Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Despite a face so bloody and bruised that he had to beg cage-side doctors to allow the fight to continue, Jon Jones hobbled Alexander Gustafsson with a spinning back elbow late in their September 2013 fight.
• When: Saturday, December 29 (preliminary card at 3:30 p.m., pay-per-view at 7 p.m.)
• Where: T-Mobile Arena
• Tickets: $190-$2,255 (axs.com)
• Pay-per-view: $65
• Main event betting line: Jon Jones -280 vs. Alexander Gustafsson +220
• Other main card bouts: Cris “Cyborg” Justino vs. Amanda Nunes (for the women’s featherweight title); Carlos Condit vs. Michael Chiesa; Ilir Latifi vs. Corey Anderson; Chad Mendes vs. Alexander Volkanovski
It was the type of strike only the then-26-year-old phenom could pull off—precise yet improvisational, graceful yet violent—and led him to a unanimous-decision comeback victory in the closest fight of his UFC career. But it might not even be a moment included on his short, career-spanning highlight reel. There are just so many options when it comes to Jones.
The winningest light heavyweight and youngest fighter to win a title in UFC history is considered the most gifted athlete ever to enter the octagon. There was similarly little dispute about his place as the greatest of all time after his most recent fight, when he knocked out Daniel Cormier in the third round of a July 2017 bout.
The question now is whether Jones should even be considered for such a distinction going into a long-awaited rematch with Gustafsson in the main event of UFC 232, December 29 at T-Mobile Arena. Jones is coming off of a second suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and that’s apart from the numerous other troubles he has encountered outside the octagon.
“If you look at all the things Jon Jones has accomplished with the things Jon Jones was doing when he accomplished those things, it’s pretty amazing,” UFC President Dana White said at a news conference announcing the event. “To go down as the greatest ever, Jon now has the opportunity to come back and erase all the mistakes he made in his younger career, and we’ll see what happens.”
Jones tested positive for cocaine going into a fight and pleaded guilty in an early-morning hit-and-run accident in which drug paraphernalia was found in his abandoned car. But he says he was at his most self-indulgent before the first Gustafsson fight. Though the 6-foot-5 Gustafsson was the rare light heavyweight with a size advantage over the 6-foot-4 Jones, no one gave him much of a chance to defeat Jones.
Jones bought in to predictions he would obliterate Gustafsson, making for an unforeseen wake-up call when Jones got beaten up during the first two rounds at UFC 165 in Toronto. “I was hot, I was on a roll and I thought maybe he fought a lot like me, but he wasn’t me, so I didn’t train,” Jones says. “I didn’t train as hard as I should have. I was winning a lot of fights and being a wild dude, and it definitely caught up to me.”
Jones has repeatedly expressed remorse for his criminal misdeeds, but he has not apologized for the performance-enhancing drug scandals. He doesn’t feel like he should have to, and the United States Anti-Doping Agency supports that stance, to an extent. The overseers of the UFC’s drug policy ruled that Jones never “intentionally” cheated. USADA confirmed the source of the first failed test to be a sexual enhancement pill.
It never confirmed the root of the second failed test but did give Jones a reduced suspension—15 months instead of the maximum four years—partly out of a belief that a tainted supplement was at fault. “You and I both know there is a large number of people that still have doubts,” California State Athletic commissioner Martha Shen-Urquidez told Jones at a hearing to reinstate his fighting license earlier this month. “They are out there, and it’s not just a little bit of doubt. There are people who have serious doubts over this. I, for one, would like to put those doubts to sleep and put them away once and for all, for people to believe that you are that talented, you are the greatest and can win a fight just clean.”
That was part of a plea to Jones to undergo extra drug testing. He has neither accepted nor denied the request, and is under no obligation to do so. He vows he has always been clean and will do everything in his power to avoid falling into the same type of controversy that has plagued his career to this point.
“It was a nightmare to go through,” Jones says. “So glad it’s over. I’m just focusing on the positives in life, like having my job back and getting back on that mission when I first joined the UFC, which is being the greatest fighter ever.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.