Strip away all of the extracurriculars that have plagued Jon Jones in recent years—a tall order, I know—and his record in the cage still stands as a certified athletic marvel. Never truly bested by an opponent in a decade of action, Jones may be the best to ever do it in a cage. And of all his wins, his most meaningful may well be the one that took place in September 2013. At UFC 165, against an opponent for whom he had little regard at the time, Jones was pushed to the brink.
As the championship rounds unfolded against Alexander Gustafsson on that September night in Toronto, Jones found himself in an unfamiliar place—trailing on the judges’ scorecards for the first time in what was already a storied career. As the fourth round ticked away, it looked as if he was going to lose that one, too, until .... He spun and cracked Gustafsson with a back elbow, wobbling the challenger and recapturing the momentum that ultimately led him toward victory.
The image of Jones and Gustafsson together in the hospital, both bruised and beaten, remains an indelible one in MMA, for symbolizing both the honor of the sport as well as Jones’ indomitable will to win.
The only thing he has struggled to conquer is himself.
At the time of that victory, Jones was just 26 years old, with seemingly miles of road before him, yet since that noteworthy win, he has done as much to damage his legacy as he has to bolster it. Since the start of 2014—a span nearing five years—Jones has fought only four times. Meanwhile, his list of transgressions is far longer; he’s been suspended three times, had lineal or interim championships stripped three times, been to drug rehabilitation twice and been arrested once. It is not a pretty picture, much of his prime falling to waste.
On Wednesday, his return bout from a 15-month suspension was announced. He has been pitted in a rematch against his longtime rival Gustafsson at UFC 232, putting Jones on a path back to the place where he seems most at peace. In the cage, he is both improvisational and powerful, and those traits serve him well; in his personal life they have led him to too many bouts of trouble.
While USADA arbiter Richard McLaren—a well-respected investigator in the field—determined that Jones was “not intentionally cheating,” and offered a reduction “based on degree of fault,” he noted in his report that Jones acknowledged his use of street drugs including cocaine both before and after his positive PED test, which sounds quite negligent for someone already carrying around multiple strikes.
While few want to legislate morality, and while Jones’ damaged reputation is a penalty of its own, all of this adds up to a disturbing set of circumstances. First, because a human life and the welfare of an individual (and by extension, a family) is at stake; second, because we quite selfishly want to see just how great he can be.
Jones was the guy who was the embodiment of evolution in the sport. He is tall and rangy, cerebral and imaginative, calculated and creative. He fused his physical traits and intellectual gifts into an unstoppable collection of skills and actions. He was the future.
We don’t know if he still is. After a half-decade of spotty activity, Jones is no longer the kid with the future stretching endlessly into the horizon. He is still younger than most in his division, but he’s not that young. The average age of the top 15 light-heavyweight contenders is 32.3; Jones is now 31. While he still has time to add to his accomplishments, after 10 years as a pro, it’s likely he’s on the back side of his career, at least as an elite fighter. After all, how many athletes are still excelling at 40?
Anyway, chronological age is not always as strong a predictor of struggle as years of experience is. Several years ago, journalist David Williams offered a “9-Year Rule,” which evaluated the careers of over 300 fighters and found that win rates take a drastic dip after a ninth year of competition.
There are outliers to this of course; fighters like Michael Bisping, Robbie Lawler and Fabricio Werdum won their first UFC titles more than a decade into their respective careers, but it should still be a sobering thought for Jones to consider that the percentages are, like his detractors and prospective opponents, against him.
At any rate, he should be considering more than just winning another title, anyway. While he will have the opportunity to again regain the UFC light heavyweight championship—and he’s favored to do so—his real goals should be character-related.
Repairing a reputation is not an overnight endeavor. It requires effort, consistency and accountability, along with a capable and rigid support system. Jones could do worse than taking his first step in that process against the man who forced him to dig deeper and ask more of himself than anyone else. In that moment, Jones learned that he was capable of overcoming cascading adversity. Now his task is to do the same both professionally and personally.