Love him or detest him, the best fighter in UFC historical past returns on Saturday in quest of a second title in as many divisions.
Should Jon Jones (26-1, 1 NC) defeat Cyril Gane (11-1) in a vacant heavyweight title bout headlining UFC 285 inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV), he would virtually definitely cement his standing because the MMA G.O.A.T. Yet ought to the 35-year-old former mild heavyweight king lose cleanly, it might be for the primary time in his legendary (and infrequently troubled) profession.
It goes with out saying how massive the stakes are for Jones as he appears to snap a three-year layoff courting again to his disputed 2020 victory over Dominik Reyes, which led to “Bones” vacating his 205-pound title whereas saying a transfer as much as heavyweight that had been teased for practically a full decade. But given the detailed historical past of his public missteps, it is troublesome to understand how followers and media ought to settle for him upon his return.
It’s additionally troublesome to search out one other athlete in sports activities historical past with a legacy as frustratingly distinctive because the native of Rochester, New York.
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On one hand, Jones is the best fighter UFC has ever identified. He’s nonetheless the closest factor MMA has ever needed to a Tiger Woods and have become the primary UFC fighter to be sponsored by Nike (his first signature shoe offered out on-line in lower than two minutes in 2013). Jones additionally nonetheless holds UFC data for many victories in title bouts (14), mixed title defenses (11), wins at mild heavyweight (20) and because the youngest champion (23 years 243 days) in promotional historical past.
The different facet of Jones’ legacy, nevertheless, is nothing wanting troubling. Stripped of his mild heavyweight title a UFC-record thrice for substance abuse, performance-enhancing drug take a look at failures and numerous missteps with the legislation — an ongoing theme that solely continued throughout his lengthy layoff — Jones might simply as simply be seen as essentially the most marquee instance of a UFC cautionary story, leaving historians questioning what may’ve been.
“I really feel like all of us have a number of sides and when you do not, I really feel sorry for you,” Jones mentioned in the course of the “UFC 285 Countdown” present. “We have our objectives, we now have our setbacks. We have an thought of the particular person we need to be after which there’s the particular person we truly are. It’s simply being a human being, actually.”
Yet, with the current departure of former heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou to free company after he and UFC brass could not come to phrases on a brand new deal, Jones’ return feels considerably like a saving grace for the promotion. Not solely can Jones fill the Ngannou-sized gap throughout the division, he returns to the UFC’s good graces at a time when mainstream star energy amongst its elite fighters is essentially missing.
It’s a story that is not with out holes, nevertheless, largely as a result of Jones has been idle since lengthy earlier than Ngannou ever captured the UFC title in 2021 and had beforehand been at odds with UFC brass himself over cash. A superfight pairing Ngannou towards Jones at heavyweight might’ve been among the many greatest and most vital fights in firm historical past, but Jones solely selected to return instantly after Ngannou departed (with Ngannou reportedly turning down file cash, a lot of which probably went to Jones, as an alternative, as a part of his restructured deal).
Jones has been simply as hypocritical of late when requested about Ngannou, who finally selected freedom to pursue massive cash in boxing over UFC’s monetary supply, citing an absence of respect from the promotion and their unwillingness to barter his calls for for healthcare and higher therapy of fighters.
Five weeks in the past, Jones praised Ngannou for his ideas in a collection of posts on social media, saying, “I’m glad that Francis is aware of his price. No man has a proper to disgrace one other man for combating for his price.” Earlier this week, in an interview with RMC Sport, Jones modified his tune utterly.
“I do not suppose I deserve any criticism,” Jones mentioned. “I’m right here. Francis had the chance to face me and he opted out of the chance. If anybody ought to be criticized, it is Francis Ngannou. If I’m right, he was supplied the most important contract in heavyweight historical past. He had the chance to be a man to dethrone me. He did not imagine in himself. Francis did not imagine in himself. He wasn’t keen to gamble on himself.”
Given Jones’ outspoken historical past as a Christian, full with the bible verse Philippians 4:13 tattoed throughout his chest, some have in contrast his UFC return following so many missteps (most of which might’ve led to termination of a much less standard fighter) to the Parable of the Prodigal Son present in Luke 15:11-32. Only the larger query is not whether or not president Dana White and UFC brass would obtain Jones with open arms (they have already got) however whether or not MMA followers would do the identical come Saturday.
If historical past is any indication, Jones has lengthy been “Teflon Jon” from the standpoint of avoiding full derailment from the prolonged penalties of his actions. Whether that be within the type of getting the nod in shut fights, avoiding career-ending sanctioning or surviving the courtroom of public opinion, it has lengthy felt like MMA followers have been keen to absolve Jones of scorn or refusal to financially help his fights in trade for a shot at witnessing greatness.
Seeing Jones return to the promotion’s hype machine by means of appearances in each the “UFC Embedded” pre-fight documentary collection and listening to him speak at Wednesday’s media day was a reminder of simply how lengthy it has been since Jones was an lively fighter.
For the file, Jones was utterly unwilling to deal with his most up-to-date authorized setbacks when prompted by media members by as an alternative delivering a tense “subsequent query.” This features a 2021 arrest in Las Vegas for assaulting the mom of his kids in entrance of them following a UFC Hall of Fame ceremony and his DWI arrest one 12 months earlier in his dwelling metropolis of Albuquerque, New Mexico, when Jones was additionally cited for negligent use of a firearm and driving with out proof of insurance coverage.
Jones did, nevertheless, converse in generalties about his life journey at giant and the way he hopes to be obtained for the very public highs and lows he has endured.
“I’ve some regrets in life however for essentially the most half, I notice that if in case you have the chance and the power to be actually good at one thing then you definately owe it,” Jones mentioned. “You owe it to the individuals who cannot do what you might be doing, who don’t get the alternatives you might be getting. I owe it to them to place myself on the market and do it.
“My motivation is to turn into one of the best man I will be, to be a mirrored image of God’s love and his forgiveness and, finally, have followers world wide see the Christ that is within me. None of us are good and all of us have ups and downs in life. I genuinely imagine that my imperfection makes me relatable to lots of people.”
One factor Jones has been very outspoken on main as much as the Gane combat have been the modifications made lately by USADA, which now not considers PED exams displaying lower than 100 picograms per milliliter of a banned substance to be a optimistic take a look at, which might’ve absolved Jones of the scrutiny and sanctions he confronted for exams collected after his 2017 knockout of Daniel Cormier (later modified to a no contest) and earlier than his 2018 win over Alexander Gustafsson, which confirmed indicators of pulsing for steroid turinabol.
“I’m grateful to be the athlete who fought the system, who might afford the legal professionals and scientists to show my innocence,” Jones mentioned. “I do imagine that I — I do not know if that is the phrase — carried the cross or carried the bullet for the remainder of the athletes however I used to be the primary to need to undergo it. People thought-about me a cheater. Now, if that very same rule would’ve utilized again then, it by no means would’ve made the media or been an issue.
“I’m glad I did as a result of a few of these youthful fighters would not have been capable of survive one thing like that. They would’ve been reduce or would not have been capable of afford the legal professionals so I took the bullet for this sport, for Major League Baseball and I’m glad that fighters sooner or later get to keep away from what I went by means of. It was hell being thought-about a steroid cheat and I’m glad that individuals see clearly now that I by no means was and I really feel let out.”
Jones’ option to clear his personal title of any wrongdoing traditionally does carry with it a little bit of an issue. Not solely was Jones stripped of his title following a 2015 win over Cormier during which he examined optimistic for metabolites of cocaine, he was pulled from a scheduled UFC 200 rematch towards Cormier in 2016 after testing optimistic for clomiphene and Letrozol, banned substances that can be utilized as masking brokers for different PEDs.
Nothing about Jones’ profession has been black and white. And the presence of a lot grey space surrounding his return and what critics ought to do together with his legacy ought to he flip again time and return to the highest of the pound-for-pound and G.O.A.T. rankings with a convincing win solely complicates the method.
Either approach, Jones seems centered extra on his religion coming into such a prestigious return and the way he may be capable of encourage others who’ve adopted his difficult journey so carefully.
“I’m 35 and I’m at an age the place you may’t make many excuses for downfalls however I’m a younger man,” Jones mentioned. “I’m trying ahead to the person that I’m going to be in the future, perhaps in my 40s. I’m not saying I will not make errors once more sooner or later however I’m going to be a person with quite a lot of expertise and can be capable of speak to younger males about roads they do not need to go down.
“Ultimately, I imagine a number of souls can be saved from my existence and that is my motivation.”
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