The UFC on Saturday will put on one of the deepest and most compelling cards in its history. It includes three title fights, a bout between two of the most exciting fighters in its history and a series of impactful and potentially top-rate matches.
And yet, anticipation for UFC 214 centers around one fight, a grudge match for the ages that most closely resembles the fierce and fervent rivalry between the late legendary boxing heavyweight champions Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
Light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier will defend his belt Saturday in the main event of UFC 214 against ex-champion Jon Jones in a rematch of a bout Jones won in a walk in 2015. Like Ali and Frazier, Cormier and Jones are the best of the best in MMA, and Jones is widely regarded as the greatest of all-time. Cormier, though, is also regarded among the best who ever lived.
But they’re not known so much for the quality of their rivalry in the cage – Jones won their only fight in a lopsided manner – as they are for the animosity and disdain they so openly show for each other outside of it.
The hatred between them is visceral. It was evident Saturday during a four-minute television interview Saturday – Cormier was in San Jose, Calif., and Jones in Albuquerque, N.M. – where they traded curses before Jones yanked an earpiece out of his ear and stormed off the set.
Asked if Saturday’s fight would squash the beef between them, both men made it clear it would not.
“[Expletive], D.C.,” Jones responded.
Cormier laughed at the thought.
“I have no desire to be friends with him,” Cormier said. “In terms of respect for his abilities, sure. He’s a great fighter. I’ve always said he’s a great fighter. But every time going forward we see each other, there’s still going to be issues because either I’m going to smack him upside his head, or something is going to happen.
“We’re not going to be friends, and we’re never going to be able to be in the same space because there will always be issues, because he’s a punk.”
That was significantly different from the way Ali and Frazier acted toward one another. They got into a skirmish on the set of ABC’s Wild World of Sports on Jan. 23, 1974, as they were watching their epic first fight with Howard Cosell. They were five days away from a rematch and were appearing with Cosell to promote the bout.
As discussion turned to which of them went to the hospital after their March 8, 1971, bout, Frazier got angry at Ali and stood menacingly in front of him. Ali said, “Sit down, Joe. Sit down, Joe.” Men came from off-camera into the shot and Ali stood up, grabbed Frazier around the neck and shoulders and wrestled him to the ground.
Cosell cut to a commercial. When the program resumed, Frazier had left the set and Ali watched the remainder of the fight with Cosell. When Cosell was signing off and mentioned the altercation, Ali said, “No hard feelings. We’ll be buddies when I beat him.”
Such an ending seems difficult to imagine with Cormier and Jones.
There has never been any good feeling between Jones and Cormier. They were supposed to fight at UFC 178 and appeared at a news conference in the lobby of the MGM Grand on Aug. 4, 2014.
As they posed for photos, with then-UFC public relations chief Dave Sholler between them, Jones leaned in toward Cormier. Cormier responded by shoving Jones, who fired a punch as they fell off the stage.
Jones pulled out of the fight with an injury a week later, and it was rescheduled for the main event of UFC 182 on Jan. 3, 2015.
That week, during the promotion, security had to travel with each man as they walked through the hotel, because they nearly came to blows several times.
After the fight, it was revealed that Jones had tested positive for cocaine before the bout. But because cocaine is only banned in competition and the test came during a period considered out of competition, it was no violation.
After defeating Cormier at UFC 182, Jones was supposed to defend his belt against Anthony Johnson at UFC 187. But Jones was involved in a hit-and-run auto accident in Albuquerque and subsequently stripped of his belt and ultimately spent a short time in jail.
The UFC made Cormier-Johnson for the interim belt and Cormier won it when he submitted Johnson.
Jones taunted him as a fake champion, and Cormier repeatedly mocked Jones for his troubles outside the cage. They were scheduled to meet again at UFC 200 on July 9, 2016, but Jones was yanked from the card 72 hours before the bout after the UFC learned he’d failed a drug test.
His one-year suspension ended earlier this month and they’ll meet for the second time on Saturday, barring anything unexpected happening again.
The bitterness and ill will clearly remains, and it’s almost uncomfortable watching them interact. But to truly put their rivalry into a category near Ali-Frazier, they need to have a competitive bout.
That puts the burden on Cormier, who concedes he let his emotions get the best of them.
Ali-Frazier III, often referred to as “The Thrilla in Manila,” is regarded by many as the sport’s greatest heavyweight fight. Ali-Frazier I, the “Fight of the Century,” was also one of the finest heavyweight matches.
A Cormier win would likely set up a big-money rubber match. But another Jones victory, particularly a one-sided win, would probably cap the rivalry and establish Jones far and away as the fighter of this generation.