Before every UFC title fight, Bruce Buffer describes the champion with the same three adjectives: reigning, defending and undisputed. The longtime UFC announcer has been doing this for years, and at this point it’s just as much a part of his shtick as his trademarked “It’s time!” or the little jumps and spins Buffer has grown accustomed to doing as he gets hyped for the main event of the evening. It’s doubtful that most fight fans even think about the words they’re screaming along with Buffer when he gets going with his prefight introductions. So the next time that current light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier steps into the cage to defend his newly won championship, we can fully expect to hear Buffer shout out those same words. However, this is the first time in a long time that Buffer’s claim about an “undisputed” champion couldn’t be further from the truth.
It’s rare to hear terms like “undeserving champion” or “paper champion” in MMA, because there’s normally not really any room for argument. A fight is a fight, and the fact of the matter is that to be the man, you have to beat the man. Trash-talkers like Conor McGregor can claim they’re the real champion until their face turns blue, but no one is buying the Irishman as the champion unless he gets the belt wrapped around his waist this summer. The same thing applies to Khabib Nurmagomedov, who’s undefeated and holds a victory over current champion Rafael dos Anjos, but hasn’t been healthy enough to actually compete for the championship quite yet. Unless a fighter is standing in the Octagon and has had UFC President Dana White wrap the belt around his or her waist, it’s almost impossible for that fighter to be considered the best in their weight class in this sport.
In the case of Cormier, though, even getting the belt wasn’t enough to convince many fans that he’s truly the UFC’s 205-pound champion. When former champ Jon Jones was stripped of his title earlier this year after numerous legal and personal problems accumulated and forced the UFC to send its champion to the sidelines, Cormier stepped in, stepped up and took home the title. On paper, Cormier became without a doubt the true UFC light heavyweight champion when he defeated Anthony “Rumble” Johnson last month. However, in the eyes of fellow fighters and fight fans, it seems like “DC” hasn’t quite earned the respect and prestige of a champion yet.
Roughly a week after Cormier won his belt, MMA Junkie interviewed a number of fighters and asked them who they believe to be the true UFC light heavyweight champion. A good majority of the fighters went with Jones. Chael Sonnen went on his podcast before the bout between Cormier and Johnson even happened and declared that the winner of the fight would be “a punk” if they claimed to be the undisputed champ without beating Jones. Hell, almost immediately upon entering the press conference following his win, Cormier was asked if there was an asterisk next to his name in the record books since he didn’t beat the actual champion to get the belt. We’ve had interim belts and champions stripped of their gold in the past, but for some reason “DC” seems to be getting a lot more heat from the MMA community than other guys who have won the belt in similar ways.
Over the last few years, there have been three UFC champions, including Jones, who have either legitimately been stripped of their belt or vacated their title.
One of those guys was bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz, who suffered multiple major knee injuries over the course of a few years and had his title taken from him after being unable to defend the belt for over two years. While the decision was met with some complaints by fight fans, it was obvious that the UFC needed to make a change due to Cruz’s inability to stay healthy. Interim champion Renan Barao had been so dominant in “The Dominator’s” absence that it was hard to dispute that the Brazilian deserved the undisputed championship with Cruz still out of the picture. By the time Barao attempted to defend the title against T.J. Dillashaw last year, the debate had all but ended and Barao was by all accounts considered the undisputed bantamweight champion until Dillashaw defeated him.
The other champion to relinquish his belt was longtime welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, who gave up the crown in late 2013 after he claimed he was getting burned out on the sport after years of concentrating on little more than his next fight. While losing GSP was a huge blow to both the UFC brass and their fans, for the most part everyone surprisingly took St-Pierre vacating his title in stride. A title fight between Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler took place just a few months after GSP decided to walk away. When Hendricks emerged with the welterweight strap, it seemed that everyone was comfortable calling “Bigg Rigg” the undisputed 170-pound champion despite a close loss to St-Pierre just prior to the former champion giving up the belt. With no clear cut idea on when or if St-Pierre would be heading back to the Octagon, it seemed practical for fight fans to consider the former champion essentially retired and, with that in mind, Hendricks didn’t have to work much in order to prove he was the deserving champion.
The fact that Hendricks was so easily accepted as a champion while Cormier has been met with so much backlash is strange. If you remove a few details, the situations involving Jones and St-Pierre are actually kind of similar. Both men vacated a championship after personal problems affected their ability to get into the cage and defend their belt. In both cases, the guy they beat in their final title defense was the one to walk into the Octagon and claim gold in their next bout. Sure, there’s the obvious argument that Hendricks had almost gotten the better of St-Pierre in their fight at UFC 167, whereas Cormier was clearly beaten by Jones at UFC 182 earlier this year. This detail may cause fans to respect Hendricks as champion a little more, but in both cases a guy lost to the champion and then beat a completely different fighter to win the belt a few months later.
Fans may have reacted completely differently if Rumble or Lawler would have won those initial fights for the vacant belts. That’s fair. However, when it comes down to it, if fans were willing to support Hendricks as a champion after he won the title, then there shouldn’t be any reason why they couldn’t do the same for Cormier. Much like it was clear that GSP wasn’t coming back for quite some time after Hendricks won the belt, Jones isn’t going to be competing inside the Octagon anytime soon. We don’t know if he’ll ever get into the cage again.
While St-Pierre took time away from the sport voluntarily in order to try to get his life together and Jones was forced to the sidelines, both guys were still ruled out indefinitely and with problems that don’t have a set amount of recovery time. It’s impossible to guess if and/or when these guys will be in the cage again, so to act like the current titleholders are doing nothing more than acting as placeholders is not only unfair to the current champions, but it’s unfair to their entire divisions. If “DC” loses the belt to Alexander Gustafsson later this year and all of the sudden the top guys at 205 pounds start playing hot potato with the belt, are fight fans still going to consider Jones the champion if he hasn’t been in the cage for two years and three different guys have held the championship? If GSP decided to come out of retirement tomorrow, does that all of the sudden convince fight fans that Lawler is no longer the welterweight champion?
MMA fans deal with more disappointment on a weekly basis than really any other sports fans due to the incredible amount of injuries and fight cancellations. However, for fans that have to deal with a ton of turnover, they don’t roll with the punches very well. Yes, it is unfortunate that the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport had his title taken from him, but we can’t punish Cormier and the rest of the light heavyweight division for the missteps that Jones has made, just like we didn’t punish Hendricks and Lawler when the last pound-for-pound great stepped away. Treating Cormier like a second-class champion while comparing him to a fighter that could be gone for good is a major mistake. Like it or not, “DC” is by all accounts and purposes the top light heavyweight fighter on the planet at the moment because, technically, Jones isn’t a fighter at all at this point. Jones is just a guy looking to get his life back together.
It’s easy to see that MMA fans are frustrated with the Jones situation, but Cormier is the UFC’s undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world. Even if Jones miraculously came back next month, this wouldn’t change. It may have been a bit crude, but the post-fight speech Cormier gave after beating Johnson is probably the same thing all MMA fans should be saying. If they want to see Jones recognized as the best 205er in the world again, he needs to get his shit together. Cormier’s waiting.