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This week’s latest controversy in the life of Jon Jones was a multi-pronged reminder of several inalienable facts, no matter how we might wish these truths were different.
Jones, perhaps the greatest fighter to ever grace a cage, is an antisocial terror behind the wheel of a car, whether his transgressions are relatively inert, like revving his engine with a modified tailpipe in traffic, or legitimately scary, like his penchant for DUIs and in some cases fleeing the scene. Meanwhile, the monstrous Albuquerque Police Department, in the wake of the James Boyd shooting and reaching a settlement last year with the Department of Justice over the DOJ’s scathing report detailing the department’s excessive force and violence, continues to operate however it sees fit.
This column is not a splitting of the pie chart of blame and handing out the appropriate pieces. The question of “Who was right, who was wrong?” when it comes to Jones’ traffic stop and attending officer Jason Brown was tired by Tuesday, mostly because the answer was always obvious. Even if you despise Jones -- the man, the athlete or both -- he was still dealt with in a condescending manner by a smug officer in a with a less-than-pristine history police jurisdiction that loves antagonizing celebrities and quickly leaks information it feels salient to the press.
Yet, even if you’re an anti-police fanatic who loves “Jonny Bones,” feels he broke a silly law and that “drag racing” charges are absurd, he’s still a high-profile athlete with repeated traffic violations rolling around in a souped-up, modified white Corvette and revving his engine for no particular reason, while on probation four weeks before a major fight. Then, the moment he was confronted, he lost his mind and childishly played into the police department’s hands. The resulting fact from these facts: No one is blameless in this brutish, ugly situation where critical cultural issues like police protocol and decorum, racial profiling and celebrity privilege intersect. No matter how you want to frame it, like so many ugly, real-world situations, this scenario isn’t as easy as cops and robbers, goodies and baddies.
Speaking of framing an issue, there’s a surprising, ironic twist here. Another inescapable fact is that Jones, the man, has repeatedly shown a complete lack of common sense and risk management regarding his personal life and automobile engagements; he literally seems unable, even in relatively benign confrontations, to choose a short-term course of action that will lead him to success. This failing runs counter to one of the most lionized traits of Jones, the athlete, who when the gold is on the line always seems to know how, when and what technique with which to attack an opponent. Somehow, the man who was in danger of slipping behind 39-37 on the scorecards against Alexander Gustafsson and either knew or somehow felt it was time to unload the most important spinning back elbow in MMA history and alter the future is the same man who thought his umpteenth traffic violation, this one while on probation, was a good time for his “[expletive] liar” and “pig” routine.
There’s a myriad of ways to compare and contrast Jones the man and Jones the athlete, but this is the one that matters this week, especially since he’s still going to rematch Daniel Cormier at UFC 197 in one of the most important rematches in MMA history on April 23. Jones relies on his instincts at all times. In the cage, they lead him to self-preservation and success; outside the cage, they appear to be geared towards unabashed self-destruction. Even if it’s completely unintentional on his part, this tension between “Jones the Man” and “Jones the Athlete” frames his competitive predicament in a surprisingly sympathetic light, even in the eyes of those who demand greater punishment and accountability for him.
As I just suggested, Jones is no master of planning, a complete failure in matters of social and public relations architecture. In fact, outside of being a vehicular menace, his other notable realm of failure is on social media, with a long history of posting inappropriate things, quickly deleting them and then grinning about it. Thus, it would be a stretch to act as though Jones himself has planned this outcome or intentionally fostered it, but here is the reality: Jones has already cast the die for the Cormier rematch, and it’s a system by which his success will be amplified and his failure mitigated. It’s not “heads I win, tails you lose,” but honestly, it’s not far off.
I previously mentioned Jones’ 2013 “Fight of the Year” classic with Gustafsson, so let’s use it as an example. Despite closing near -1000 on some sportsbooks, Jones prevailed by the skin of his teeth in the championship rounds and turned in the all-time-level fight folks wished he had prior. However, it came as a result of underperformance, due to a focus on partying over preparation. Subsequently, this has become the rubric for assessing not just Jones’ skill and ability but the idea that his greatness is somehow enhanced by not giving maximum effort.
The Gustafsson triumph gave life to a hazy, pseudo-mathematical hypothetical that now encircles every Jones bout and only intensifies when he indulges in antisocial behavior: “If Jones was only fighting at X percent of his potential against Gustafsson, what if he starts fighting at 2x, 3x or some other multiplier?” This narrative gained momentum before his first clash with Cormier, and in the year since has only gained steam. With Jones claiming a rededication to training and collective jaws dropping at the physical gains offered by his new powerlifting routine, the general consensus became “If he beat Cormier at X percent of potential before, surely it will be even more conclusive this time.”
If Jones beats Cormier at UFC 197, or even if he finishes him off inside of 25 minutes, his victory will not be framed as just another rote rematch win or even simply a second victory over a perennially outstanding fighter and Olympian. Jones the athlete -- the spectacular, whirling dervish physiologically designed to destroy other fighters -- will be celebrated not just for defeating Cormier, but his true adversary, Jones the man. Even though his hardships are largely his creations, Jones is now implicitly praised each time he succeeds in the cage, not just for winning but for overcoming his own self-cannibalizing, parasitic demon.
The false man-versus-athlete idea also has ramifications for defeat. If Jones is toppled legitimately by “DC,” yes, there will be the expected schadenfreude for a polarizing figure, as well as pragmatic analysis about how Cormier is “better for business.” However, no one is going to forget Jones’ past calamities, which routinely occur in the midst of training, or the days he spent during a critical juncture of camp in a cell. People will naturally wonder what would’ve happened if Jones didn’t do this and if he had done that instead. The dissonance between Jones the athlete and Jones the man creates a world where no one can really “beat” him, because there’s a tendency to view Jones as his own primary antagonist.
Cormier? His one notable athletic gaffe, not making 211 pounds for the 2008 Olympics after he was elected United States wrestling team captain, was carried as a chip on his shoulder, an inspiration he worked past en route to emerging as an all-time great at 205 pounds. Cormier is always buttoned-up, he is always all-business, so if he retains and legitimizes his 205-pound title, the win will be mired in “What ifs?” A Cormier that falls to Jones is one who did everything in his power to succeed, did everything right, and still failed. A Jones that loses to Cormier is one that pre-empts Cormier’s glory and “ruins his special night,” because so many tacitly accept the notion that any Jones fight is a two-on-one proposition where he must conquer himself and his foe simultaneously.
Here’s another dose of fact-based reality: We can’t measure Jones’ true potential. For this, there is no instrument. We will never be able to retroactively establish that indeed he was only at “50 percent of his potential” against Gustafsson or any other opponent.
Moreover, the idea that there is a polished, perfected version of Jones, one with no horrific social and personal defects, seems asinine for two reasons. One, it’s unclear and increasingly unlikely that Jones will ever take necessary steps to be a more harmonious, responsible citizen. Two, it makes the assumption that a psychologically retooled Jones would invariably be a better fighter, which dismisses how delicate the internal make-up of a pantheon-level prizefighter can be.
I’ve heard this for years as it relates to Mike Tyson: “What if Tyson was more stable? What if he wasn’t so young when he won the title? What if Cus D’Amato had never died? What if sports psychology was a respected field in the 1980s?” We will never know, because history is history and these scenarios did not play out. Undoubtedly, having strong, conscientious figures around him to guide him may have helped Tyson in his career, but it’s impossible to remove the essentially fractured core from a man raised in a socially violent and vile context, especially when he was groomed to be a professional damage-doer from his youth.
The tendency is to view Tyson’s tortured psyche as a bug, but what if it was actually a feature of the product? What if the theoretical kinder, gentler Tyson, who learned how to spend money, control his rage and treat women properly, couldn’t run roughshod over the heavyweight division?
That brings us back to Jones. Should he be hanging out with drug-addled party pals and driving rental cars whenever, wherever? Absolutely not; this is not condoning his behavior, and he and those around him need to actively fight to ensure he’s not going off the rails. However, the red-hot, irrational engine that propels Jones headlong into social train wrecks is still the one that has driven him to possible Greatest of All-Time status. Jones’ instincts for civilian life unequivocally suck, but those same instincts permeate his displays of dominance in the cage. “Devil may care” is a dreadful attitude when you’re on probation in your modified white Corvette and a police officer rolls up to your window, but when Gustafsson is on the precipice of taking everything you’ve got or Cormier is trying to debase, humiliate and conquer you? It might be Jones’ only saving grace.
It is righteous to point out that historically Jones' most dangerous and successful opponent has been himself. However, to compartmentalize Jones the athlete and Jones the man and to pit them against each other is not only philosophically sloppy but predicated on utopian ideas, as if there is no demonstrable correlation between the consensual violence that takes place in cages and its authors’ inability to control their madness outside of it.
We will probably never see “Jon Jones at maximum capacity” and if we did, how would we ever know? Jones the man is not a devil on the shoulder of Jones the athlete. He’s a nasty, unrepentant spirit, but he’s not an external actor; the man himself sits nestled inside the athlete. The man is arrogant, entitled, irrational and violent, but he’s what informs and inspires the athlete. The same man who perfectly knows when to throw the spinning back elbow is the same man who runs away from a hit-and-run, then runs back for a brick of cash. We will never know if he’s an inefficient system or if he’s capable of realizing a mythologized greater “potential.” He’s just 100 percent of himself.