Jon Jones sat atop the octagon. His hands raised in celebration, a smile drawn upon his face. In the far corner Daniel Cormier, his fierce rival, lay unconscious. Jones soaked in the adulation from the Anaheim crowd. He had done it. After all this time, he was finally the world champion again. There was no one to deny him his place in history now. His rank as the greatest was unquestionable, undoubtable and undisputed. Yet, in that moment Jones revelled not in his victory over Cormier, but over a far greater adversary. Himself. The darkness within that caused him to fall so far was gone. The internal madness had been put to rest. All that remained now was greatness.
Jones’ rise to the pinnacle of the light heavyweight division was meteoric. Ravaging through his opponents, the frenzy surrounding Jones escalated when he submitted fellow rising star Ryan Bader at UFC 126. The future of fighting was born and a championship destiny awaited.
It wouldn’t take long for Jones to claim his place at the top. Two months after his victory over Bader, Jones was offered a title shot when his mentor, Rashad Evans, was ruled out of the UFC 128 main event due to an injury. In a one sided beating, Jones put the reign of the great Mauricio Rua to rest becoming the youngest champion in UFC history (a record which still stands). The stars had aligned for the prodigious talent and as the belt was placed around his waist, the young heir had become king.
The Jones era continued with dominant wins over legendary former champions Lyoto Machida and Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson. With every fight, doubters were being silenced and the hype was being proven. Jones was on top of the world and his in ring talents were rewarded with sponsorships, TV appearances, magazine covers and everything in between. He was the gold standard that young fighters aspired to reach. Yet something was amiss.
Rumours had been circulating for a while of the other side of Jon Jones. The one hidden from the public. Whispers of partying, infidelity and drug use were amplified by a DUI arrest only a few weeks before his scheduled fight with Rashad Evans. In the early hours of the morning, Jones drove his car into a pole on the streets of New York. He was arrested and pleaded guilty to driving under the influence. Doubts over his sobriety were now accompanied by questions over his mind set.
Those questions seemed so distant in Anaheim. The crowd was still on its feet as Jones strutted around the octagon. The head kick that put Cormier away was being played on repeat on the big screen. Jones’ coaches, still outside the octagon, hugged him in delirium. They had seen it all. They had been through it all. They stood by him when nobody else did, and now they were back. He was back.
Cormier struggled to his feet, clearly concussed and confused about what had happened. One of the greatest rivalries in the history of combat sports had ended. Jones blew kisses to his family seated at cage side as UFC officials swarmed the octagon. His coaches were now beside him, still unable to restrain their excitement. Jones just smiled and walked around, looking at the crowd. He stood unequalled at the top of the game, again. Big John McCarthy pulled him to the centre of the octagon. It was time for the king to be crowned again. Cormier was in the corner, devastated. Bruce Buffer announced the official decision and Dana White, like he had done so often before, wrapped the title around Jones’ waist.
This wasn’t the first time Jones had beaten Cormier. After defeating Rashad Evans, Jones put together arguably the most impressive championship run in UFC history. Belfort, Sonnen, Gustafsson (who gave him his toughest test) and Teixeira now littered Jones’ CV. With 7 successive title defences, Jones was universally recognised as the best fighter in the world. The future had become the face of fighting. Jones carried an aura of invincibility and was on the verge of becoming a transcendent athlete. Super fights against Anderson Silva and Cain Velasquez were legitimate options.
His presence in public discourse was also on the rise. He became the first UFC fighter to be sponsored by Nike on an international scale and was reaching audiences no other UFC fighter had before.
Cormier stood as the last legitimate threat to Jones’ reign. The rivalry between Jones and Cormier had been brewing for a while. Cormier wasn’t in the UFC when the two began verbally jabbing at each other. Through Cormier’s run at heavyweight and subsequent rise up the ranks at light heavyweight, he had his sight firmly set on Jones. A clash between the two was inevitable. Cormier’s win over Dan Henderson cleared the path for a meeting with Jones.
The build up to the fight was heated. Personal attacks were no uncommon with neither man attempting to hide their disdain for the other. It culminated at a promotional event where the two had a stare down for a promotional photo op. Unable to restrain themselves, an on stage brawl broke out with event organizers struggling to restrain both fighters. Legal ramifications were quick with both men being fined by the athletic commission. Yet, this only served to heighten the anticipation for the fight.
At UFC 182, Jones and Cormier finally stepped into the octagon together. In a near perfect performance, Jones outclassed Cormier over 5 rounds. He became the first man to ever take the former Olympic wrestler down in the process of retaining his title. The biggest perceived threat to Jones’ crown had been discarded with seeming ease. The light heavyweight division was now a wasteland with Jones sitting along on the top of a pile of fallen contenders. There had never been such a complete fighter before. He out struck the best strikers in MMA, out grappled Jiu Jitsu black belts and now outwrestled one of America’s greatest wrestlers.
Yet as the legend of the fighter grew, so did the devil within the man. Jones was still celebrating his victory over Cormier when news broke that he had failed a pre-fight drug test for cocaine. While he was not stripped of his title owing to the non-performance enhancing nature of cocaine, his reputation had nonetheless been stained. If the DUI arrest heightened the speculation around Jones’ personal life, the cocaine violation confirmed it. Something murky hid behind the in ring façade. Jones apology was swift but meaningless. He said he was one and done with it. He said it was a stupid mistake. He said it wouldn’t occur again. Nobody truly believed him. The cracks were beginning to show and persona of perfection that Jones had so carefully cultivated began to fade.
Nobody questioned his athletic prowess or in ring abilities, but doubts were cast over the man. With every interview he sounded more like a salesman completing a pre-written pitch than a fighter talking truth. Questions surrounded every passing comment he made. Was he being genuine? Is this just a PR spin? Who is the real Jon Jones? The love he had craved from an adoring public seemed to be slipping away
At UFC 214, there was no questioning the love that crowd had for Jon Jones. He had overcome the cocaine debacle. He had become more open, more mature, and more honest. People saw and accepted him for who he really was. With the belt strapped around his waist, he fell to his knees in tears. Everything he had been through, everything he had overcome, had led to that moment. He had become who everyone always hoped he would.
He was still fighting back the tears when Joe Rogan put the mic in front of him. He struggled to find the words to describe what he was feeling. “I made it back man. I made it back.” It was over now. The shadow that had hung over him for so long had gone.
He wasn’t just back from a DUI, he wasn’t just back from the cocaine. He was back from a darker place. All the mystery surrounding Jones personal life came to a head on April 28th 2015, less than a month before his scheduled title defence against Anthony Johnson. The Albuquerque Police department confirmed that Jones was being sought in connection with a hit-and-run in the early hours of the morning. Jones, under the influence again, crashed into another car being driven by an expecting mother. In a state of panic, Jones abandoned his car and began running away, only to return, grab a bunch of cash from his car and flee again. Leaving the pregnant woman behind.
Fortunately, neither the mother nor the child were hurt. Upon investigating the scene, police found marijuana and condoms littered across Jones car. His whereabouts were unknown as he was asked to turn himself in. A day later, Jones submitted to the police, was booked and charged. There could be no savvy PR tour to recover from this. Jones had finally beaten himself. With his date in court pending, he was replaced as the main event of UFC 187 by none other than Daniel Cormier. The UFC stripped Jones off his title, he lost almost all of his sponsors, the TV appearances, commercials and magazine covers disappeared and just like that all that Jones had struggled to win was gone.
MMA moved on without him. Daniel Cormier became the light heavyweight champion, Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor took his place as the marquee stars of the sport, and the UFC had blockbuster event after blockbuster event taking the sport to new heights all in Jones’ absence.
Yet Jones was determined not to become a cautionary tale. A thoroughbred who failed to live up to his potential. He didn’t want to look back and wonder what could have been. He was desperate to come back. Late night partying was replaced by power lifting. Drugs and infidelity were replaced by Jiu Jitsu tournaments and extra hours in the gym. Jones even managed to avoid jail time for the hit and run. He was mandated to speak to children’s groups to mentor them to not make his mistakes.
It was a long road, but Jones finally had his life back on track. He sat before the media at the post fight press conference at UFC 214 a mature, self-aware and reflective man. He didn’t hide from his misdemeanours or deny his wrongdoings. For the first time he sounded genuine. The real Jon Jones, not the caricature he wanted us to see, had finally arrived. The championship belt glistened beside him as he commanded the room. This was the happiest Jones had been for a long time and was in stark contrast to his last press conference.
Jones and Cormier were scheduled to fight at UFC 200. The biggest event in the company’s history demanded one of its greatest rivalries at the top of it. Cormier carried the belt that Jones once had, a belt Jones never lost in the cage, and a belt Jones still believed to be his. MMA fans, longing to see the return of Jon Jones after more than a year, viciously booed Cormier at every turn. Cormier was the paper champion, standing in the way of the man people still saw as the rightful ruler.
A few days before the fight, the UFC held its traditional pre-fight press conference. After a few oral jabs, the media dispersed and Jones and Cormier returned to their hotel rooms. Later that night, the UFC requested the media to reassemble. A second, late night press conference was hastily put together. Nobody knew why, but it couldn’t have been good. Amidst the confusion, Dana White stood at the podium and announced that Jones vs. Cormier 2 was off. Jon Jones had failed a USADA drug test and was no longer eligible to fight. On the biggest night in the promotions history, Jones had let everyone down, again. Jones held his own press conference a few hours later. In tears, he apologised to Cormier and the UFC and vehemently protested his innocence. His words fell on deaf ears. The game had run its course. Nobody could trust Jones anymore. A DUI, cocaine, a hit and run and now steroids. The scroll against Jones was long. A USADA violation not only damaged him but also a young sport desperate to shave off its steroid riddled past. This damaged the sanctity of the sport and the reputation of the UFC as much as it hurt Jones.
Jones received a one year suspension. He missed his chance to headline UFC 200. He missed his chance to headline the first ever MMA fight card at Madison Square Garden (in his hometown of New York), he would miss out on millions of dollars and would miss another year in the prime of his career. Once again the sport moved on without him.
The yearlong suspension culminated with Jones ending his rivalry with Cormier. The post-fight conference in Anaheim was the first time questions surrounding Jones’ future were positive. For the first time, there wasn’t a dark horizon closing in. In a barren year for MMA, Jon Jones became the star the UFC desperately needed. A rematch of his classic fight with Alexander Gustafsson and a long awaited move to heavy weight to face champion Stipe Miocic or superstar Brock Lesnar were all very real, very exciting possibilities. Jones would finally become who he always could be. Ultimately, his story would be one of redemption and triumph over the inner demons that sought to hold him down. The years of turmoil and disappointment were done, nothing could go wrong now.
Or so it would seem.
Earlier this week, news broke that Jones had been cited for another USADA violation. Traces of performance enhancing drugs were found in his system. A potential 4 year suspension awaits, a suspension that could very well spell the end of Jon Jones’ career. His victory over Cormier will likely be overturned, his title will likely be once again taken away from him, and his redemption story will likely be discarded as a lie. His claim to being the greatest fighter to ever walk the Earth will almost certainly be rejected. The career of Jon Jones will be looked at with cynicism rather than applauded in awe. All those big wins, all those historic moments, will be viewed with disappointment and sorrow. Jones, despite his best efforts, failed to overcome himself. When the story of Jon Jones is told, it will unfortunately be one of unfulfilled potential. Of a man so talented, yet so misguided. Questions of who he could have been, what he could have achieved and where he could have reached will forever remain unanswered.
Jon Jones seems destined to become that which he so desperately wanted to avoid; the tragic figure in a cautionary tale.