The return of Jon Jones to the UFC octagon on Saturday night after a 15-month absence filled a conspicuous void. That void just might no longer be the very top of the game.
The former light heavyweight champion, who was suspended and stripped of his championship a year ago following a hit-and-run auto accident that injured a pregnant woman and led to a felony conviction and ongoing probation, was fully in control throughout his fight with Ovince Saint Preux in the main event of UFC 197 before 11,352 in Las Vegas.
But a rusty five-round decision over a late-replacement opponent ranked far below him isn’t necessarily the kind of performance that solidifies a fighter’s status as the consensus pound-for-pound No. 1 in MMA.
What kind of performance can do that? The kind turned in shortly before the main event by flyweight champion — and consensus No. 2 — Demetrious Johnson.
“Mighty Mouse” extended the longest active streak of UFC title defenses and did so with with flashy efficiency, scoring an explosive first-round TKO of 2008 Olympic gold medalist wrestler Henry Cejudo. In successfully defending his strap for the eighth time, Johnson handed Cejudo his first MMA loss.
Afterward, Johnson had a message for all who would challenge him — not just in the 125-pound division but in the fanciful pound-for-pound rankings as well. “I am the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world,” he said.
Those words were still echoing through MGM Grand Garden Arena as Jones was walking to the cage for his turn to impress.
The former 205-pound champ was originally scheduled for an opportunity at some measure of redemption. But Daniel Cormier, who was Jones’s last victim prior to the belt being taken away by the UFC and who later captured the vacant title, had to pull out of the rematch because of a foot injury. His replacement, Saint Preux, never got any offense going against Jones, but made it to the final horn of the fifth round.
After the judges scores were announced — all three saw the bout for Jones, two by 50-45 and the other by 50-44 — UFC president Dana White lay a shiny brass-and-leather belt atop Jones’s broad shoulder. It symbolized one of those interim titles the fight promotion occasionally bestows upon a fighter to help hype up a fight. To his credit, Jones quickly removed the strap.
“I don’t think I want that belt,” he said. “It’s not the real belt. I want my belt back.”
It’s likely he soon will have that opportunity. The promotion’s landmark midsummer card, UFC 200, is in need of a main event after Conor McGregor was pulled out for refusing to leave training camp to fulfill promotional obligations. White didn’t make it official, but he said at a prefight news conference that if Jones (22-1) won on Saturday and Cormier gets the go-ahead from his doctor on Monday, they “probably” will meet at the July 9 event.
Jones might be going for two symbols of supremacy that night. His rusty showing against Saint Preux was lackluster when compared to the manner in which Johnson starched his opponent. “Mighty Mouse” beat Cejudo at his own game, hurting him with knees in the clinch before finishing him via TKO at 2:49 of the first round.
“Once I got him off balance, threw the left knee to the liver, I heard him go ‘uuuhh,’ and I was like, it’s over,” said Johnson (24-2-1). “I’m not [expletive] backing up. It’s on. Let’s go.”
Where does Johnson go from here? His next challenge is anyone’s guess. He’s beaten the cream of the 125-pound crop, but he still has work to do in the division. His goal, he says, is to break Anderson Silva’s record of 10 straight title defenses. “I think I can do it,” he said.
The UFC is so desperate for a flyweight challenger that it scheduled a season of its Fox reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” with 125-pounders, with a format calling for the show’s winner to get a shot at the champ. But the promotion abruptly cancelled that plan, and White was mum on whether the show will go on.
Beyond that, Johnson has acknowledged that a move up to bantamweight to challenge champion Dominick Cruz — the only man to beat him — could be in his future, if the money is right. He has said he’d do it for $2 million.
For now, Demetrious Johnson’s move up might simply be in the pound-for-pound rankings. He’s No. 2 on many media outlets’ lists, and while it’s hard to imagine Jon Jones being supplanted at the top, if it’s ever going to happen, now is the time and “Mighty Mouse” is the one.