For nearly two years, Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier have given UFC one of its most exciting and personal feuds. Their interactions have resulted in a Las Vegas brawl, death threats on a hot mic, internet insults, and one brutal title match. As they prepared for a (now delayed) rematch to decide the rightful holder of the Light Heavyweight Championship, the shit-talking has continued: UFC's last media day culminated with Jones giving Cormier a "suck it" crotch chop, a move popularized by the WWE's D-Generation X.
That's not the only thing the feud has borrowed from the world of pro wrestling. As an infuriated Cormier asked Jones last month, "Is this not real now? Are we pretending again?" It was a question that underscores what makes their feud so telling: like a WWE wrestler, Jones is forcing the audience to question the reality of "real" fighting.
The animosity between Jones and Cormier dates back to 2010, when they met backstage at UFC 121 (an event headlined by pro wrestler turned UFC champ turned pro wrestler Brock Lesnar), where Jones got under Cormier's skin by feigning ignorance of his wrestling pedigree. For years after that first encounter, Jones and Cormier were on different paths but they looked destined to fight.
Jones won the Light Heavyweight Championship in 2011 and soon become the face of the company, thanks not just to his in-ring dominance but his calm, polite demeanor. The son and grandson of preachers who made his living by beating men to a pulp was described as "thoughtful, measured and risk averse" outside of the ring. "By any measure, Jones is a walking and occasionally flying contradiction," wrote the New York Times, "a friendly, well-adjusted 25-year-old who looks at his feet during prefight staredowns."
Jones was the opposite of a humble shoegazer the next time he came face to face with Cormier, though, initiating a brawl that spilled out into the lobby of the MGM Grand. When the two fighters quickly hit the sports media circuit, Jones soberly apologized, which amused Cormier. "This voice that Jon Jones is talking in, you should have heard him two minutes ago," he told ESPN. "This guy is such a fake human being, a fake individual." The idea that Jones' nice-guy routine was phony wasn't new in the MMA world—Jones had been called out as "fake" by former opponents Rampage Jackson and Rashad Evans—but it would soon take on new significance.
Days after their ESPN interview, leaked footage showed an exchange that happened after the feed cut out, where a cold and calculating Jones called Cormier a pussy and said he would "literally" kill him. On a hot mic, Jones had let the mask of his public persona slip. The polite Jon Jones character was revealed for what it was: the babyface persona of a real-life heel. Due to injury, the fight was rescheduled for UFC 182 on January 3, 2015. Jones would go on to defeat Cormier by unanimous decision in a match described as "a brutal war of attrition." Adding insult to injury, Jones gave Cormier the "suck it" crotch chop after the final horn.
Jones wouldn't be celebrating for long. Days later, he was fined by the UFC for testing positive for cocaine, and in April, after he was charged with a felony for fleeing the scene of a hit-and-run, he was suspended indefinitely and stripped of his title. It looked like Cormier and company were right all along: the babyface Jones was a fake.
Cormier would go on to win the vacant Light Heavyweight Championship that May. In September, Jones was sentenced to 18 months of probation; in a statement released by his management, he was contrite and humbled. He was reinstated by the UFC later that month and embarked on a public image rehabilitation tour, breaking his silence by filming an hourlong interview-cum-puff piece for MMAFighting. "I think I was being extremely fake," Jones admitted to Ariel Helwani. "I was trying to be the Gatorade guy, the Nike guy—I was trying to be the face of the company instead of just being myself."
The softball interview did nothing to convince critics that this new and improved Jon Jones was not just the latest incarnation of a savvy public figure, especially since he and Cormier continued their feud, trading barbs and Photoshopped memes on Twitter and Instagram. Their rematch was set for UFC 197, and a March media day presented another opportunity for the two to tangle.
As fans cheered the returning Jones, they booed Cormier. "Boo me, that makes a lot of sense," he laughed through a tight smile. Jones continued selling himself as a redemption story, but Cormier wasn't buying it. "For the record, an hour ago, Jon called me the lamest, biggest pussy he had ever met in his entire life," Cormier said. "Believe what you want, but he's lying to you guys again." Jones feigned incredulity, enraging Cormier. "Is this not real now? Are we pretending again? Are we doing this fairy tale shit again?"
At the end of the media day, Jones gave Cormier another "suck it" gesture, to the delight of the crowd. It's fitting that Jones has continued to taunt Cormier with crotch chops, and that Cormier has become confounded by the fans' rejection of him in favor of Jones, because a similar feud played out nearly two decades ago—in a wrestling ring.
In 1997, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart were two of the top wrestlers in the WWF, on a collision course as inevitable as the one between Jones and Cormier. But what started as a storyline feud soon turned into a real-life backstage rivalry, which would in turn feed the storyline conflict—a pro-wrestling ouroboros.
Earlier that year, Hart had become an anti-American, pro-Canadian heel after a long run as a top babyface. It wasn't just a storyline plot point: Hart had turned real-life frustration with fans who were drawn to the edgy antics of wrestlers like Stone Cold Steve Austin into character fodder.
Hart and Michaels had worked together before, competing in the WWF's first (albeit unaired) ladder match and first 60-minute Iron Man match. But they were far from friends: Hart thought Michaels was obnoxious and disrespectful; Michaels thought Hart was overpaid and conceited. They began a storyline feud in the summer of '97, each cutting promos that the other believed went over the line. Hart said Michaels had been faking injuries, while Michaels implied that the married Hart was having an affair with WWE valet Sunny. The latter comment led to an actual backstage brawl.
In October, Michaels and Hart confronted each other in the opening segment of Monday Night Raw. Hart described himself as a second-generation wrestler who had paid his dues and dismissed Michaels as a "disgrace," "scum," and a "degenerate." He also called him a "homo" who had "barebacked" his way to the main event (Hart would later apologize for the homophobic remarks, calling them "a stupid mistake"). The comments were what is known in the wrestling business as a worked-shoot—scripted dialogue (a "work") that appears unscripted (a "shoot") and often breaks the fourth wall. "Bret and I were at it again," Michaels wrote in his autobiography Heartbreak & Triumph, "only this time, our personal animosity towards each other blended perfectly within the storyline we were conducting." Hart would turn Michaels' "degenerate" insult into the name of his new stable: the crotch-chopping, stunt-pulling D-Generation X.
Jon Jones hasn't just adopted the "suck it" gesture from Shawn Michaels. His persona was a babyface character engineered to win over fans, media, and sponsors, similar to how Michaels had become a top babyface despite being a backstage politicker and pill-and-booze abuser. The real Jones—the drug dabbler, drag racer, death threat maker—is a heel, as the hot mic incident and his various legal problems have revealed. Michaels would find his greatest success by letting his wrestling character flow from, rather than obscure, his real personality. Jones seems to be following his lead.
And like Bret Hart, Daniel Cormier thinks that his inspiring life story and in-ring ability should be enough to make him a fan favorite, and he views Jones like Hart viewed Michaels: as a real-life bad guy who has pulled the wool over the eyes of everyone, from UFC officials to the media and the fans. Like Michaels and Stone Cold Steve Austin before him, Jones understands that fans want to cheer for bad guys; he has been savvy enough to give them the right thing at the right time, while Cormier has been left behind, astonished that fans have turned him into the heel when by all rights he should be the face. Like Hart on the eve of the WWF's Attitude Era, Cormier seems stuck in the past.
UFC has fought for legitimacy and is supposed to be free of works and worked-shoots, which seems to frustrate Cormier the most. While Jones has looked to Michaels as a lesson, Cormier should look to the Hart as a cautionary tale. In that feud, Michaels eventually won the day, while Hart was run out of the company after the fourth-wall-breaking Montreal Screwjob. Hart eventually mended fences with both Michaels and WWE, but he's not held in the same esteem at the company. At WrestleMania this month, it was Michaels, not Hart, who teamed with Stone Cold Steve Austin and Mick Foley in the center of the ring for the biggest babyface moment of the night.
Since their media day confrontation, the Jones-Cormier rematch has been in jeopardy. Jones received new parole provisions for drag racing, and a week later Cormier pulled out of the fight due to a shin injury. Cormier won't require surgery and is expected back by August or September, when he and Jones will most likely have their rematch (Jones will first have to dispatch Ovince Saint Preux, the sixth-ranked light heavyweight, at UFC 197).
In the meantime, the feud goes on: Jones called Cormier an "absolute coward" and Cormier called Jones a "junkie" and a "hypocrite." In an interview with The MMA Hour, Cormier seemed exhausted by the latest turn in their story. "I don't want to be on this ride with him," he said. "He kind of takes you on this roller coaster ride that's he's had." Cormier might want off the roller coaster, but Jones is clearly enjoying the ride.