UFC 285: Why the return of the promotion’s Prodigal Son, Jon Jones, is a complicated one
Love him or hate him, the greatest fighter in UFC history returns on Saturday in search of a second title in so many divisions.
If Jon Jones (26-1, 1 NC) defeats Cyril Gein (11-1) for the vacant heavyweight title to headline UFC 285 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (10 pm ET, ESPN+ PPV), he will almost certainly strengthen his position. his GOAT MMA status However, if the 35-year-old former light heavyweight king loses cleanly, it will be the first time in his storied (and often turbulent) career.
It goes without saying how big the stakes are for Jones as he looks to receive a three-year layoff stemming from his controversial 2020 win over Dominick Reyes that saw the Bones vacate their 205-pound title by announcing a move to heavyweight , which has been teased for nearly a decade. But given his detailed history of public missteps, it’s hard to see how fans and the media should take him upon his return.
It’s also hard to find another athlete in sports history with a legacy as frustratingly unique as the Rochester, New York native.
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On the one hand, Jones is the greatest fighter the UFC has ever known. He remains the closest thing to Tiger Woods in MMA and became the first UFC fighter to be sponsored by Nike (his first signature shoe sold out online in less than two minutes in 2013.). Jones also still holds the UFC record for most title fight wins (14), combined title defenses (11), light heavyweight wins (20) and the youngest champion (23 years 243 days) in the promotion’s history.
However, the other side of Jones’s legacy is disturbing. Stripped of the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship three times due to substance abuse, failed drug tests, and countless violations of the law – a recurring theme that only continued during his extended hiatus – Jones could just as easily be seen as the brightest example of a cautionary tale. UFC leaving historians wondering what could have been.
“I feel like we all have multiple sides, and if you don’t, I feel sorry for you,” Jones said. during the show “UFC 285 Countdown”. “We have our goals, we have our failures. We have an idea of who we want to be, and then there is the person we really are. It’s really just a person.”
However, with the recent departure of former heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou to free agency after he and UFC management failed to agree on a new deal, Jones’ return seems like something of a saving grace for the promotion. Not only can Jones fill an Ngannou-sized hole in the division, but he is returning to UFC favor at a time when star power is largely lacking among its elite fighters.
However, this narrative is not without holes, mainly because Jones was inactive long before Ngannou captured the UFC title in 2021. previously he himself was at odds with the leadership of the UFC because of money. A superfight between Ngannou and Jones at heavyweight could have been one of the biggest and most important fights in the company’s history, but Jones decided to return only immediately after Ngannou’s departure (with Ngannou reportedly turning down record money, much of it likely went to Jones instead, as part of his restructured deal).
Jones has been similarly hypocritical lately when asked about Ngannou, who ultimately chose the freedom to make big money in boxing over the UFC’s financial offer, citing a lack of respect from the promotion and their unwillingness to discuss his demands for medical attention and better treatment. fighters. .
Five weeks ago, Jones praised Ngannou for his principles in a series of social media posts, saying: “I’m glad Francis knows his worth. No man has the right to shame another man for fighting for his worth.” Earlier this week, in an interview with RMC SportJones completely changed his tune.
“I don’t think I deserve any criticism,” Jones said. “I’m here. Francis had the opportunity to meet with me, and he turned down the opportunity. If anyone should be criticized, it is Francis Ngannou. the opportunity to be a guy to overthrow me. He didn’t believe in himself. Francis did not believe in himself. He didn’t want to risk himself.”
I found an interview with Francis in which he talked about how he will forever remain the undisputed champion because no one has beaten him. As soon as I saw this, my tone changed. I thought I’d tell you what I really felt. He made the right decision, he left before I got back. Smart move!
— BONY (@JonnyBones) February 25, 2023
Given Jones’ outspoken history as a Christian, complete with the Philippians 4:13 Bible verse tattooed on his chest, some have compared his return to the UFC after so many mistakes (most of which would have resulted in the firing of a lesser-loved fighter) to the parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15 :11-32. Only the bigger question is not whether President Dana White and UFC executives will embrace Jones with open arms (they already have), but whether MMA fans will do the same on Saturday.
Based on history, Jones has long been a “Teflon John” in terms of preventing a total derailment due to the lasting effects of his actions. Whether it be in the form of getting endorsements in hand-to-hand combat, avoiding retirement sanctions, or surviving the court of public opinion, for a long time it seemed like MMA fans were willing to release Jones from contempt or withholding financial support for his fights in exchange for the chance to witness greatness.
Seeing Jones return to the promotion’s promotional machine with appearances both on the UFC Embedded pre-fight docu-series and hearing him speak at Wednesday’s media day was a reminder of how long it has been since Jones has been an active fighter.
For the record, Jones was utterly unwilling to address his recent legal setbacks when media representatives suggested a tense “next question” instead. This includes a 2021 arrest in Las Vegas for assaulting his children’s mother in front of them after a UFC Hall of Fame ceremony and his arrest for drunk driving a year earlier in his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico when Jones also accused of negligence. using firearms and driving without insurance.
However, Jones spoke in general terms about his life path in general and how he hopes to be accepted for the very public ups and downs he has experienced.
“I have some regrets in life, but for the most part I understand that if you have the opportunity and ability to be really good at something, then you have to do it,” Jones said. “You owe it to people who can’t do what you do, who don’t get the opportunities you have. I am indebted to them to prove myself and do it.
“My motivation is to become the best person I can be, be a reflection of God’s love and forgiveness, and ultimately make fans around the world see the Christ within me. None of us are perfect and we all have flaws. and downfalls in life. I sincerely believe that my imperfection makes me attractive to many people.”
One thing that Jones has been very candid about in the lead-up to the Gein fight is the changes made in recent years by USADA that no longer consider PED tests showing less than 100 picograms per milliliter of a banned substance as a positive test, which would exempt Jones from testing. and the sanctions he faced for tests collected after his 2017 knockout of Daniel Cormier (later changed to no contest) and prior to his 2018 victory over Alexander Gustafsson, which showed signs of a ripple for the steroid turinabol.
I feel officially acquitted. None of my performances will have an asterisk. It’s good that the rest of the world can see what I’ve known all along. My only advantage over my competitors was pure hard work.
— BONY (@JonnyBones) February 21, 2023
“I am grateful to be an athlete who fought the system, who could allow lawyers and scientists to prove my innocence,” Jones said. “I believe that I – I don’t know if this is the word – carried a cross or a bullet for the rest of the athletes, but I was the first who had to go through this. People thought I was a fraud. Now, if the same rule had been applied then, it would never have made it to the media and become a problem.
“I’m glad I did it because some of these young fighters wouldn’t be able to survive something like that. They would be downsized or couldn’t afford lawyers, so I took a bullet for the sport. , for Major League Baseball, and I’m glad future fighters can avoid what I’ve been through. It was hell being considered a steroid scam and I’m glad now people can clearly see what I’ve never been and I feel free.”
Jones’ decision to clear his name of any historical wrongdoing brings with it a small problem. Not only was Jones stripped of his title after a 2015 win over Cormier in which he tested positive for cocaine metabolites, he was pulled from a scheduled UFC 200 rematch against Cormier in 2016 after testing positive for clomiphene and letrozole. , banned substances that can be used as masking agents for other PEDs.
Nothing in Jones’ career was black and white…