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Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier ready to rumble after bitter buildup to UFC 182

01/02/2015 03:07 EST | Updated 03/04/2015 05:59 EST
LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Two days before putting his title on the line, UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon (Bones) Jones took in a Justin Timberlake concert in the same arena where he will fight Saturday night.

"Most people would be freaking out in their hotel room," a relaxed Jones said.

Apprised of his opponent's pre-fight plans, challenger Daniel (DC) Cormier smiled.

"No concerts in my future," he said. "Again I one-up him. I got to watch Justin Timberlake go through his whole concert a couple of days ago with nobody in the arena. So go ahead, enjoy yourself with 20,000 people. I did it with 100."

The UFC 182 main event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena has been marked by such one-upmanship since the matchup was announced last July.

"We're both so competitive, we don't want to give the other guy anything," said Cormier. "I don't want to let him beat me at anything. So if he makes a joke, I want to try and make a funnier joke."

At times, the rivalry has boiled over. The two fighters came to blows at a Las Vegas photo-op in August, tumbling off the stage in a sea of bodies that left one security official with a broken rib and netted the two combatants fines and community service.

An exchange over a satellite feed later that day, as both fighters sat in separate rooms at the UFC offices for an ESPN interview, offered a private look at the animosity between the two.

"I wish they would let me next door so I could spit in your face," Cormier, adding an F-bomb, said after the two traded insults.

"You know I would absolutely kill you if you ever did something like that," replied Jones (20-1).

Such vitriol is manna from heaven for the UFC, which had a tough year in 2014 due to a spate of injuries to frontline fighters.

While the fight wasn't a sellout as of noon Friday — tickets were available from US$170 in the top row to $2,500 cageside — the UFC still expects a gate of $3 million-plus as well as a bumper pay-per-view audience of 750,000-plus buys.

"In the fight game, especially in MMA, it's fun when you get this because it's very rare," UFC president Dana White said of the bad blood.

In a weight class that was once the rock star division of the UFC, the Jones-Cormier fight is probably the biggest news since the trilogy between Chuck (The Iceman) Liddell and Randy (The Natural) Couture in 2003, 2005 and 2006.

Jones became the UFC's youngest ever champion at 23 when he dethroned Mauricio (Shogun) Rua at UFC 128 in March 2011. He has defended the 205-pound title seven times since, replacing former middleweight champion Anderson Silva as the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet.

The lone blemish on Jones's 21-fight record was a loss by disqualification in 2009 against Matt (The Hammer) Hamill, who was beaten and broken before the illegal elbow was called.

Jones's legacy is already impressive. His reign as champion when he enters the cage Saturday will measure 1,386 days, the longest in UFC light-heavyweight history.

His run of 11 straight wins is the longest active streak in the UFC.

While Cormier (15-0) comes from an elite wrestling background, he has outstruck every UFC or Strikeforce opponent he has faced.

The challenger has said he plans to press Jones from the get-go, a strategy the champion seemed to welcome.

"He's a wrestler at heart. I'm a martial artist ... I think when I pop him with some of the things I plan on popping him with, I think he's going to say 'OK, that hurt and I'm not moving in on him again like that.' And I think when that starts to happen, I'll pull away with the fight."

While Jones has consistently been victorious in the cage, he has not won over all the fans and remains a polarizing figure.

In 2012, a drunk-driving conviction put a dent in the image of a scriptures-quoting family man. But he does not shy away from his faith, telling reporters this week he rang in the New Year with a family prayer session.

"Christians are not perfect people," he said. "We are just people ... At the end of the day, a Christian is not someone that does everything right. Christians are ultimately sinners who recognize that they're sinners and they try to do things a little bit better. But perfect, I never claimed to be."

Jones's self-confidence and desire to march to his own drum has turned off some, including White at times.

"He definitely rubs people the wrong way," said White.

"He's the champ and he's annihilated the who's who in this division and people are always rooting for the challenger."

While Jones has been an occasional thorn in White's side — UFC 151 was cancelled when Jones refused to accept Chael Sonnen as an injury replacement for Dan Henderson — the UFC boss says the champion has been "very good to deal with" recently.

While some athletes choose to avoid social media to ignore the negativity of some fans, Jones embraces it. He knows every one of his 971,000 Twitter followers makes a difference to potential sponsors.

Jones, a native of Ithica, N.Y., who trains in Albuquerque, N.M., is clearly at ease in his own skin and with his chosen occupation.

"This really is my comfort zone," he said with a smile. "Fighting scary guys, guys that most people would be like crapping their pants (to challenge). This is my lane. I live in this lane."

The 27-year-old Jones offers opponents a unique challenge thanks to his size and array of weapons. A former junior college champion wrestler, he stands six foot four with an 84-inch reach.

The five-foot-11 Cormier, a former Olympic wrestler who came fourth at the Athens Games in 2004, will be giving up 12 inches in reach. He knows he will have to get in close to have a chance.

"If I stand on the outside, I will tell you right now, I will lose that fight. So it's no secret that I need to get close," said Cormier, who trains in San Jose and works as a UFC analyst on Fox when he's not competing.

Punches to the body may also play a part for Cormier. They worked for No. 1 contender Alexander (The Mauler) Gustafsson, whose five-round war with Jones in Toronto at UFC 165 in 2013 proved that the champion is human.

Cormier, who has stuffed all 11 takedown attempts in his four UFC fights, knows staying off his back is also a key. Jones, whose 50.9-per cent takedown accuracy leads all active light-heavyweights, finishes opponents when he gets on top of them.

Jones believes his age, speed and versatility will count in his favour against the 35-year-old Cormier.

"Every round starts on its feet and I'm very aware I have a much larger array of techniques on my feet than he does."

Jones also points at his record.

"He's 4-0 in the UFC. I'm 15-0 in the UFC," he said. "I really feel like I'm the aggressor in this fight, like I'm the predator. I don't feel I'm defending my belt at all, I feel like I'm getting ready to attack this challenger."

Lightweight Donald (Cowboy) Cerrone, a Jones teammate who fights Myles (Fury) Jury in Saturday's co-main event, agrees.

"I just don't know if Cormier has the tools to beat him."

The bookies think enough of Cormier, however, to keep the odds low. Jones is less than a 2-1 favourite.

Cormier, ranked second among light-heavyweight contenders, is No. 14 on the UFC's pound-for-pound ranking list — separated from Jones by a line of current or former champions.

This fight has proved to be a twisted road to the cage.

Jones was originally due to meet Gustafsson in September at UFC 178, a card originally slated for Toronto before being shifted to Las Vegas. Cormier stepped in when Gustafsson injured his knee.

The fight was then pushed back to January after Jones suffered a leg injury of his own.

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