Conor McGregor’s game of chicken with Dana White has been dominating the headlines, but the redemption of Jon Jones should be the real UFC story.
On Saturday night at UFC 197, Jones – widely considered the best pound-for-pound athlete to ever compete in mixed martial arts – will step into the Octagon for the first time in more than 16 months. His opponent (Ovince Saint Preux) and the stakes (the interim Light Heavyweight Championship) aren’t nearly as important as the events that have occurred since his last fight, a string of failed drug tests, stints in rehab, arrests and erratic behavior that forced White to strip him of the title he had held for nearly four years.
Now, clean and sober, and with a renewed dedication to the sport, the man known as “The Baddest Motherfucker on Earth” is out to make fight fans forget about his past – and prepare for a future in which he once again reigns atop the UFC world. And considering Jones had previously declared he’d retire by age 30, that‘s quite a statement.
“Saying I would retire at 30 is where I was at that point in my life, but now that I’m getting closer to it, and I’m completely sober, I’m realizing that my best years are still ahead of me, for sure” Jones, now 28, says. “Bernard Hopkins is 51 and he lives a healthy lifestyle and he’s able to compete at the highest level. Without all the partying, I know I could have that type of career longevity. I really want to push this thing and tap into my best years and see how far I can take this.”
Jones hasn’t competed since he defeated Daniel Cormier at UFC 182 in January 2015. The victory marked his eighth consecutive defense of the UFC Light Heavyweight title, a belt that was stripped from Jones last April when he was involved in a hit-and-run accident, an incident that also earned him a suspension from competition that’s kept him on the sidelines for the past 16 months. While he has expressed constant regret for the accident and the potential he’s seemingly squandered, Jones says the time off was essential to him becoming a better man – and an ever better fighter.
“I needed the break from the sport,” he says. “I got really kind of sick of the expectations the sport had for me. Every time I fight it’s a champion. I fight the No. 1 contender every single time. To go out there for maybe five or six years and fight the baddest motherfucker on the planet, it’s nerve-wracking. It’s a lot of stress. It was probably really unhealthy for me. The thoughts of, ‘What if I get knocked out? The whole world is going to be able to DVR this and I’ll be humiliated.’
“I had to deal with that for five years, living with that type of life and pressure,” he continues. “When I got the belt taken away and realized I would be suspended for a year, I got a chance to grow as a person outside of being an athlete. I got the chance to separate myself and reevaluate who I really was. I got my happiness back, I got my sobriety back and my life changed in a lot of ways.”
Ready to return to his former glory, Jones says he’s refreshed, rededicated and more motivated than ever. His comeback fight at UFC 197 was originally meant to be a rematch with his longtime foe Cormier, who during his absence won Jones’ vacated title, but “DC” pulled out of the bout with an injury less than a month before the event, and Saint Preux stepped in as a replacement.
For Jones, beating Cormier to regain the title would have brought ultimate satisfaction. He must now go through Saint Preux first, and winning the interim belt would set up the rematch with Cormier for later this year. And let’s just say Jones – clearheaded and calm – is already making plans to take back the belt that he believes is still rightfully his.
“I honestly feel like I’m really doing the right things to compete at my best, and it’s scary when you give your best, because you are totally putting yourself out there,” he says. “Being a smoker and being a drinker and a party boy, I always used to think, ‘If this guy beats my ass, I really know there was a different level I never tapped into. He didn’t beat me at my best.’ Now I really am giving my best, and it leaves you to be vulnerable. But at the same time that’s true courage, to attempt to climb a mountain without knowing if you’re going to make it to the top. That’s the life I’m living now and daring to put out my best work. It’s freeing to truly try.”
In Jones’ mind, the story of his comeback is much greater than who is standing across the Octagon from him at UFC 197. Following the hit-and-run accident, Jones says he was close to retiring, vowing to disappear from the public eye and live in Mexico. Having dealt with his demons, he’s learned that running away would have been a cowardly act; now, he wants to stand and fight.
“I don’t really know of anybody in the MMA world that has a story like mine,” he says. “I will be the first in my sport to be great, be a total fuck-up and then end up inspiring millions to get their shit together. That’s my story that I’m living right now. That’s what I’m fighting for.
“I got a DWI and continued to party. I failed a cocaine test and continued to party. Nothing was changing. At this point in my life, I feel like a new man, and I still feel like I’m on this journey,” he continues. “Redemption is more powerful than whatever you did to be in trouble in the first place.”