Like it or not, in 2016 Jon Jones will fight again. Maybe it'll happen in April at Madison Square Garden if the New York legislature comes to its senses. Maybe it'll happen at UFC 200. It will almost certainly happen against Daniel Cormier, Jones' 205-pound nemesis. Judging by his progress pics and claims of squat and deadlift numbers that would impress a keg-hurling strongman, Jones might not stay a non-heavyweight for long. More importantly, the next time Jon Jones fights will be the first time after a year in which his personal problems defeated him in ways other opponents couldn’t: a positive drug test for cocaine, a halfhearted single-day stint in rehab, a three-car accident of his own making that injured a pregnant woman, a felony charge for leaving the scene, and a long road to make amends.
So when Jon Jones returns, what should we make of him?
First, we need to remember his arrival. I saw Jones fight in June 2008, and he was just another semi-anonymous fighter on a Friday night fight card at a Shriners auditorium north of Boston when he notched a 36-second KO over Parker Porter. Truthfully, I don't remember much of the fight—the only streaming video of the bout that lives on the Internet is actually a mislabeled clip of one of Jones' earlier contests. It wasn't enough time to get an impression of Jones or of what he might become, but it was enough to bolster his reputation among the Northeast's fight aficionados. The not-yet-21-year-old from the fertile acres of upstate New York had steamrolled all of his opponents to date—three alone that previous April. They talked about him with awe.
By August 2008, Jones was in the UFC, and everyone else saw what they saw. Jones spoke a fight vocabulary that his wrestle-boxer peers didn’t—all elbows and suplexes and spinning shit strung into a syntax of viciousness. His backstory couldn’t have been more frustrating to gym rats who compensated for natural gifts with hours of effort: sandwiched between two brothers who stood out on the gridiron and eventually made it to the NFL, all Jones had to do to channel his modest wrestling accolades into instant MMA success (and funds for his unborn child) was watch YouTube videos and give it a try. He took up with Jackson-Winkeljohn in Albuquerque, mauled his way through seven fights, faced "Shogun" Rua on short notice in spring 2011, and with a one-sided beating became the youngest-ever UFC champion. In his first several title defenses, Jones barely saw adversity—there was the first round against Lyoto Machida and finding himself on the wrong end of Vitor Belfort's juiced-up armbar attempt—but those moments were blips on the straight line to dominance. And increasingly, Jones hijacked his opponents' best weapons to prove he could use them better than they did—the case study is his clinch- and takedown-heavy beating of Chael Sonnen.
Whatever superlative performances he put on in the Octagon, Jon Jones' mixed martial arts career has been as much about the clash between his public and private identities. Normal folks afford themselves the right to be different people at work and at home without seeing a conflict in duality, but that right wasn't afforded to Jones. Around the escalation of his rivalry with former teammate Rashad Evans, vague charges that he was "fake" started dogging Jones, yet when the cameras and microphones were in his face, Jones was a spokesman in the making—a squeaky-clean Pentecostal Christian who played by the rules and definitely didn’t do drugs. "I'm no angel, but I was always the kid who snitched on the kids who had pot," Jones told Sherdog in 2009. "I don't want to offend the pot smokers out there, but I was kind of just a snitch. I was just down for people doing the right thing."
How do you not laugh reading that quote now, after you've seen Jones' Instagram post with a hash pipe mistakenly on the countertop behind him and after you've learned that police found a pipe in the car he fled after the car accident last April? Or in his reemergence in an interview with MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani, after he talked about having problems with marijuana and alcohol but definitely not cocaine? Athletes lead public and private lives, and Jones was doing the things that countless pro athletes (and 20-something males) do while managing to remain the best MMA fighter in the world. Even after following his lopsided defeat of Evans with a DUI charge, Jones kept burning the candle at both ends without paying many professional costs: he earned blue-chip sponsorships and a lethargic training camp before fighting Alexander Gustafsson still culminated with Jones winning razor-thin rounds. He was winning just like he always had.
Soon after, Jones began to emphatically shed the good-guy image in irreparable ways. Deleted social media posts became his go-to mode of communication. After lining up Cormier for a title defense, Jones instigated a press conference brawl at the MGM Grand. He called Cormier "pussy" when he thought ESPN's cameras weren't rolling, and after beating Cormier last January he said: "I don't respect Daniel Cormier. I hope he's somewhere crying right now." Then Jon Jones the good guy unraveled further and in darker ways, testing positive for cocaine after the fight and doing a perfunctory and halfhearted stint in rehab. Then, after a debauched night in the lead up to his next title defense against Anthony Johnson, Jones ran a red light and it changed the complexion of his immediate future. He sat quietly on the sidelines, waiting for a court date and a plea deal. In the meantime, Cormier won and defended the title that Jones vacated, kindly asking the deposed champion to get his shit together.
If we're being honest, the absence of Jon Jones has only illustrated just how badly the UFC's light heavyweights need him. Without Jones, Cormier is an imperfect champion—that his epic pay-per-view fight with Gustafsson undersold is evidence—and he knows his legitimacy depends on a Jones rematch. Unless it involves punches and kicks, the MMA-viewing audience won't accept a defeat from sheer hubris. And Jones needs his fellow light heavyweights just as much: before he moves up a weight class, he needs a capstone performance to remind us that he's simply leaving and not running away.
Granted, a returning Jones needs genuine contrition. There were real, catastrophic consequences to his misbehavior that he narrowly escaped—I would be writing very different things about a return of Jon Jones if that car wreck had done lasting damage to anything that wasn’t on wheels, if he returned at all. And an honest effort to vanquish the bad habits that made personal vice such a big part of the Jon Jones' narrative in 2015 is as vital for his own wellbeing as his family's.
But as for the Jon Jones those rest of us only know from a distance, he owes nothing else except to finish his court-ordered community service. Still, he'll fight again. You know he will. And it will be different from back when he was tearing through unknowns in the Northeast and talking about narcing on his friends. He'll bear the scars of 2015. And if we're lucky, the return of Jon Jones might offer an answer to a persistent question: what happens if the best fighter in the world stops sabotaging himself?
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