Jon Jones stretches out on a second-floor couch inside Jackson-Wink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is just 28, but fight posters from his already historic career are plastered on the walls around the gym, arguably the greatest MMA camp on the planet.
For most of the afternoon, he has been jovial, laughing with sparring partners between flurries of punches and lashes of whip-like kicks. But now, perhaps aware of his surroundings – and his legacy – Jones’ voice quivers as he talks about the lowest point of his life, when he was living in a haze of alcohol and marijuana that led to a hit-and-run accident last year. That accident, he says, changed his life forever; it made him want to get clean and give up the fame and the fortune he had amassed. It would not be the last time he had thoughts like this.
“I wanted to retire. I wanted to quit. I wanted to go away. I wanted to move to Mexico. I wanted to erase my Twitter, Instagram and Facebook so no one would be able to see me,” he says. “I wanted to never do an interview again. I wanted my fans to think, ‘What ever happened to Jon Jones?’ I wanted to disappear from celebrity life all together.”
It’s an important day for Jones. He just completed his 72nd and final court-mandated public-speaking appearance, meaning he can completely focus on his next fight. Once upon a time, his opponent was UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Daniel Cormier, but after a recent injury, it’s middling contender Ovince Saint Preux instead.
Cormier, however, is Jones’ biggest rival. And more important, he holds the belt Jones never lost in the Octagon.
Jones was stripped of the Light Heavyweight title after that hit-and-run accident last April, which earned him 18 months of supervised probation and the six-dozen speaking appearances he’d finished about an hour ago. But no jail time.
Asked about the morning of April 26, Jones says he doesn’t remember how or why he ran the red light; he says his brain “took a time-out from reality” and that he can’t recall the moment his SUV made contact with another car in the three-vehicle accident. He only remembers panicking – overcome by the sudden thought that he could lose everything in the blink of an eye.
Turns out, that’s what happened. He was stripped of the title he’d held for four years, suspended indefinitely from the UFC and watched his most prominent sponsor, Reebok – along with several others – walk away. In his mind it was all a blessing in disguise, a wake-up call that forced him to shape up and recognize his potential as perhaps the greatest fighter to ever live. But was it really?
His actions since that awakening tell two conflicting tales.
Jones first faced Cormier at UFC 182 in January 2015. In most fans’ eyes, he won four of five rounds to register his eighth consecutive title defense and hand “DC” his first career loss. Then, life got messy.
The Nevada Athletic Commission, which had jurisdiction over the Cormier fight, wrongly released results of Jones’ pre-fight drug test. Results showing he’d tested positive for cocaine. The information should have been kept private by the agency, but after it surfaced, there was no going back. Jones got off with just a reprimand and a fine, but the incident could be viewed as a precursors of what was to come.
Four weeks prior to a scheduled title defense against Anthony Johnson at UFC 187 in May, Jones had been out partying – a common occurrence during his training camps – and ended up staying at a friend’s house. While he was driving home the following morning, he ran a red light at an intersection and collided with another vehicle, driven by a pregnant woman, who suffered a broken arm. Instead of waiting for police to arrive, Jones fled the scene on foot, leaving behind items such a pipe filled with marijuana, clothes and condoms. According to eyewitnesses, he did, however, return at one point to grab a handful of cash from his car before running off again.
More than 24 hours later, Jones would turn himself in to police, and was charged with leaving the scene of a crime – a felony. UFC had no choice but to pull Jones from his upcoming fight, suspend him indefinitely and strip him of the belt. And just like, that everything he’d worked so hard for was gone.
“It was a reality check,” he says. “That’s really what it all boils down to for me. It was the day that I realized that life wasn’t all fun and games, there are consequences for your actions.”
Jones is as close to an unstoppable fighter as the mixed martial arts world has ever seen. Not only is his pound-for-pound supremacy assumed by most, if not all, in the sport, his claim to “greatest of all time” isn’t particularly controversial. So far in his nearly eight-year career, his toughest opponent has been himself.
Jones has won 21 of his 22 career contests. His lone defeat came via a controversial disqualification for accidentally striking opponent Matt Hamill with an illegal 12-6 elbow while in the midst of bashing him to an otherwise-imminent stoppage. Jones is essentially unbeaten and had manhandled eight straight challengers before his belt was taken away.
What’s more, he did most of it in an altered state. Jones admits he trained only when necessary, drank alcohol excessively and smoked marijuana constantly before his fights. Why? Because he could bend the rules and still achieve magnificent results.
“Pretty much my whole career I wasn’t living like a champ. Fighters that look up to me would go out with me on weekends and see me get blackout wasted, weeks before a fight,” he confesses. “Then they think, ‘Jon Jones can do it. Maybe I can.’
“It would be like Kobe Bryant taking a rookie out and getting blackout drunk the night before a game, then going out there and dropping 30 points the next day,” he continues. “That would lead somebody down the wrong path of thinking. That was the same thing I was doing.”
Jones grew up in an underprivileged home in upstate New York, struggled in school and, though he was a successful high school wrestler, lived in the shadow of his two brothers, both standout athletes on their way to NFL prominence. So when success came so quickly through professional fighting, he was shocked.
“I really started to get money, started to be able to afford to go out, to have a good time and buy people drinks,” he says. “Growing up, I was poor. In college I was poor. I never had anything. Then I go from living in a basement to renting out a house. My life just started to change so fast.”
It was a whirlwind for Jones. He dropped out of college, had his first fight at age 20, and astonishingly, less than four months later, signed a UFC contract. After just two-and-a-half years and seven fights with the promotion, Jones got his first shot at a title – against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 128 in March 2011. He crushed the veteran fighter, and made history as the youngest fighter to capture a UFC belt, a record that still stands.
He was on top of the world.
“I was never popular. I always kind of wanted to be accepted with the rich kids, with the cool kids, and I never had that,” he says. “I became popular for the first time in my life, and I became obsessed with it. I loved being able to go to the bar and buy everyone a shot, make people happy, make people like me, and I became obsessed with that way of living.
“I thought I had friends. I thought I was cool for the first time in my life.”
With each successful title defense, Jones’ profile only continued to rise. And so did his penchant for partying. He says his preparation suffered, but his performance inside the Octagon most certainly did not. His lengthy 6-foot-4 frame and terrifying 84.5-inch reach allowed him to ravage opponents almost effortlessly, meaning his lifestyle had very few consequences.
“Some camps I had a harder time quitting smoking and quitting drinking than others,” he says. “I would occasionally get pretty fucked up in the middle of a training camp, because sometimes it’s hard to quit cold turkey. There are a lot of camps where I didn’t get caught with dirty marijuana tests. There was never really a concern of like, ‘What if I get caught?’ You were just able to get away with it, so it became a huge part of me.”
Jones portrayed himself as the model athlete in the media – the guy who would never curse in an interview or do anything to rock the boat. However, his actions told a different story, such as a May 2012 incident when he ran his car into a pole and was charged with driving while impaired. He pleaded guilty, was fined $1,000, had his license suspended six months and was forced install ignition interlocks on all his vehicles. Nothing changed.
“I was able to justify it all in my head. I was a father going to church, a family man, but I was a total party boy, the guy who walked up to the bar and ordered 20 shots of Patrón for total strangers standing around me,” he explains. “Then there’s this third guy who was an elite-level athlete that took sports extremely serious. These three sides of me became who I was, and the world really didn’t know. I wasn’t really fake, I was just me, but there were things that conflicted with each other. I had different sides.”
Jones allowed his party side to further overtake his competitive side as his title reign rolled along. In September 2013, he won a razor-thin decision over Sweden’s Alexander Gustafsson in a bout most major media outlets named “Fight of the Year.” He was cut and bloodied for the first time, exhausted and weak after being pushed through five grueling rounds. But, still, he won. So once again, nothing changed.
“I told my manager in the hospital, ‘I should have lost this one. If you saw this camp, this is the fight I should have lost,'” Jones recalls. “I was being a wild boy. I did not train. I was at this point in my life where I just felt like I wasn’t meant to lose a fight. I just thought, ‘If I can do all this shit and keep winning, we’ll see how good I really am.'”
Jones’ victory over Gustafsson broke Tito Ortiz’s longstanding record for most consecutive 205-pound title defenses. UFC belts are not easily defended, and as Jones can attest, the longer a reign lasts, the more the pressure mounts. He found relief – and release – in marijuana.
“I’ve been slowly self-destructing,” he says. “Self-medicating myself, smoking pot all day. Most people don’t look at pot as a problem. ‘Oh, it’s just pot. It’s going to be legal soon. How can you be a pot addict?’ The truth is, you can be a pot addict. If that’s what you do when you wake up, before you play video games, before you train, before you study footage, before you go to sleep, you’re smoking weed all day long.
“I had a problem self-medicating myself and not dealing with real emotions. I got in the limelight at a young age. At age 19, people were already comparing me to Anderson Silva. I had two brothers that were destined to be in the NFL. I knew I never wanted to be the brother that wasn’t a pro athlete,” he continues. “There’s pressure to be one of the successful brothers [and] not the one that didn’t make it. I always put pressure on myself. I think somewhere along the line my relationship with marijuana just got stronger and stronger, and it was something I depended on and leaned on.”
In the aftermath of the hit-and-run, Jones was depressed and ready to leave his career behind. But, as he waited for his court date to arrive, he says he realized his actions affected those around him. That’s when he felt he needed to truly address them.
“One of the moments that really messed me up was when my daughter came home from school and said, ‘Mommy, such-and-such said daddy killed a baby,'” he says, sitting up from the couch and firming his posture for the first time since our conversation began. “That was one of those moments where I felt so bad. Like, ‘Man, I’m fucking up, and now I’m dragging my family into this.’ My fiancée didn’t sign up for me getting in trouble and having to explain to our kids that their dad got into a car accident. My family didn’t sign up for this shit.”
While Jones awaited his legal fate, his rival Cormier, whom he had bested just four months prior, stepped in to fight Johnson for the now-vacant belt at UFC 187. Cormier choked out Johnson in the third round, and with the UFC title around his waist, he got on the microphone and sent a message: “Jon Jones, get your shit together. I’m waiting for you.”
Jones decided to take his advice.
“It lit a fire under my ass and really made me think about the fact that I was pissing away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says. “I’m sitting here living this life, being in the argument of being the greatest of all-time in the sport, and I’m pissing it away making poor decisions, partying, taking my life for granted.”
This past September, Jones appeared before a New Mexico judge to answer to the hit-and-run charge. He pleaded guilty to a felony count of leaving the scene of an accident and was sentenced to 18 months of probation and the 72 youth speaking engagements. Jones thought if he was going to shake his compulsive habits and get clean, he needed a new, parallel focus to MMA. That’s when he found powerlifting.
Jones’ sudden love of the sport came with an unexpected benefit: His previous party allies quickly disappeared from his life.
“Being on probation, I can’t go to the club, so a lot of my ‘friends,’ they were dudes looking to get free drinks every weekend, free joints, free bong hits,” he says. “My phone used to go crazy on Friday nights when I was able to go to the club and able to smoke weed. Now that I’m sober, people realize, ‘Oh you can’t come out?’ My phone calls went down by about half.
“It didn’t make me sad; it made me glad,” he adds, after a pause. “I realized, ‘Shit, I don’t have many friends.'”
On top of his new powerlifting routine, Jones brought in separate grappling and conditioning coaches to his team for the first time. He hired a nutritionist to cook meals and help him cut weight. He’s finally doing the things elite fighters on his level should be doing. Considering his previous dominance, it’s a frightening thought that Jones may just now be tapping into his true potential. He also says he’s working hard to emerge as a team leader at Jackson-Wink MMA, trying to set the example he should have all along.
“I’m not officially team captain, but to a lot of guys in here, I’m their captain. They see me doing the right things and working my ass off,” he says. “A lot of the guys used to see me and envy the fact I could party and still win. I knew the guys who had a little hate in their blood, like, ‘This motherfucker got everything I want as a fighter, and he’s coming to practice high and shit.’ Those guys now, they got nothing to say. It’s not that they hated me; they hated what I got away with.”
Jones says he believes his court-mandated public speaking has also helped reinforce and maintain his sobriety. For years, he hid the qualities he thought would turn others off. Now, he finds opening up about his struggles with drugs and alcohol to be therapeutic. And he’s adamant that he’ll continue his community work now that he’s fulfilled the court’s requirements.
“This may sound weird, but I believe that God meant for what happened to happen,” he says. “I know a lot of people may twist this or look at it like, ‘Why would God put this girl in a car accident with you? That’s a selfish way of thinking.’ But since that happened, so much good has happened in a lot of people’s lives. I’ve been able to reach thousands of kids.
“I’ve told my story 72 times to completely different groups, to complete strangers. There’s something really freeing about being so real, open and candid with complete strangers and letting them judge you,” he continues. “It’s helped me know who I am. It’s helped me acknowledge the piece-of-shit qualities I had. Truth of the matter, I had some piece-of-shit ways. Still do have some. But at the same time, I have some really great qualities as well.”
The UFC reinstated Jones on October 23, just shy of six months after the accident. Soon after, Jones’ comeback fight was officially announced for UFC 197 on April 23 in Las Vegas.
Although Jones felt like he’d turned over a new leaf, his sobriety and speaking appearances did nothing to keep him out of the headlines. Less than six months into his probation period, he was pulled over and ticketed for driving without a license, proof of insurance or registration. Just last month, Jones was stopped again, this time for allegedly “drag racing” after revving the engine of his shiny white Corvette while at a stoplight.
What could have been a routine traffic stop turned into much more. In a widely circulated video – shot on Albuquerque police officer Jason Brown’s body camera – a livid Jones calls Brown a “pig” and “a fucking liar” after receiving five tickets for various infractions. It only got worse, because Jones was found to be in violation of his probation and arrested.
He spent more than 48 hours in an Albuquerque jail cell, all of this less than a month away from UFC 197. And while he felt he didn’t belong there, he says it was another in a long line of reality checks.
“It was really tough being in jail,” he says after the incident. “It doesn’t get much lower. You’re in a filthy room. The food is terrible and you’re surrounded by people who have done all types of crazy crimes. You have nothing that belongs to you, not even your own underwear. It’s just terrible. It made me really realize how blessed I am. If you have any ounce of you that’s not living life correct, going to jail really puts it in perspective and helps you understand how much you really do have.”
Though he denies wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty during his court appearance, Jones had another 60 hours of public speaking tacked on to his existing probation agreement and also agreed to anger management and driving improvement courses. Moreover, his driving privileges were revoked unless he’s first granted permission by his probation officer.
But UFC didn’t pull him from the main event of this month’s fight. Though you get the feeling they strongly considered it. Whether he’s the victim of profiling, poor choices or some grand cosmic conspiracy, Jones continues to wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time – though he swears this will be his final run-in with the law. He sounds as if he’s actually been scared straight.
“This situation was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he says. “For a police officer to pull me over and to say I was swerving lanes and drag racing and all this stuff, it showed me, ‘Wow, if someone were to have it out for me they could simply pull me over, say whatever they want, and I will be the one paying the ultimate price.’
“When someone has that type of power over me, it’s scary,” he continues. “So my goal is to drive the absolute minimum until I’m off of probation. That will probably be another year, but I’m fine with it. I would rather take taxis and Ubers and rely on friends than even risk my freedom.”
One day after Jones was released from jail for his probation violation, Cormier pulled out of their championship bout with a leg injury.
That postponed the grudge match, but Jones wanted to compete at UFC 197 anyway. That allowed the promotion to create an interim 205-pound title, which Jones (21-1 MMA, 15-1 UFC) will fight for against Saint Preux (19-7, 7-2) at the April 23 event as Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Although Jones would have liked nothing more than to end Cormier’s title reign and take a 2-0 lead in their rivalry, he’s taking the change in stride. Jones felt his comeback fight always had greater meaning than a single opponent, and while the fight was delayed, Jones is positive it won’t be denied.
“I’m still on a journey to get back the belt I never lost. After I fight Ovince, me and Daniel’s story picks right back up where it left off,” he says. “I know what it feels like to be a champ already. To be sober doesn’t compare. This is the happiest I’ve ever been, without the belt. Now, to be sober with the belt – that’s going to feel like heaven.”
You want to believe him. After all, Jones has done a lot to remedy his ways and turn his life around. He’s adamant those changes have made him a better person, but the two traffic stops in recent months raise legitimate questions about whether his decision-making and risk management skills have improved as well. He knows there are plenty of people who doubt he’ll ever reform – and he doesn’t blame them for thinking that way. Like he says, this comeback is about more than just reclaiming a belt or settling a feud.
“I’m only at the doorstep of earning my second chance,” he says. “Doing community service was court-ordered. That’s not earning a second chance. Being sober when you’re on probation isn’t earning your second chance. I got a lot of proving to do. It’s a matter of actions. It’s about my effort. I feel like I have a lot more work to do. The people who still hate me, they have every right to.
“My vision for myself when I’m 30 is for people to see me and be like, ‘Man, look at him now. This guy is sober, he’s on the cover of every magazine, he’s on the cover of Wheaties boxes, he’s looked up to, he has charities. What a freaking turnaround story that guy is. If Jon can do it, a guy who was a total fuck up, then dammit, my life isn’t over either.'”