By GREG BEACHAM, AP Sports Writer
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Jon Jones reached the pinnacle of mixed martial arts and then fell harder than just about anyone ever had before.
When he got back on top Saturday night by stopping his greatest rival in dramatic style, Jones vowed to appreciate everything he had lost and regained.
Jones reclaimed his UFC light heavyweight title by stopping Daniel Cormier in the third round with a vicious head kick and a finish on the ground at UFC 214, completing his rocky journey back to the top after 2 1/2 years of drama with his 14th consecutive victory.
He fended off a stiff challenge from Cormier (19-2), who held the belt for most of the past two years while Jones (23-1) dealt with self-inflicted setbacks outside the cage. His title belt has been stripped twice, and he endured a yearlong suspension for a doping test failure before returning to beat Cormier for the second time.
“I feel like I’m leaving my past behind me and I’m erasing everything I’ve done before,” Jones said. “I feel like this is a step to a new career, a new championship, and I want to be a better champion than I was in the past.”
After 2 1/2 rounds of even, high-level striking, Jones landed a left head kick that caught Cormier leaning in. The champion staggered backward and then around the cage with Jones in pursuit, and Jones finished the fight on the ground with a series of merciless strikes.
Jones was widely considered the world’s top pound-for-pound mixed martial artist while he held the belt for nearly four years from 2011-15. He beat Cormier by clear decision in their first bout in January 2015, but had fought just one time since.
In contrast to the combative nature of their public dialogue over the past three years , Jones praised Cormier afterward.
“I want to thank Daniel for being my biggest rival and my biggest motivator,” Jones said. “He has no reason to be ashamed. He has been a model champion. I aspire to be a lot more like that man, because he’s an amazing human being.”
Jones also called out former UFC heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar for what would almost certainly be the highest-profile fight in MMA history.
Earlier, Cris “Cyborg” Justino became a UFC champion for the first time at Honda Center, stopping Tonya Evinger in the third round to win the vacant featherweight belt. Tyron Woodley also defended his welterweight title with a clear decision over Demian Maia, thoroughly frustrating the Brazilian jiu-jitsu master in a fight that drew loud boos from the Honda Center crowd.
Former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler squeaked out a unanimous decision victory over Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in another compelling matchup on the UFC’s most stacked card of the summer.
Jones’ next opponent for the 205-pound belt could be Swiss sensation Volkan Oezdemir, who kicked off the pay-per-view show with a sensational 22-second knockout of Britain’s Jimi Manuwa.
But Jones, who did an exuberant cartwheel when he entered the UFC cage for the first time since April 2016, is the UFC’s light heavyweight champion for the third time in his tumultuous career.
Jones lost his belt in early 2015 for his involvement in a hit-and-run accident in which a pregnant woman’s arm was broken. In July 2016, Jones was pulled from a rematch with Cormier for his drug test failure.
Cormier reigned atop the division for most of Jones’ absence, but he realized his glittering title belt was affixed with an enormous asterisk. The 39-year-old ex-Olympic wrestler has been trading verbal shots with Jones ever since one of the best rivalries in MMA history was sparked by their brawl in a casino lobby during a promotional appearance in 2014.
Cormier apparently incurred a concussion during their rematch. He cried in the cage afterward.
Jones’ victory thrilled a crowd that was deflated after Woodley defended his welterweight belt with a strong technical performance against the 39-year-old Maia, a vaunted jiu-jitsu specialist from Brazil. Maia couldn’t get the fight to the ground thanks to the wrestling acumen of Woodley, who patiently stuffed takedowns and grinded out a victory that bored UFC President Dana White.
Afterward, White said Georges St. Pierre will fight middleweight champion Michael Bisping next instead of Woodley. White claimed that “nobody wants to watch Tyron Woodley fight.”
Justino is widely considered the most dangerous pound-for-pound fighter in women’s MMA after a lengthy career spent dominating smaller promotions. She finally claimed a UFC belt by methodically breaking down the tough Evinger, a late replacement opponent fighting 10 pounds above her usual weight.
“I’m really happy to be champion,” Justino said. “This is the perfect time, because I feel I’m at the top of my career.”
Justino, born in Brazil and living in Orange County, has reigned atop the sport for a decade with her fierce, skilled style of fighting. But the UFC didn’t add a 145-pound weight class until last year, and a failed doping test was another obstacle in her meandering path to get into the world’s biggest promotion.
Justino was her usual merciless self against Evinger, but it still took two rounds of work before landing the punches and kicks that ended it.
“I am very happy and proud to own this belt and it will be really hard to take it away from me,” Justino said.
After Oezdemir got the Anaheim fans on their feet with a vicious first-round stoppage for his fifth consecutive victory, Lawler (28-11) and Cerrone kept them up with an entertaining three-round striking exhibition between two of the toughest veterans in the sport. Cerrone (32-9) shrugged after the judges favored Lawler in two of the three rounds.
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