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The Great Divide: Should the UFC strip Jon Jones of his championship?

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

Over a week ago, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones was arrested on charges of aggravated DWI and negligent use of a firearm, among other things, in the early morning hours in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The incident came to a swift resolution as Jones reached a plea deal earlier this week, but while his legal case is resolved, it is unknown how—if at all—his MMA career will be affected. With that murky backdrop, Alexander K. Lee and Mike Chiappetta examine whether after his latest offense, Jones should be stripped of the title yet again.

YES, SOMEONE HAS TO DRAW A LINE FOR JONES AND IT STARTS HERE

Lee: We’ve been here before.

They’ve stripped him of a championship. It didn’t take.

But the UFC shouldn’t give up on doing its part to rehabilitate Jon Jones. And that means doing everything in its power to let him know that his outside-of-the-cage behavior will not be tolerated.

Take away his title. Again. Then deny him another shot until he proves that he can keep his nose clean. Monitor his behavior. No more run-ins with the Albuquerque PD. No more run-ins with any law-enforcement entities, ideally. No more getting caught out at the strip club, night club, fight club, whatever clubs it is that he’s part of, throw up that metaphorical velvet rope. Stay at home, be a good partner, a good father, a good role model.

Even if it’s all just for appearances, make sure he keeps it together for a year. 12 months, zero trouble. These are the basic guidelines the UFC should lay out for him before guaranteeing him anything.

No more immediate title shots. He hasn’t fought in a non-title fight since Feb. 5, 2011. Remind him what that felt like. Let him main event, but keep him off of pay-per-view. Goodbye bright lights of Vegas, hello medium-sized fight night in the middle of nowhere. Yes, this will cost the UFC a lot of money and on paper appear like promotional malpractice. But it can afford it. What it can’t afford is one of its biggest stars messing up again, possibly with dire consequences that are far more dire, and dragging everyone down with him.

Jones is unassailable inside the octagon, so hit him where it hurts the most. His wallet. It’s like Larry says to Budd in Kill Bill Vol. 2, “F*cking with your cash is the only thing you kids seem to understand!”

Prosecutors failed to even give Jones a slap on the wrist for his latest infraction; if anything, it was more like a sensual massage. I suppose they did what they could given Jones’s influence and resources, not to mention the myriad ways in which celebrities can navigate the legal system. But the UFC doesn’t have to abide by any such rules. It has shown time and time again that it makes its own rules and enforces them with terrifying capriciousness. It’s time for the promotion to turn its gorgon-like head at Jones.

No more pay-per-view points. No more using his reputation as a “complicated figure” to sell his fights. Treat him like what he is. An undisciplined man-child who needs to grow up fast before he hurts himself or someone else.

The UFC has stripped champions in the past for a variety of reasons. Inactivity due to injuries. Failed drug tests. Refusal to fight a certain opponent. Legal issues. Fighters have been punished far more for far less than the amount of dreadful headlines that Jones has been responsible for over the past few years. One of the major problems is that he knows his value to the company and because of that awareness he can’t help but push the boundaries of conduct.

So the UFC should redefine his value. Show him what it has shown so many stars in the past, that no one man is bigger than the promotion. Don’t do it to save face. Do it to save Jones from self-destruction.

It’s the perfect time to do it too with fan-friendly contenders like Dominick Reyes, Thiago Santos, and Anthony Smith in prime position to step into that top spot. No, none of them are likely to ever have the box office cachet of Jones nor the indomitable aura that has made him one of the sport’s biggest stars for the better part of the last decade. But you don’t always need a star. In the shadow of someone like Jones, maybe you just need one or two dedicated fighters to carry the torch and keep the way lit.

Then when the time is right—if it ever is—Jones can be permitted to return. After he’s fought his way back to the top. After he’s taken care of what needs to be taken care of in his personal and private life. After he realizes that while he’s a champion in MMA, he’s just another person working his way through the ranks in real life, just like the rest of us, and that the status he covets can so easily be taken away from him.

Taking away a gold trinket isn’t going to change Jon Jones overnight. But it’s the first step to him salvaging the last chapters of his career.

NO, JONES NEEDS A PERSONAL RECKONING, NOT A PROFESSIONAL ONE

Chiappetta: I can understand why people are quick to suggest that Jones should be stripped of the belt. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the UFC should take some punitive action against him to supplement the penalty he will pay as the result of a plea bargain with New Mexico authorities, which includes 48 hours of community service, a $500 fine, and a 90-day drug treatment outpatient program, among other things. After all of his legal incidents, Jones has clearly not figured out a way to stay out of trouble, and the UFC would be sending a message that they do not condone this type of behavior.

The problem is, they’ve already sent this particular message to him. Multiple times, actually. He’s already been stripped of the belt in April 2015 and November 2016, and it’s been but a bump in the road for him. Jones has been the rare fighter to hit the disciplinary superfecta. He’s been disciplined by his promotion, by state athletic commissions (Nevada and California), by independent anti-doping agencies (USADA), and by state judicial agencies (New York and New Mexico). That’s a lot of mea culpas he’s handed out, and a lot of sanctions he’s had to face down. Yet there’s been no long-term fix to his problem. And every time he’s returned, it’s been directly into another championship match, making the penalties he’s faced ultimately quite benign.

Even in the last few years, attitudes toward people with substance-abuse issues have been evolving. Many states have implemented criminal justice reforms to create a less punitive and more rehabilitative approach, and given the evidence that punishment doesn’t work, I have come around to the thinking that Jones’ problems do not require a professional reckoning but a personal one. All of his issues seem to have a common ingredient: drug and/or alcohol use. That is ultimately not the UFC’s problem but his own. He needs to take responsibility for his actions and commit to sobriety, because whatever he’s done in the past has not worked. Or perhaps more pointedly, he has not been ready to truly commit himself to any of those solutions.

Whatever penalties he’s already faced—and there have been plenty of them—have not caused a change in his behavior. It must come from within. If that requires him to surrender the belt and take a hiatus for rehabilitation, that is what he should do.

Recently, Jones released a statement indicating an acknowledgement of his problem, saying, “I accept full responsibility for my actions and I know that I have some personal work to do which involves the unhealthy relationship I have with alcohol.”

We have heard him say similar things in the past, so that alone is only a single step on any potential path toward redemption, but every great journey starts with a single foot forward. Hopefully this is the one that sticks.

Let’s be blunt here: is stripping Jones anything other than a token move? While it is an asterisk on his record, there is little teeth to the punishment if the UFC places him right back into a title fight upon his return, as they have done in the past.

There was a time when the UFC published a “Fighter Conduct Policy,” a contractual provision that detailed the legal and ethical responsibilities of UFC fighters. Under that policy, Jones would be subject to such discipline, but that code has been mostly forgotten over the last few years, and the UFC has said nothing beyond a short statement that they were aware of the situation and “currently gathering additional information.”

Since Jones has pleaded guilty, there is nothing more to gather, but the UFC has yet to hand out any discipline. That may because they are currently 100 percent focused on finding a home for the likely doomed UFC 249 event, but it also might be because they don’t plan to do anything at all while hoping his arrest fades into history as other headlines pop up. Frankly, we should be more hopeful that they offer Jones some sincere and meaningful help during this time, but we shouldn’t expect them to solve this problem for him, and frankly, past evidence suggests penalties against him won’t work.

This is a Jon Jones problem, and it requires a Jon Jones solution.

Poll

Should the UFC strip Jon Jones of the light heavyweight title?

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    No
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