Maybe it started on February 5, 2011, when the then-23-year-old was told that his friend and training partner Rashad Evans had been forced out of upcoming fight with UFC light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and that he, Jones, would be taking his place. Maybe some hint of disaster appeared in that moment, an omen of darkness that so often accompanies early success in America. Because in the lead-up to Jones and Evans’ fight a year later, after questions of team loyalty and ambition had metastasized into rancor, something seemed to turn in Jones, some darkness crept in around the edges of an otherwise wide-eyed and telegenic personality dropped from heaven to be the new ambassador for the UFC just as MMA was finally working its way into the center of the public consciousness. Some innocence and sweetness and joy had drained out of him, replaced by a glimmer of cruelty. Or maybe the war inside Jon Jones began in earnest after he dropped an unconscious Lyoto Machida indifferently to the mat after choking him out in August 2011. Or did it start on May 19, 2012, when the champion drove his brand-new Bentley into a pole in upstate New York while under the influence? When he brawled with Daniel Cormier during a photo op? When he hurled a homophobic slur at a critic on Instagram? When he tested positive for cocaine? Who can say that the demons dividing Jon Jones hadn’t been there along, hiding behind that big smile and all that childlike enthusiasm and impossible talent, just waiting for their moment to pounce, riding in, as they do, on the wings of sudden fame and fortune?
For the most part the war for the soul of Jon Jones has remained there: inside Jon Jones. Even in his darkest personal hours he remained a loyal ambassador. But in recent years (starting, perhaps, when Jones refused to fight Chael Sonnen on eight days’ notice in September 2012 and the UFC was forced to cancel its first event in a decade as result), the UFC’s greatest company man has extended the borders of his struggle to include the UFC itself. Jones’ discontent is no longer merely internalized and tucked away and hidden behind a jovial façade (to be glimpsed only rarely, like when a hot mic captured the champion’s ugly exchange with Daniel Cormier following an interview segment). And something seemed to break in Jon Jones after his arrest earlier this year on hit-and-run charges and the UFC’s subsequent decision to strip him of his belt and suspend him from the promotion, some sense of his place in the world as a glorified spokesman. Jones’ recent reinstatement hasn’t inspired a return of his former corporate devotion. On the contrary, the whole situation appears to have shaken him out of the complacency of his loyalty and gotten the man airing his grievances, for better or worse. Forcing the UFC to air theirs back.
Today, a UFC official told MMAFighting that recent claims made by Jones—that the promotion’s decision to strip him of his belt and suspend him didn’t have to do with Jones’ arrest on April 27 but rather Jones’ declaration to UFC President Dana White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta that he didn’t want to fight Anthony Johnson a month later—were “100% inaccurate.” This official went on to say that White and Fertitta had flown down to Albuquerque the day after the accident to show their support for Jones but that the decision to suspend him and take his belt had already been made.
Jones isn’t having that. Last week he told Ariel Helwani that his refusal to fight Johnson was the deciding factor, not his legal woes. "Obviously, they would have the power to say differently, but I really have a feeling that if I was ready to fight, they would have let me fight," Jones said. Hell hath no fury like a corporation and a superstar in damage control, and nothing tests the bounds of loyalty and the truth like the possibility of bad press. The only question at this point is, Is this the continuation of a longtime falling down or the beginning of a rebirth for Jones, a still-young man who has done his best throughout his short, gilded career to press his luck in the eyes of MMA fans, his fellow MMA fighters, his corporate sponsors, his bosses at the UFC, and the United States legal system, and to squander all the goodwill his talent had earned him? One might assume that lashing out at the promotion that made him and the bosses that groomed him could result in nothing but collapse, but Jones’ comments and the UFC’s retort might just be the next step in Jones’ personal declaration of independence, a move in the direction of himself, an attempt at becoming, at 28, at last a man.
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