While never a desirable trait in an athlete, self-sabotage is perhaps especially problematic for a UFC fighter. When your opponent is trying to divorce you from consciousness and contort your limbs like balloon animals, the last thing you want to do is undermine your chances of survival.
Yet Jon Jones has managed to pull off a feat that has eluded every other fighter on the planet: he has stuck a crowbar in the progress of….Jon Jones. For a half-decade, Jones was the best pound-for-pound fighter in the UFC, a lavishly talented light heavyweight who married fiery athleticism with cold-blooded poise. Jones was only 23 when he cleaned out the division and won the light heavyweight belt. But in 2015, after defending his title for a record eighth time, he was stripped of his belt when he was arrested on felony hit-and-run charges. (He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was subsequently sentenced to up to 18 months of supervised probation.)
In 2006, days prior to headlining the UFC 200 card, Jones tested positive for two banned substances. He received a one-year suspension by USADA after an arbitration panel concluded that Jones did not take the banned substances intentionally. After winning his return fight last summer, he again tested positive for a different banned substance, turinabol. (He was stripped of his belt, but suspended for only 15 months, when an arbitrator ruled that the violation was not intended, nor could it have enhanced the athlete's performance.) Jones is steadfast that he has never intentionally taken PED’s but, in a knockout of an understatement, he concedes, “I haven’t always made the best decisions.”
Part of what makes Jones’ saga particularly mystifying and maddening: he ought to know better. The son of a pastor, Jones projects thoughtfulness and introspection. Sandwiched between two brothers who reached the NFL—Arthur retired in 2017; Chandler, a defensive end for Arizona, is currently near the top of the league in sacks—Jon understands the rules of engagement for professional sports and had first-hand exposure to handling fame and wealth.
His suspension now lapsed, Jones is cleared to return to the Octagon on Dec. 29, headlining the UFC 232 card in Las Vegas. His opponent, Sweden’s Alexander Gustafsson, is the only man ever to have significantly hurt Jones. In their 2013 fight, Jones says, “I was pushed miles from my comfort zone,” before winning a unanimous decision. This marks an opportunity for Jones, now 31, to win back his belt and, more important, to start undoing some reputational damage. First, he spent a sparring session with SI. (The following has been edited lightly for brevity and clarity.)
Jon Wertheim: For all that’s been written and said, I want you to characterize it yourself. The last five years have been ____. You fill in the blank.
Jon Jones: The last five years? They have been ... hmmm. They have been educational for sure, good and bad. It’s hard to sum up, it’s really hard to sum up. I’ve learned a lot over the past five years. Career-wise the last five years have been nuts. There’s been a lot of things to be happy about, seen a lot of great things, met a lot of great people. Win fights, make a lot of money. And then, you know, I have had some setbacks.
Wertheim: What have you learned?
Jones: Let me tell you, the biggest thing and what it has done is it’s allowed me to separate myself and life, my family life, from my career. Career-wise has been crazy. Life has been... can’t complain. Really can’t complain. I lost my mom. But outside of that, man, bills are paid, kids are happy, life’s happy, so.... Can’t complain with one side. On the other side, you know. Sometimes you wish you could rewrite things. But that is life.
Wertheim: Do you ever think, I’m in a good place—kids, married—this whole fighting thing, this chapter is over.
Jones: I considered it. I considered it for a while when the allegation first happened. I realized I was facing four years, possibly not getting back for four years. I considered the idea of just saying forget it. Maybe doing real estate or get in to something else.
I had someone ask, "Jon did you take steroids? Like seriously did you take steroids? And now’s the time you can be real with me."
And I said, "No, I didn’t."
"Well then why are you hanging your head and thinking about hanging the gloves? You were the greatest fighter ever. If you didn’t do steroids then why are you walking around with so much shame? And sadness? He said, get back on your horse. No matter how long it takes. If you have to start fighting in Russia or whatever, China, to get back to being where you want to be, you gotta do it. You just gotta take the long road now."
And I said fuck it and made a decision to take the long road, and it is funny how once I accepted that, everything came back.
Wertheim: What do you mean "everything came back” exactly?
Jones: I was finding happiness outside of the UFC. I was finding happiness outside of being a professional athlete. It was like I lost my job and I finally got to the point where I was like: You know what? I still have a lot to be thankful for and I still have a lot of opportunities. Still have a lot that I could do, you know? I have a following, my brand, a platform, my finances. There is a lot I can do. I’m not just confined to be a fighter. When I finally got comfortable with the idea of being UFC champion, everything just started to come back. I was pretty much released to fight again….It’s like a sick trick life plays on you sometimes.
Wertheim: What did you learn about yourself?
Jones: Without the identity of being light heavyweight champion it was just extremely depressing for a while. Really depressing. I had to learn the value of just being Jon Jones. No matter what happens to me at work, it is a very small part of what my life is.
Wertheim: It also strikes me that your brothers are professional athletes. But team sports are so different. The stress level of what you do makes it almost like another line of work—
Jones: A lot more stress. But it comes with more reward as well. Some of the pros are you control your success and how far you get. You know what I mean? You can come from absolutely nothing and you can completely change your life with the sport, attitude, work ethic. Where opposed to being on a team sport, you can want it as bad as you want but if you don’t have the right people around you, the quarterback, the lineman, whatever, then you’re not making it to the top.
Wertheim: You prefer that, it’s all on you?
Jones: I prefer putting my destiny in my own hands. And being in a sport like this, even if it comes with a lot more scrutiny and a lot more everything. Highs are high, lows are low in this sport.
Wertheim: Are you an athlete or a performer?
Jones: What do you mean?
Wertheim: Years ago, you said you almost didn’t feel like you were in a fight. That’s how natural it came.
Jones: I remember just always walking backstage and just saying, "Man, I am feeling good, I got no scars, nothing is sore." That was before Gustafsson. That was the first fight I actually felt like I was in a fight. I really actually thought about what I was doing for a living.
Wertheim: That’s really interesting—so in some ways you’re 1–0. You’ve had one fight where you actually had to go to a level that you hadn’t had to before.
Jones: It takes a lot of courage to get in there and know that you could possibly go to war. You know the first time I fought him I wasn’t expecting to go to war. I thought I was going to walk right through. But this time I am expecting to go to war. Well, I am not expecting. I am prepared to go to war this time. That is the word I want to use. And if I were to go to war, then it wouldn’t take me by surprise the way it did the first time. So that’s a big difference.
Wertheim: How did you like war?
Jones: Yeah, it was a completely different experience. Being, you know, first round of this fight, he cut me right away so I am bleeding over my right eye. It never happened before but it left me with a scar, you know. I see it every time I look in the mirror. [Points to scar.] It was different bleeding for the first time and then being taken down. Just, you know, really feeling like you lost the first round and after, you know, a fairly flawless career. It was just like I had to dig deep. I had to know that this one wasn’t going to go perfectly for me. And I just had to be ready to improvise and just get the job done. It was a good experience, man, it taught me a lot about myself. You know, a lot of times during my young career people used to just blame me being good at fighting. No one actually said "because you’re black" but it was kind of like, "both of his brothers are athletes, he’s like long, he is quick." I used to hear things about being explosive and athletic all the time, never about having great strategy. Or hard work and cardio and all this stuff. A big heart.
Wertheim: What kind of debt do you feel to your talent?
Jones: I feel like my obligation is to God. If God gives you a gift, you’re obligated to try to use it....It’s a very special thing. And to have it—being born you have that ability to be in this position—to not utilize it, to not do something with it, it would be a damn shame. It would be a damn shame to be talented enough to be in the UFC and damn shame to say at one point I was making this type of money and you didn’t do what you could have done with it. So yeah, you’re obligated to do it for all the people that wish they could do it.
Wertheim: Your adjustment to celebrity—
Jones: A lot times for me I felt like I didn’t really do it right. For me it led to a lot of partying really. But, you know, everybody does theirs differently. Everybody has their desire and people think of fun in different ways. For me having fun was being out amongst people, seeing people smile, happy, drunk.
Wertheim: When you fight now, what’s your level of nervousness?
Jones: I know what I am doing. I trust my cardio. I trust my training, my skills. I trust, you know, the playlist. It’s like Tom Brady. I am sure when he was younger he used to try to do all this mental stuff; but by this time he has thrown so many balls, you know, he just knows how to read what’s happening.
Wertheim: But I remember you used to say you had zero nerves.
Jones: I was lying to you. I had to have been lying. [Laughs] I have confidence and faith in myself. I believe that I will win this fight and I will continue to keep winning for many years. And I believe in my work ethic. I think you know when you feel like you’re working harder than your competition it definitely helps nerves. But everyone has nerves.
Wertheim: But what’s the source? One mistake and you know some of the consequences? Is it making up for lost time?
Jones: Ah, the source of nerves. Source of nerves. I think the source of nerves could be coming up short and making haters so happy. That’s the one thing a Jon Jones hater can never fucking bring up. Never losing to anybody or bringing that up or any memes of me knocked out or looking crazy. That’s the one thing they don’t have on me. I always show up. I always do my job. And so losing, that would really piss me off.
Wertheim: You’re a better fighter now than you were at 25?
Jones: Oh yeah. If me, right now, got my hands on Jon Jones at 23, youngest champion in UFC history and shit, I would strangle that little boy. I really do. I had no jiu-jitsu. My physical strength was lower. I think I was more creative back then. But my fundamentals are in such a stronger place. My younger self felt he had more to prove. And was more hungry to be honest to be dead honest. But the older version of myself would just be more sure of himself. My last fight [a TKO against Daniel Cormier] was my best fight.
Wertheim: Can you dunk yet?
Jones: No. [Laughs]
Wertheim: You’re still a world-class athlete?
Jones: I think I am.
Wertheim: You are still 6'4"?
Jones: I am. But I cannot dunk. I still cannot dunk. Nope. Not happening.
Wertheim: Anyone you especially want to fight?
Jones: Alexander Gustafsson is who I want the most.
Wertheim: Okay. So, as you see it, what’s on the line when you fight on Dec. 29?
Jones: I’m in an interesting position. I knocked out Daniel Cormier in my last fight. A lot of people say I could be the best ever. The reality is that I just got accused of using steroids. This next fight allows me to beat a guy a lot people thinks I lost to. And beat him right after this USADA situation. So I can prove so much at once. Okay, I don’t do steroids. I don’t need steroids. I’m obviously not on steroids now, beating a guy everyone thought beat me before. What’s next? What’s your excuse next? How are you going to stop me?
Wertheim: You feel you’re fighting for the past as well the present?
Jones: For sure. A lot of people think he beat me the first time. And then a lot of people think I’ve been cheating to win all this time. Which is weird. So I get to prove that I haven’t been cheating; I don’t need to cheat to win. USADA has been testing. I can close a lot of chapters all at once.
Wertheim: At age 31 —
Jones: At age 31, after a year off, he came back and dominated. So obviously he hasn’t been cheating. This guy isn’t going anywhere. That’s what I want to happen. That’s what’s gonna happen.
Wertheim: So last question: if someone watched a video of this interview they’d say ‘I don’t get it.’ Here’s a guy who’s smart and likable and from a good family. How did things gets weird? What happened?’ What would be your response? What’s your take on everything you’ve been through?
Jones: I think it’s a very interesting situation, very interesting story. I’m in an interesting position because I feel like I have the power to have two different stories. I’m at a crossroads. It can be an amazing turnaround story. People can literally watch me become a man. They can see me get it together and figure it out. That’s where I’m at. You see some celebrities where they have lows and never come out of it. I want to be a success story. And I’m up for the challenge.