Jon Jones' shadow still looms large as Daniel Cormier prepares for title fight

In the six years since he first made his name by winning the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament, UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier has defeated a litany of high-profile names while building a sure-fire Hall of Fame career. 

Yet there's an unfortunate reality for Cormier the more he tries to distance himself from heated rival Jon Jones and that's the dark shadow that forever follows him. 

Even as Cormier (19-1, 1 NC) enters his title defense on Saturday against Volkan Oezdemir, in the co-main event of UFC 220 in Boston, the topic of Jones inevitably comes up. 

In one sense, that's natural as Cormier, despite his credentials, will always have a Jones-sized hole in his resume until the day he finally beats him. But because of the more complicated aspects to their feud -- including Jones' second failed drug test following his TKO win over Cormier last July, which saw him stripped of the title for a record third time -- it's a shadow Cormier only wishes would go away. 

"It's a little bit of an issue. We're so tied together that it's almost like the things that I have done get lost within the rivalry," Cormier told CBS Radio's "Reiter Than You" on Tuesday. "I've had 20 fights outside of him, and it's almost like those things are ignored because of the fights with Jones and the aftermath and the press conference fight and the drugs and the alcohol and the failed tests." 

Jones (22-1, 1 NC), who initially failed a drug test ahead of his UFC 200 rematch against Cormier that was called off just days before in 2016, likely altered his legacy and reputation for good following the second offense. But one could argue his transgressions had just as big of an effect on how we might remember Cormier. 

From his 2015 loss in their first meeting, to all of the failed attempts at rescheduling their rematch and the tears he shed inside the cage after losing to Jones a second time at UFC 214 via head kick (only for the fight to later be ruled a no contest), Cormier has been through the ringer emotionally because of Jones. 

The fact that Jones, 30, may have cheated during at least some portions of his career only complicates matters. As does the fact that many critics never considered Cormier the real UFC 205-pound champion to begin with when he won it in 2015 against Anthony Johnson after Jones was stripped of the belt for disciplinary reasons. Those same critics feel the same today when Cormier was given back the belt in the aftermath of Jones failing a second test. 

"It's unfortunate that we find ourselves in this situation when what we had would have always been looked on as something so crazy because of the level of the rivalry," Cormier said. "But now it's always got that asterisk next to it and he has kind of put that asterisk next to my career, too."

Despite the devastating punching power of Oezdemir (15-1), his fast-track to a title shot after just one year and three fights in the UFC has been largely helped by a thin division and an injury to top contender Alexander Gustafsson. Many experts look at Saturday's fight as nothing more than a glossy get-well chance for Cormier to re-establish himself as the rightful champion at light heavyweight. 

But that's the thing, even the 38-year-old Cormier will never truly know whether he really is the rightful champion or if he would've defeated Jones, the defining opponent of his career, if all things were equal. Ultimately, it's a road he's not willing to go down. 

"I think that mentality, it would hinder me for a long time," Cormier said. "I won't know. It is what it is. He set up that kick. All fight he did a good job of setting up that kick, and then he got it off. So it is what it is. But I can't let that drag me down anymore. 

"I'm so done worrying about these guys and their issues. All I can be is me: steady, get to the fight, fight to the best of my ability, and hopefully continue to get my hands raised. It's unfortunate, but what are you going to do?"

If all things were fair, Cormier would enter Saturday's fight hearing nothing but questions about Oezdemir. Instead, the talk of Jones still lingers. And there's reason to wonder whether it will only continue. 

Jones, who tested positive for traces of anabolic steroids against Cormier, has claimed the failed test was the result of a tainted supplement. Based upon recent comments by UFC vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitsky, who believes the test indicates "unintentional use" based upon the timing of his failure, there is some optimism that Jones could receive a reduced suspension from the United States Anti-Doping Agency. 

Instead of the two or even maximum four-year suspension that Jones could face as a two-time offender, what if his punishment is reduced to just one year, leaving him eligible for a UFC return this summer? One can only imagine the banging of the drums that might follow for Cormier and Jones to do business a third time. 

For better or worse, Jones will always be the burden on Cormier's back and the first name mentioned above his in the history books. But outside of moving up to heavyweight to chase UFC gold in a second division -- a reality that is just as viable for either man -- the only way for Cormier to change that is to finally slay his great white whale on even terms. 

CBS Sports Insider

Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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