LAS VEGAS — Almost exactly a year ago, Jon Jones lost his light heavyweight championship after he was stripped of the belt by UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta and president Dana White after being involved in a hit-and-run auto accident.
Though he won a clear unanimous performance Saturday in the main event of UFC 197 before 11,352 at the MGM Grand Garden, routing a not-so-willing-to-engage Ovince Saint Preux, Jones may have lost another, albeit unofficial title.
Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson may well have surpassed him as the world’s finest fighter.
Jones topped Saint Preux by scores of 50-45, 50-44 and 50-45 and was never in danger. But he looked, well, like a good fighter who’d been away for a long time and had spent the majority of his camp training for someone else. Johnson, however, was simply sensational.
The mythical pound-for-pound honor has been one that Jones has held for years. He’s been extraordinarily dominant in the five years since he destroyed Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to become the youngest UFC champion in 2011, and he’s knocked off one elite fighter after another.
He did what he had to do Saturday in getting past Saint Preux, who in all honesty looked like his primary goal was simply to make it through all five rounds.
But those who have watched Jones throughout his career know he has several additional levels he can reach, and he didn’t get close against Saint Preux, even if he didn’t need to in order to win.
“Did Jon look like a world beater, did he look like a guy many say is possibly the greatest ever? No,” White said.
In the co-main event, Johnson drilled Henry Cejudo with a series of knees in the first round, forcing referee John McCarthy to stop it at 2:49. Johnson has now won 10 straight fights, finished three of his last four and raised his record to 24-2-1.
Johnson has improved remarkably during his reign atop the flyweight division, crediting it simply to more “mat time.” He’s gotten an opportunity to learn the nuances of the game better and it shows each time out.
Johnson went through a lot in his training camp. He needed a root canal and said he felt he had a stomach ulcer. But despite that, he showed a lot more, and as great as he clearly is, doesn’t believe he’s where he will be eventually.
“I believe I am still getting better,” Johnson said. “ … My coaches are always pushing me to become a better martial artist.”
Jones is still a pretty fair martial artist himself, and after speaking disappointedly about his performance in the cage, he changed his stance at the post-fight news conference.
He attributed a lot of the way he looked to the late change in opponents. He was supposed to fight his bitter rival, Daniel Cormier, for the light heavyweight title that Cormier won after Jones was stripped of it last April.
He said he’d prepared seven months for Cormier and the different styles between the men led to him looking less Jones-ish than usual.
“Ovince is a heavy hitter and he has this huge knockout power,” Jones said. “I’m like, ‘Dude, you can’t lose to a guy like Ovince trying to do too much.’ Part of me, this may sound funny, but part of me was like, ‘You gotta fight D.C., Jon. You gotta fight D.C. Do what you have to do to win this fight. The goal is to get back to D.C.’ Whether I looked like crap or not, the goal was to get back to D.C.”
Cormier injured his left leg checking a kick in camp, which forced him to pull out. He has a doctor’s appointment Monday, and if he’s cleared to fight, as seems likely, Jones-Cormier II will be the headliner of UFC 200 on July 9 at the new T-Mobile Arena
Jones started to promote the battle as he was leaving the cage. He turned toward Cormier and flipped him the middle finger.
It seemingly was a change in his demeanor from earlier in the week, when he praised Cormier and seemed to indicate that he didn’t feel the enmity for him that he did last year.
“I gave Daniel the finger leaving the Octagon,” Jones said, breaking into a wide grin. “It felt great to do. It creates buzz and it gets people ready for the fight. Me and D.C. don’t like each other. He’s been in my sights this whole time. We had a minor bump in the road and we had to take a little detour and now it’s back to me and D.C.
“There weren’t too many emotions involved in doing it. It was more for fun, more to get a reaction from the fans and more to re-start the story.”
He did that. The new story, though, is who is going to be able to beat Johnson.
Johnson has beaten top contenders Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson twice each and laid waste on Saturday to an unbeaten fighter who happened to be a 2008 Olympic wrestling gold medalist.
Johnson has now made eight successful defenses, and is trying to surpass ex-middleweight champion Anderson Silva, who holds the record with 10.
But the big fight appears to be a showdown with Dominick Cruz, the bantamweight champion who defeated him in an excellent fight in 2011 when the flyweight division didn’t exist.
That will be a major fight if and when it happens, but until then, it’s hard to imagine Johnson losing.
As great is Jones is, and as long as he’s been at the top, he now has competition for that mythical role as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
Jones, who was in a relaxed and easy-going mood, had no issue with a suggestion Johnson had surpassed him.
“There are a lot of stars here,” he said.
Jones will return at UFC 200 and he’ll have his next opportunity to make a statement. He’ll have his hands full.
Not only will he have to defeat a great athlete like Cormier, he’ll have to do enough to make people believe he’s better than Johnson, too.
And that last mountain is a tough one to climb at this stage.