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Top MMA storylines of 2018: 5. Jon Jones suspension, return

Jon Jones Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Jon Jones sat in a ballroom of a chain hotel in Anaheim, Calif. Seven months earlier, he was beating Daniel Cormier to win back the UFC light heavyweight title and cementing his legacy as the best MMA fighter of all time just a few miles away at Honda Center.

Now? He was wearing a white dress shirt and slacks, squirming in his seat as he was asked questions by members of the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC). Jones is comfortable inside the Octagon, sometimes effortless in his execution. He’s not that in this setting, putting his foot in his mouth on more than one occasion.

None of that really mattered anyway. Jones was going to get a sanction, even if he stayed silent. The CSAC decided to revoke Jones’ MMA license and fine him $205,000 as a result of a failed drug test for a banned steroid metabolite in relation to UFC 214 in July 2017. Months before, when news of the positive drug test surfaced, CSAC had overturned his victory over Cormier to a no contest and the UFC stripped him of the light heavyweight belt.

Despite the formalities of the hearing, Jones, his team and fans were still left wondering and waiting. CSAC revoking his license and not setting a suspension length essentially punted that decision to USADA, the UFC’s anti-doping partner. Everyone knew Jones was going to be on ice for awhile, but no one knew how long.

It wasn’t until September — seven months after the CSAC hearing and 14 months after the dirty sample was collected — that Jones found out his fate. After arbitration, Jones was suspended 15 months, retroactive to July 2017. He was eligible to fight Oct. 28, 2018.

USADA stated that it had reduced what could have been a four-year suspension — the maximum for a repeat offender like Jones — to 18 months after Jones provided “substantial assistance,” a provision in the UFC’s anti-doping policy that allows fighters who test positive to get shortened sentences if they provide information on other cases, whether they be doping or criminal.

The 18 months was reduced to 15 months in arbitration, when arbitrator Richard McLaren ruled that he did not believe Jones was intentionally doping, given the amount of the substance found in his system and the timing. Jones passed multiple out-of-competition tests prior to UFC 214 and failed the in-competition test — the one everyone knows is coming. The scenario promoted CSAC executive officer Andy Foster to quip that if Jones was truly drying to dope, he’d be the worst doper in combat sports history.

For many fans, this was the same old story for Jones. As excellent as he was in the Octagon — he’s never been truly beaten — Jones can’t seem to get out of his own way outside of it. There were the DUIs, the hit-and-run charge that caused him to be stripped of the belt the first time and the first PED suspension, which cost him millions as the scheduled main event of UFC 200 against Cormier in 2016.

Jones reigned over the UFC’s vaunted 205-pound division from 2011 to 2015 before most of those issues cropped up. At age 31, “Bones” will be making his third major comeback at UFC 232 on Dec. 29 in Las Vegas. His opponent will be Alexander Gustafsson, who provided Jones’ toughest test in 2013, and the UFC light heavyweight title will be on the line, with Cormier holding the heavyweight belt and making plans in that division.

The final hurdle for this return shot came Dec. 10 in Sacramento when Jones went before the CSAC again. Foster recommended Jones be granted his license back, but not before telling USADA in no uncertain words that he doesn’t want the agency meddling in California’s business anymore. At the same hearing, California commissioner asked Jones to enroll in another anti-doping program, the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency, which has no financial ties to the UFC.

As always, Jones controls his own fate. After nine months of uncertainty this year, the absurdly talented New York native can end 2018 with a bang and ride into 2019 as one of the UFC’s biggest stars once again.

The opportunity remains for him to be seen as the greatest of all time, even after all of the missteps. As long as he can stay inside the Octagon and not veer off into a world filled with commission hearings and court dates.

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