UFC showed unprecedented gumption in stripping Jon Jones of his title

Dana White and the UFC showed unprecedented gumption in stripping Jon Jones of the light heavyweight title following his arrest for a hit-and-run accident in which a pregnant woman suffered a broken arm.
Publish date:

The mythology of Jon Jones—his preeminence among prizefighters and the culmination of his ascent toward that high horse—began with him running. Sprinting full speed from a crime scene. Four years later, we witnessed an epic fall that was foreshadowed by a similar-looking but far, far different scenario.

The UFC light heavyweight champion, No. 1 in the SI.com pound-for-pound fighter rankings and considered by many the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, was stripped of his belt and suspended indefinitely on Tuesday night, hours after he had appeared in an Albuquerque, N.M., courtroom to answer to a felony charge stemming from a weekend hit-and-run automobile accident that left a pregnant woman with a broken arm.

“Got a lot of soul searching to do,” Jones wrote on Twitter after the UFC made the announcement. “Sorry to everyone I’ve let down.”

Jones (21-1) is the first champ the UFC has removed for disciplinary reasons in the promotion’s two-decade history. He will be replaced in next month’s UFC 187 main event by Daniel Cormier, who will fight Anthony Johnson for the 205-pound belt. Not an interim strap, mind you, but the real McCoy.

You know, the one Jon Jones captured in March 2011 a few hours after he had gone on a morning run that became the stuff of legend.

The Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., was abuzz the night Jones, then 23, became the youngest champion in UFC history. It wasn’t just the usual fight night ambience of expectancy. What had the arena wound up so early in the evening was an unfathomable story about Jones that was making its way around via social media. He had left his hotel that morning with his coaches to find a spot in nature in which to meditate. North Jersey being what it is, the Team Jackson crew had ended up in a dodgy urban park in Paterson, where it encountered an elderly couple who’d just been robbed ... by that guy over there, running away! “Bones,” setting aside any thoughts of what was at stake for him later in the day or concerns for how his actions at this moment might put all that at risk, reacted out of pure instinct. He gave chase like a superhero crime fighter and caught the bad guy.

Fast-forward to this past Sunday morning in Albuquerque, when, according to a police report, Jones again went running away from a crime scene, only this time he was the bad guy.

UFC hires former BALCO investigator Jeff Novitzky

Jones allegedly was involved in a three-vehicle accident in which his rented SUV ran a red light and crashed into one car, sending it careening into another. An off-duty police officer at the scene, a UFC fan, identified Jones as the SUV’s driver, and according to the police report, both the cop and the other drivers involved in the incident said Jones ran from his heavily damaged vehicle, stopped and ran back, grabbed “a large hand full of cash” from the SUV and stuffed the bills in his pants, then ran off again, hopped a fence, and was gone.

Inside the SUV, according to police, was paperwork indicating that Jones’s fiancée had rented the vehicle. There was also some MMA-related papers from the State of Nevada and a pipe containing marijuana.

Jones did not surface until the next day, by which time a felony arrest warrant had been issued. Why a felony for a traffic accident? Once police learned that the driver whose car Jones allegedly hit had suffered a broken arm in the crash, what otherwise would have been a misdemeanor was elevated to a felony charge of leaving the scene of an accident involving death or personal injury. Police were unsuccessful in their attempts to contact Jones at his home and via phone, according to their report. Finally, on Monday evening, the fighter surrendered into custody, and four hours later he was free on $2,500 bail. Jones was in court on Tuesday and did not enter a plea. The prosecutor has 60 days in which to decide whether to seek an indictment.

As disturbing as it is to say, Jones may have done himself a favor if, as is alleged, he ran away from the scene and allowed 30 hours to pass before surrendering to police. Had he remained in the smashed SUV and the police, upon discovering the marijuana, had tested him for drugs or alcohol, that could have ramped up the courtroom drama considerably. Jones has a DUI on his record stemming from a 2012 crash in Binghamton, N.Y., so if he had been found to be under the influence on Sunday, it would not have been a first offense.

As it stands, there are no drug allegations in the charges Jones faces—too much time passed between the accident and his surrender for sobriety testing to be relevant—and he has two months to work out a plea deal with prosecutors. As far as the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court is concerned, he would be free to go to Las Vegas next month and fight.

Here is where the legal system and the UFC’s business practices part company.

The fight promotion, unlike a judge or jury, is under no mandate to presume Jones is innocent until proven guilty, and is free to jump to conclusions. So, along with taking into account the fighter’s 2012 DUI and his positive test for cocaine metabolites less than a month before his fight in January, Dana White & Co. likely put two and two together with regard to the marijuana pipe found in the smashed car Jones allegedly abandoned this past weekend. This is not necessarily about the morality of recreational drug use. If a baggie containing half an ounce of weed had been found on the back seat of the SUV, that would not trigger the same concern as the presence of a loaded pipe, which, if we’re using common sense here, signifies recent or imminent use. Doing so while driving puts lives at risk.

MMA Rankings: Despite title, dos Anjos can't pass Nurmagomedov

And then there’s the return of that iconic image: Jones the runner. Rather than chasing down a robber this time, he is accused of sprinting away from an accident that caused bodily harm. He actually did so twice, according to the police report. Witnesses say that after initially sprinting away, Jones ran back to his vehicle—not to check on the pregnant woman he’d allegedly injured but to get his stuff. The report says that before running away for good, he grabbed a wad of money. Is it unreasonable for us to speculate that there were other items in the SUV that he didn’t want to leave behind?

None of this speculation would hold up in a courthouse, of course, but it doesn’t have to. In 2013, the UFC instituted a Fighter Conduct Policy that is about as broad in scope as a set of rules can be. “Fighters shall conduct themselves in accordance with commonly accepted standards of decency, social convention, and morals,” the policy begins. “And fighters will not commit any act or become involved in any situation or occurrence or make any statement which will reflect negatively upon or bring disrepute, contempt, scandal, ridicule or disdain to the fighter or the UFC.”

By that standard, the UFC could have suspended Jones even if he had dutifully stopped at that red light but, while idling at the intersection, had given the finger to passing motorists, like a Diaz brother. This Conduct Policy, which fighters agree to abide by when they sign standard UFC contracts, enables the company to discipline pretty much as it pleases.

So on Tuesday, the promotion’s three top executives—CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, COO Lawrence Epstein, and president Dana White—flew to Albuquerque and met with Jones and his lawyers after the court appearance. “We wanted to hear Jon’s side of the story,” White said later on Fox Sports Live. They also wanted to deliver a stark message, one that would shake up the sport and its leading promotion. “For us to have to go in and strip him of his title and suspend him, you know, it’s not fun,” a subdued White said during the Fox Sports 1 interview.

This may not have been a pleasant day for the UFC, but it was a righteous one. The fight promotion has an inglorious history of antisocial behavior—from social media offensiveness by fighters (and by White himself) to accusations of domestic abuse and other violence—and hasn’t always dealt with transgressions in an evenhanded way. Fighters on the fringe have suffered severe consequences for their misdeeds, but when it came to the stars of the show, at times it seemed that the company’s favorite martial arts maneuver was a slap on the wrist.

To strip and suspend a champion, then, and not just any champion but the longtime pound-for-pound No. 1, and to do so less than a month away from a highly anticipated pay-per-view event, that shows unprecedented gumption.

The UFC isn’t in the business of walking away from money, of course, so the execs must have done a little math in their heads and come to the conclusion that whatever short-term losses arise from Jones’s absence will end up as long-term gains. Maybe they heard from sponsors and other business partners. (Reebok, which has a deal with the promotion to outfit its athletes with fight apparel, already has dumped its individual sponsorship of Jones.) Maybe the UFC simply checked the temperature in the sports world and recognized that the heat is on bad behavior like never before.

This is not to suggest that MMA or any sport is pure. Boxing is at center stage this week, and its luminary cash cow, Floyd Mayweather, is a serial domestic abuser. And on that note, the UFC 187 main event still features Anthony Johnson, who in 2009 was convicted on domestic violence charges and as recently as five months ago was under UFC suspension after similar allegations surfaced. Johnson was reinstated by the promotion after the court case was thrown out because the alleged victim withdrew her accusations.

What will it take for Jon Jones to be reinstated? The UFC isn’t saying. The promotion’s official statement took a stern, if compassionate, tone. “UFC feels strongly that its athletes must uphold certain standards both in and out of the Octagon,” it read. “While there is disappointment in the recent charges, the organization remains supportive of Jones as he works through the legal process.”

Is this tough love or a long-awaited slap at an athlete who has drawn ire in the past for not being a company man? Back in 2012, after Jones’s refusal to agree to a late-replacement challenger triggered the cancellation of UFC 151, White called it a “selfish, disgusting” decision and labeled Jones and his trainer/mentor, Greg Jackson, as “sport killers.” When Jones threw the first punch in a hotel lobby brawl with Daniel Cormier during an August 2014 event publicizing their fight, it was promotional gold, yes, but did smudge a veneer of hooliganism on the company.

Now this. A hit-and run. Pot pipe in the car. Injured pregnant woman. Ran away instead of checking on her. Allegedly, allegedly, allegedly.

Jones will have his day in court, but the court of public opinion—presiding in the jurisdiction of social media—has rendered a swift verdict: Grow up. If the counselors Jones met with during his one-night stay at a rehab facility in January are to be believed, he does not have a drug abuse problem. If the police report is to be believed, however, he has a responsibility problem. If Jones did what he’s accused of, and did so while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he will not be the first person to have made that mistake. But with mistakes come consequences. And with consequences, one hopes, comes learning. And growing up.

Jones has a unique, precious gift, one that he’s put on display for his entire highlight reel of a career, but never more bodaciously than on that night in Jersey when he destroyed the champion, “Shogun” Rua. Afterward, amid the high spirits of coronation and celebration, there were sobering words spoken by Dana White. “Jon Jones got through a tough test tonight and passed with flying colors. But the real challenge starts now,” he told MMAfighting.com. “When you become the UFC champion and you have the charisma and the personality and all the things that Jon Jones has—this kid looks like he could be a breakthrough star that appeals to many different people. But this is where the real challenge begins. Every scumbag, dirtball, what I call cling-ons, all the cling-ons, the barnacles, they’re probably trying to glom on to him right now, as he’s trying to walk to his car and go back to his hotel. Here’s where the real challenge begins. He seems to be a grounded kid, smart guy, has a good family around him and people that care about him. So hopefully he can get through the nastiness that’s going to come at him over the next several months.”

Four years later, it doesn’t appear that Jones took heed of that cautionary tale from his boss. But perhaps he’ll take in the words he spoke himself on that night, standing at the center of the cage wearing his new brass-and-leather belt—a strap that’s now gone. “It’s a testament that dreams can come true, guys,” said the new champ, eyes gleaming. “They really can. Believe in yourself. Believe in your heart.”