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If the Ultimate Fighting Championship still gave individual titles to its pay-per-view events like it did over the nineties and noughties, an appropriate tagline for Jon Jones’ return fight at UFC 232 would be “Unrepentant.” For after three suspensions over three and a half years -- all the result of his perilous lack of judgment -- Jones still talks and acts like some kind of martyr.
“[A]t the end of the day, we all have done things that we’re not proud of; we’ve all made mistakes. The difference is you can google me” he said at the UFC 232 press conference to promote his rematch with Alexander Gustafsson, one of many deflections and platitudes he would dispense over the 30-minute event. He charmingly declined to address apparent contradictions between the arbitration award concerning his reduced United States Anti-Doping Agency penalty -- which spotlighted “substantial assistance” Jones provided in relation to other USADA investigations and sanctions -- and his comments after the fact; and when asked what he had learned during his time away from the sport, he seemed, for an uncomfortably long period of time, unable to come up with an answer.
It’s 2018, and Jones is back for the third act of his never-ending comeback story. However, with so little in the way of demonstrable contrition, it’s hard to buy into the idea he’ll be sticking around long enough to let his athletic achievements paper over his seemingly endless list of missteps. “The boy who cried wolf” is a good point of reference for why Jones’ promises - to headline a show at Madison Square Garden, to kick Brock Lesnar’s ass, to cement his place as the Best to Ever Do It -- sound sincere but feel like empty gestures. We’ve seen this movie before and suspect to know exactly how it ends.
After all, many were willing to give “Bones” the benefit of the doubt back in 2015, when he was involved in a hit-and-run accident involving a pregnant woman and fled the scene before briefly returning to retrieve a brick of cash. We figured that had to be rock bottom; getting charged for a DWI and being exposed as a serial philanderer is one thing, but getting stripped of your world championship while staring down the barrel of felony charges and a prison sentence? That’s an unambiguous wakeup call.
For a hot minute, Jones was saying at least some things that might lead one to believe he’d heeded that call: about the heartache of letting his family and coaches down, the terror of surrendering himself to the police, quitting drugs and alcohol, how this was a chance to re-evaluate his life choices. Sure, there were red flags too -- at times his description of the hit-and-run made it seem like he was a victim rather than the culprit -- but we wanted to believe he could change. If only to see “Bones 2.0,” a powerlifting, green tea-sipping paragon of sobriety, we willed ourselves to have faith.
As we all know by now, such a spiritual investment was misplaced. Two failed drug tests later -- one connected to “gas station dick pills,” the other to cocaine -- said all his abstinence talk was at best a resolution that didn’t stick and at worst an outright fairy tale. Jones proved to be every bit the screwup that we feared, his otherworldly abilities inside the cage matched only by his enduring lack of common sense outside of it.
On the precipice of his third “comeback,” the mask Jones wears, that of the wholesome, Bible-quoting guy who made a few bad decisions, seems to have slipped off most of the way. He makes little attempt to hide his belief in his own infallibility, and earlier this month on the Jackson-Wink RAW podcast, he captiously repudiated the notion that he should ever have been held up as a role model. People who feel uneasy about his PED-failures are derided as haters looking for an excuse to undermine his greatness; any talk of competitive equals is the source of either deep-bellied laughter or palpable irritation. You know what? He’s probably right on that last point, even if his egotism is kind of jarring to the ears.
During his many absences, the light heavyweight division has done little to replenish itself with viable contenders for the 205-pound throne for which he will compete in December, and Jones has every opportunity to pick up where he left off in 2015. Sure, Gustafsson gave Jones a scare five years ago in Toronto, but the Swede has done little to legitimize his top-contender status in the interim and is coming off an even longer absence than Jones. Anthony Smith is doing and saying all the right things -- he smashed two former champions and the No. 2-ranked contender in the space of five months -- but it’s just objectively difficult to imagine that Jones’ fighting downfall would come from a guy with 12 stoppage losses on his record.
After that, a heavyweight odyssey beckons. Daniel Cormier may be on the heels of the best year of his MMA career, moving up to capture and defend the mantle of “Baddest Man on the Planet” after running through the streaking power-puncher Volkan Oezdemir in January, but Jones has twice trounced the former Olympian and would be favored to do the same if they met in 2019 for a third time. If Cormier rides off into the sunset before that, Jones would command similarly short odds over anyone else in the Top 10, and you know the UFC of the present day would fall over itself to accommodate whatever demands Jones made regarding his path to the throne.
If I could end by using an analogy from the low-hanging-fruit basket: Every obstacle on the road has been cleared. It’s up to Jones to stay clear-headed enough to drive within the lines. What that will likely require is a dedicated team of handlers ready and willing to take the wheel when he begins swerving -- something that has perhaps been lacking in the past -- and perhaps just the tiniest pinch of foresight on behalf of Jones himself.
If Team Bones can manage that, there’s no telling what the former light heavyweight champion can achieve between now and the end of his competitive prime. The sad part is that there’s every possibility we’ll never find out.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.