LAS VEGAS — Daniel Cormier wore the conflict on his beaming face when he got the UFC’s light heavyweight title belt strapped around his waist in the same Vegas cage where he failed to win it a few months ago.
While Cormier knew he could celebrate the biggest night of a fighting career that began in poverty and reached incredible heights, the new champion also realized a bigger bout casts a shadow over this achievement.
“I have a message for one man,” Cormier said in the cage. “Jon Jones, get your (stuff) together. I’m waiting for you.”
Cormier beat Anthony “Rumble” Johnson with a rear naked choke in the third round, dominating on the ground to win the vacant 205-pound title at UFC 187 on May 23.
Cormier (16-1) controlled Johnson (19-5) throughout the final two rounds at the MGM Grand Garden to claim the title stripped from Jones, who was suspended indefinitely by the UFC last month after his arrest when police said he left the scene of a car accident.
Cormier lost a decision at UFC 182 in January to Jones, widely considered the world’s best mixed martial artist. When Jones’ career imploded last month, Cormier agreed to replace him on less than four weeks’ notice, coming through with a dominant effort and ending Johnson’s nine-fight winning streak.
The performance allowed Cormier to celebrate his second major MMA championship, along with his Strikeforce heavyweight title. He repeatedly said he didn’t feel the need to qualify his achievement against Jones’ misfortunes, even while he did exactly that.
“That’s a gold belt,” Cormier said, indicating the hardware before him at the post-fight news conference. “That thing is reserved for the UFC champion. I didn’t disqualify myself from competition. Jon did. Jon is the pound-for-pound No. 1 fighter in the world. We all know that, but he disqualified himself from competition.”
Jones is expected to get an immediate title shot when he returns to the UFC, and Cormier realizes his cathartic victory over Johnson will ring hollow to others until he beats Jones.
“We’re so tied together, Jon and I, and I don’t think that’s going to change until we fight again,” Cormier said. “He beat me last time, but even in that, you don’t stop believing in yourself. I still think I can beat him, and I would love to compete against him again.”
Cormier was knocked down for what he said was the first time in his MMA career by a huge right hand from Johnson in the opening minute, but Cormier recovered and survived the round.
Cormier then lifted Johnson off his feet early in the second, dumping him onto the canvas and taking ground control for a dominant round that left Johnson blinking blood out of his eyes.
Cormier was clinical in his finish, getting control on the ground again before forcing Johnson to tap out 2:39 into the third round.
“He did everything I thought he was going to do,” said Johnson, who has revitalized his career after getting dropped by the UFC in 2012. “I have nothing but respect for him. Have you seen the size of his melon? I wasn’t surprised he could take (the punches).”
Chris Weidman also defended his middleweight title in the final undercard fight of a thoroughly entertaining show in the UFC’s hometown, stopping Vitor Belfort in the first round with a relentless series of punches on the ground.
Weidman (13-0) survived an early scare from Belfort and quickly took control of his third title defense, taking down the 38-year-old Belfort (24-11) and battering his head against the canvas until referee Herb Dean stopped the bout with 2:07 left. The Long Island native walked around the cage with an American flag on his back in celebration.
“He hit me with some good shots, but I’ve been there in sparring,” Weidman said. “I was just covering, covering, covering, and I was ready to come back.”
Belfort hadn’t fought since late 2013, waiting 18 months for his shot to become the third fighter in UFC history to win belts in two weight classes.
The former light heavyweight champion won three fights with spectacular head-kick knockouts in 2013, but his late-career resurgence was colored by his enthusiastic embrace of testosterone replacement therapy, a medical loophole that allowed several UFC fighters to legally compete on steroids until the Nevada Athletic Commission and the UFC eliminated it last year.
“He got me in a bad position, and he got some strikes,” Belfort said. “There’s no excuse. He was a better man tonight.”
Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone earned his eighth consecutive lightweight victory earlier, apparently breaking John Makdessi’s jaw with a kick to the head in the second round.
Former heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski also stopped Travis Browne with 19 seconds left in the first round of a fantastic brawl named the Fight of the Night.
The incredibly busy Cerrone’s eighth win in just over 18 months should lead to a title shot against Rafael Dos Anjos, who sent Cerrone to his last defeat in August 2013.
“I think I might get this title by default sooner or later, huh?” Cerrone asked.
Arlovski and Browne are friends outside the cage, and they put on a spectacular show, with both heavyweights badly hurting each other in less than five minutes of frenetic action. Arlovski twice knocked down the heavily favored Browne, who also floored Arlovski with a huge right hand.
Arlovski eventually finished Browne upright against the cage with several enormous shots. “I hope tonight isn’t going to affect our friendship,” Arlovski said. “I love him like a brother.”
(GREG BEACHAM, AP Sports Writer)