s shocking rise to Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix champion began with a thundering KO of Antonio Silva and his ascension was set in motion. He would topple Josh Barnett to secure the title and moved into the UFC by defeating Frank Mir. A month after the Jones/Gustafsson fight, Cormier defeated Roy Nelson and sealed his impending move to LHW.
Even so, it was his verbal jabs at Jones once he moved into the promotion that provided the kindling for the bonfire we now see burning. He built a more intense narrative for fans and the UFC to grab onto: a grudge match. If there is anything sports fans love more than seeing the best versus the best or the shaming of a disliked superstar, it’s a grudge match.
While Cormier took a tune-up fight against a short notice opponent, Patrick Cummins, and laid waste to him, it still was not a certainty he would get to face Jones. The UFC seemed intent on testing him more than once at the weight.
This is the point at which Gustafsson and Cormier first weaved into each others' career. Following his loss to Jones, Gustafsson sat out lobbying for a follow-up match against Jones and failed in his politicking. A month after Cormier had made the successful drop into his division, Gustafsson settled. While he defeated Jimi Manuwaw at UFC Fight Night 37, not all wins are created equal. Cormier’s win, though no less irrelevant in a meritocracy, seemed more impressive. By then, the fervor for the rematch had dimmed. In fighting a lesser opponent like Manuwa, he was always going to shrink in relevance win or lose.
Then, two months after Gustafsson’s win, Cormier Bowser-tossed Dan Henderson over his head. It became certain he and Jones would put their angry words into angry punches. Though Gustafsson was announced for a Jones rematch, by this point, Cormier’s shot was inevitable.
So when Gustafsson hurt his knee at the top of the summer and had to withdraw, Cormier was announced as Jones replacement opponent. They punched at eachother at a press conference and Jones was injured shortly after, forcing the fight further back.
By then, the stakes for a Gustafsson rematch hung uncomfortably on an upcoming Anthony Johnson tilt months later. It made sense that should Gustafsson win, he would be the first to challenge the winner.
Then things went awry in quick succession. Jones thoroughly dismantled Cormier — which should never complicate a division but in this case it did — and Gustafsson was knocked out by Johnson. It was when Jones was arrested for hit and run that the careers of Cormier and Gustafsson were fatefully fused to the path that culminates on Saturday.
Gustafsson and Cormier are two of the elite fighters in the heavy divisions. Cormier is an undersized heavyweight who dropped to light heavyweight. Gustafsson is a light heavyweight who has always been comfortable at 205.
Compared to Jones — who has yet to actually fight above 235 but it has never been a question whether he could or whether he could do so successfully — Gustafsson is the most alike. Like Jones, he’s a heavyweight when measured from the ground up and uses that length efficiently.
Cormier is a heavyweight measured from side-to-side. That's not to suggest he's a pant load (though, in a manner, he is) but to say he's like a fire hydrant. His low center of gravity and explosive strength make him a difficult fighter to take of balance.
Cormier, as the UFC marketing material will insist upon you, is a world-class grappler who ‘embraces the grind’ and makes matches uncomfortable for opponents. This is mostly true. His boxing has improved since his earliest bouts but he still tends to be overmatched at range, lunging in with winging hooks and overhands.
Stylistically, he is a pressure fighter who looks to lock into his clinch game as soon as he can. He’s much in the same vein as Ronda Rousey, but with a few more wrinkles. Once Cormier closes distance, especially against the cage, he becomes a different beast. This is where the UFC promos aren’t filling your head with easy narratives. Cormier is a world-class grappler. His array of takedowns is insane. Trips, fireman’s carries, high crotches, he becomes a very organic takedown artist in the clinch.
To say Gustafsson has slowed down, though, is not giving him enough credit. To contrast his fight against Johnson with Cormier’s is to ignore how they each approach a fight, to emphasize the ‘W’ in his ledger as a qualitative weight.
Cormier was more than happy to close distance on Johnson so that he could get dirty in close, eventually wearing Rumble down. Gustfasson, meanwhile, is an outfighter who wants to move at range and stick, a recipe for danger against an explosive counterpuncher like Johnson. While he stood at range of Johnson’s strengths, Cormier refused to.
The real litmus test for this matchup is how each did against Jones. In Gustafsson’s case, if you listen to the marketing material, he was able to hang with Jones because they are the same height. This is partially true but it was his ability to continually seize initiative from Jones in the grappling department, defending 10 of 11 takedowns. What’s more, Gustafsson took Jones down — the first fighter to do so.
Gustafsson's style is more about using his hands than Jones. Bones uses his legs to dissuade grappling exchanges then bullies opponents into the clinch with their backs against the cage. Gustafsson is not much of a kicker. His best striking technique for dissuading takedowns is the uppercut which he has used extensively in the past. Whether this is enough to keep Cormier from trying to duck his head and close the distance remains to be seen. However, if Jones could ward off Cormier’s grappling rushes, so can Gustafsson
Then there is this: Gustafsson is 28. Cormier is 36. Unlike Gustafsson, Cormier faces the very real issue of inching further away from his prime with each passing sparring session. This is a fighter who has been competing at the highest level since he was in his mid-20’s. Physical gifts find a way to tip over a cliff when they go.
Cormier and Gustafsson's careers have been gravitating towards each other as tightly as any two in the fight game over the last few years. They have defeated legends. They have fought for titles. None of it matters in the face of the inevitable. That they exist in the crux between Jon and Jones. They are caught in orbit of a larger force: the throne of 'Bones'.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb #IDontLikeMondays