It’s nearly impossible to convey the profound effect Jon Jones has had to MMA noobs with no real attention span, but for a long minute there he was the man. Before there was a Conor McGregor or a Ronda Rousey or even a fully realized Chael Sonnen, Jones was giving MMA a sense of something bigger. One might even use the word transcendent when describing his early run. He was the first to wear Nike and Gatorade in the Octagon. The youngest ever to become a UFC champion. The most incandescent performer when the cage door latched, in that we could say — with straight freaking faces — that he was primed to become the Michael Jordan of MMA.
To be honest, we said all kinds of shit like that. Originally, everyone wanted to root for him and celebrate his greatness. Why not? He stopped a purse snatcher in Paterson, New Jersey just hours before stopping Shogun Rua in Newark. Dude was a legit superhero.
But it’s been a long, meandering, contradictory, asterisked, glorified, bloodshot, largely troubled road for Jones, who’s done just about everything short of losing over the last 15 years heading into this Saturday night’s heavyweight debut at UFC 285. Even his one “loss” to Matt Hamill is controversial because he was disqualified for bringing down the dreaded 12-to-6 elbows (which brought down referee Steve Mazzagatti in the process). Dana White has been trying to have it stricken from his record for the last decade to no avail.
With Jones, everything is an argument. People say he lost to Dominick Reyes, but the judges didn’t see it that way. People have called him a cheat, and the PED busts don’t lie…or do they? We are in the process of redefining picograms, a word Jones himself introduced to the MMA public. Is he exonerated? He would have you believe he is.
These days, even the asterisks have asterisks. Jon has been guilty the whole time he’s been innocent. He is MMA’s great Janus face. He is the undisputed GOAT of dispute. He makes you draw ethical lines, sometimes while he’s snorting up his own. The moment you fall back in love with him, he makes sure you regret it. Then we repeat.
That’s why, in my 15 years of covering the sport, Jones has been the most complicated athlete to cover in MMA. There is a genius at work in his fights, a cerebral fighter who has the length, the acumen, and a well tapped-into spirit of mean that shows up on fight night. Or at least he used to have that. The Reyes fight — and by degrees the Thiago Santos and Anthony Smith fights — lacked something.
Was it devil? Recklessness? Desire? Was he bored? Complacent? Who knows. But he still hasn’t really lost. He’s been stripped of a title three times, which is a UFC record. But he hasn’t lost.
Yet the disconnect between the original Jones — the one who was suplexing Stephan Bonnar through the canvas at UFC 100, bewitching poor Rampage Jackson and betraying his good buddy Rashad Evans in body and soul — wasn’t much in evidence the last few times we seen him. The Jones who was a million miles ahead of the field has looked like a mere mortal version of himself, doing just enough to win.
If you only came into MMA a few years ago, you’ve seen an unremarkable fighter barely squeaking by on the scorecards, before disappearing for a thousand days to morph into a heavyweight. If you began paying attention during the pandemic, you wouldn’t even know that his performances in the cage aren’t nearly as difficult to figure out as simply knowing Jon Jones.
Knowing too much about him, that is.
The patterns of behavior. All that…baggage. Years of partying and piling up mugshots has warped the perception of him. He became far easier to root against over the course of his career, not because he’s become a different fighter but because there’s never been a more flawed athlete to be so smug. Each time he resurfaces, he carries the tone of a man who has never learned a lesson, who has given as much lip service to his arrests and accusations as he ever intends to.
In fact, Jones seems annoyed that people can’t move on as fast as he does after each bad headline. That all this stuff follows him to the next event, even though it belongs to his past. In some ways, it’s beneficial for a fighter to have the memory of a fish, to be able to wake up the next day and not dwell on what’s already happened. After all, life heads but one direction. Yet with fighters, there is often an emotional investment in play between themselves and fans, which ends up dealing us our rooting interests.
If you’ve followed Jones the whole way, you know it’s not an easy relationship. There are skeletons crammed so tightly into the closet that you can’t quite close it all the way. Redemptions have come and gone, second chances have become umpteenth chances, and promises are now indistinguishable from little fibs. For a while there in the thick of his rivalry with Daniel Cormier it seemed he might have an opening to just say screw it and go full heel, but he had — delusional or not — this pious center that wouldn’t allow it. The pastor’s son is still trying. The good angel keeps battling on his other shoulder. The good intentions are still warring with the bad habits.
Three years after we’ve last seen him, Jones still desperately wants to be loved for the right reasons, which at this point is impossible.
Yet he can still be the GOAT, should be beat Cyril Gane at UFC 285 Saturday night. Win that second title and begin a new reign as the heavyweight champion? The aloofness of the casual and the fresh vigor of the noob will combine to override any bad juju that follows Jones around. Jonny Bones is still an event. He’s still the standard by which all others compare themselves. He’s the presence that plays over the UFC’s big-men divisions. Still the man to beat.
When he faced off with Gane at the press conference, there was something about it that commands your attention. Jones still has that. In the critical moments during Fight Week, you feel it. He has the power to make you forget.
Which is all the more remarkable for those of us who can’t help but remember.