After what feels like years of turmoil and scandal, of missed fights and blown opportunities, the baddest motherfucker on Earth is finally back.
All told, Jon Jones hasn’t been on the shelf that long. Bones last fought in the UFC in April 2016, walking through light heavyweight contender Ovince Saint Preux easily enough that Dan Hardy theorized he’d held back to avoid showing all his cards. But thanks to the doping suspension last July that scuttled a rematch against light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, coupled with the ascendancy of an uneasy new class of stars, it feels like he’s been gone even longer. Simply put, the sport doesn’t revolve around him anymore. For better and worse.
The UFC’s most reliable star is a race-baiting Irish kook who’s more interested in losing boxing matches to all-timers than fighting a growing backlog of contenders. Multiple divisions are stagnating as other champs follow his lead. Card after card, ratings and PPV buys are stagnant or falling. There are still instances of mixed martial arts fights transcending internecine brutality and turning into the sort of enthralling, violent spectacle no other sport can provide, but something is missing.
Whereas Conor McGregor is a perfectly fine fighter who’s become a globetrotting superstar on the back of unceasingly brash trash talk, Jones pushes the very boundaries of the sport while destroying everyone in front of him. He doesn’t just beat his opponents; he breaks them, turns even the proudest, most ruthless fighters into quivering bowls of jelly. Jones is as flawless a fighter as you could realistically dream of, amassing a 21-1 record in his near-decade domination of the light heavyweight division, that his lone loss coming off a bullshit disqualification in a fight he was about to finish.
You want wrestling? He choked the slippery and unorthodox Lyoto Machida unconscious while both men were standing, dropping the Brazilian in an uncanny gelatinous heap. He was the first man to ever take down Daniel Cormier, once picking him up like an unruly toddler, rather than the Olympian he is. He’s a head taller than Cormier, yet he’s strong enough to gain leverage, bold enough to flip him on his ass, and smart enough to know when to do so.
Jones is perhaps most dangerous when he’s on his feet. He’s a big lanky motherfucker who throws fists, elbows, and feet with the speed and precision you’d expect from a smaller fighter. Jones looks like nothing less than the future of the sport when he’s throwing elbows in the clinch, nailing livers with vicious spinning back kicks, or sending men to the floor with spinning elbows to their heads. It’s not his power that’s scary, exactly; it’s the variety of ways he will pick you apart and smash your face in, and the ubiquity of his attempts to do so. Facing Jones isn’t just a test of one’s physical limits, it’s a mentally grueling task that requires you to outthink a fighter who can hit you from any angle. He doesn’t seem like someone who largely taught himself to fight by watching YouTube videos and anime, he seems like a computer built to break the wills of men. He may have lost once, but he’s never been beaten.
The only man to truly come close is Cormier, who Jones will fight for the light heavyweight belt (in his eyes, his light heavyweight belt) this weekend in Anaheim. Cormier is everything Jones is not. He’s an easygoing family man, who’s come close to an Olympic medal and currently holds a UFC title, but has never beaten Jones. Meanwhile, Jones donned the trappings of a God-fearing Christian dude who fought for the glory of Christ and even got a large, bold “Philippians 4:13"--I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me—tattoo on his chest.
It was a persona, one that was swiftly and loudly contradicted by a parade of scandals, such as Jones crashing his Bentley (crammed full of women who were not his fiancée) into a pole while under the influence, Jones running from the scene of a 2015 crash where he injured a pregnant woman, and Jones appearing in a leaked Snapchat video of him wagging his dick at a woman (also not his fiancée) and telling her “I can be such a pervert sometimes,” he says in the video. “You like that?” Jones fought like a world-historic badass in the octagon, acted a roguish dick outside of it, yet all he showed the world was a smooth branded facade, one that was less interesting than the truth would have been all along.
Cormier sees Jones as a fraud. Jones sees Cormier as an inferior coward. Most combat sports rivalries are put-ons and designed to move units. This one is not. They hate each other. After the cameras stopped rolling on a 2014 ESPN interview, the two engaged in the rawest trash talk imaginable, a habit which they’ve kept up on over the years. Even this summer, Jones asked Cormier how he was going to explain to his kids that their dad was a fake champion. Cormier mocked Jones for being a fuckup who was too busy snorting cocaine and “sandblasting prostitutes” to make himself worth a damn.
Saturday’s fight, atop the best card of the year, is probably the most important UFC fight in years. The consequences for whoever loses will be devastating and permanent. If Jones wins, the 38-year-old Cormier is probably done and will leave the sport as an almost-great champion who did everything but beat his biggest rival. If Cormier wins, he’s redeemed and Jon Jones looks less like the pound-for-pound best and more like an unsquareable “What if?” It’s going to be violent and it’s going to be merciless. The sport of MMA is better with Jones in it, especially when he’s facing up to his greatest challenger.