UFC 232 Editorial – The eternal Jon Jones

Looking back at Jon Jones before he fights Alexander Gustafsson for the vacant light heavyweight title at UFC 232 in the Forum in Inglewood,…

By: Phil Mackenzie | 4 years ago
UFC 232 Editorial – The eternal Jon Jones
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Looking back at Jon Jones before he fights Alexander Gustafsson for the vacant light heavyweight title at UFC 232 in the Forum in Inglewood, California

Here is a moment: Jon Jones talks about chasing down a mugger in the post-fight press conference after he has beaten Shogun Rua. While he’s struggled to connect with fans before, it’s an effortlessly charming moment. He laughs as he talks about accidentally outpacing his trainers to catch the man. He’s going to be OK.

Here is a moment: Jon Jones is fighting Vitor Belfort. He leaves his arm carelessly in the Brazilian’s guard, and Belfort snatches it up, locks on an armbar. The joint pops, but Jones does not tap. Whatever else he is, he’s tough.

Here is a moment: Jon Jones is fighting Alexander Gustafsson, and he may be losing for the first time in his career. He is tired, and his face is swollen and bloody, and the lanky Swede will not go away. Jones spins and crashes his elbow into Gustafsson’s forehead, turns the whole fight around with his signature move. He can dig deep.

Here is a moment: Jones and Gustafsson take a picture of themselves, bruised and torn and battered but proud of how deep they’ve gone, of how tough the fight was, knowing that they were part of something special.

Here is a moment: Jon Jones walks out to fight Daniel Cormier for the second time, and he looks purely delighted. He laughs and shouts, and he punches the wall. He doesn’t have the look of a man backed into a corner, on the way back from trail of disasters including (but not limited to) an anti-doping violation and running into a pregnant woman’s car while under the influence and breaking her arm. Instead he looks hugely and irrepressibly happy. He’s the kid that’s been told he could finally take that BMX he was given for his birthday out for a spin.

The walk to the cage at UFC 214 was the start of Jones’ shortest redemption tour. He had solemnly laid out how it was going to go in interviews. He was back, he was chastened, and things would be different. He made no promise to lay aside the drink and the drugs. He explained carefully that the issue had been one of forced restraint; that he couldn’t be who he wanted to be. He had tried too hard to be a role model, and it had been too much, and that pressure had caused him to act out.

This would be the deal: Jones would no longer have to live up to the ideals set for him. Without that pressure he would presumably continue to sleep around (but not too much) and do cocaine (but not too much) and drink (but not drive), and would be a stable, and consistent, if somewhat unconventional champion.

It was hard to believe that anyone actually bought this, but was also hard not to smile watching him come down to the cage, being so in love with where he was and what he was doing. There’s a specific kind of awe found in watching someone do exactly what they’re made for. In these instants, a jerk is not redeemed, but exists as something other. A terribly flawed individual as a conduit for something transcendent is an inextricable part of sports, entertainment, and basically life.

The redemption story had been accepted by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, albeit with more than a touch of unease. The organization’s stock in trade is damaged people who damage people, so it has taken risks with fighters who are liabilities before, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Rumble Johnson had domestic violence issues; Lloyd Irvin continues to corner at UFC shows despite alleged associations with a hideous sexual assault; Mayhem Miller was starting to show cracks when the UFC had him headline The Ultimate Fighter. Unrepentant abuser Greg Hardy is being being primed to make his debut.

These were or are candidates to implode. PR disasters in waiting. Yet of all of them, it’s hard to think of an MMA fighter whose self-destruction has felt like more of a foregone conclusion than Jonathan Dwight Jones. By the time he was dancing down to the cage at 214, the UFC brass had internalized and accepted this. Redundancies were laid down in the match between Jimi Manuwa and Volkan Oezdemir, so that there would be a replacement ready if he fell out of the Cormier fight.

If Jones won, they’d hopefully be able to milk him for a few more title defenses before he detonated. Despite mutual mistrust and dislike between Jones and the brass, there’s no doubt that it was a good thing to have him around from a purely commercial standpoint. The alternative was to be completely dependent on Conor McGregor, the whims of Brock Lesnar and an aging and recalcitrant Georges Saint-Pierre to provide desperately-needed profit.

Wrestling and The Grind

Daniel Cormier’s entrance to the cage was different. The former light heavyweight champion might be about MMA’s Daddest fighter, all barrel chest and bad jokes and sincere homilies about the necessities of hard work and being a good man. The joviality was gone, and Cormier looked like a gravel-eyed bruiser. He scowled and smacked his fists together. He snarled.

The contrast between the two sang out. In a clear and obvious way, it was apparent that for one man, this was work, down in a dark and closed-off space. For the other it was just fun.

While he didn’t know it, Cormier was going to be taking the beating of his life. After going 0-2 against Jones he would say that there was and could be no rivalry.

He’d be wrong. A great rivalry isn’t just driven by a clash in fighting style, physicality or personality, but in underlying ways of seeing the world, in essential differences which drive themselves into the fights. For example, take the wrestling. Cormier likes to lock onto the collarbone of his opponent with one hand and pummel them in the face with the other, or to lift and fling them like a sack of cement. These are neat tricks, ones which are difficult to pull off if you don’t have clamp forged from years of lifting and crushing human bodies on the end of your arm.

The first fight had been a shock for him. It had showed that this clinch, his best and favourite spot, was a place to avoid. Jones is tall and skinnier, but he is very strong. He demonstrated that he could grab Cormier’s wrist, and lean, and hold. What bulk he has is carried in his shoulders, and being much taller, he could rest his weight on Cormier’s upper body. It didn’t make it exciting, but it wore the shorter man out.

In the rematch, the surprise was that Cormier stopped himself from diving into his beloved tie-ups. He didn’t blow energy on takedowns which weren’t going to come. The whole rivalry had started when Jones had disrespected Cormier’s wrestling. That wrestling has always been at the root of Cormier’s pride.

Cormier is the King of the Grind, the Indestructible Man. The Grind is all about sucking in pain and damage. It is self-sacrifice, abnegation, denying yourself for the benefit of tomorrow. These are perhaps the factors which sit at the core of the differences of the two men. So even Cormier’s biggest pride was set aside in his pursuit of the win.

He took smaller steps, turned out combinations in short, thumping punch-kick series inside the arc of Jones’ reach. He was clever and tough and determined. His approach was the right one. He was also a porous defensive fighter stuck in a striking match with a bigger and younger man. Jones threw more punches and more kicks, from ranges that his stocky opponent just couldn’t, and softened the barrel of Cormier’s midsection. The champion’s improvements started to quietly, imperceptibly shut themselves away as the breath was pounded out of him.

The bad side of The Grind started to well up. Single-minded focus can become just that. It can narrow itself down and reduce into an idea, a sentence, a single word, “FORWARD,” and so Cormier settled into a dogged and fatally predictable plod. Jones slowed his own pace and moved back, and back, and whipped out a kick to Cormier’s head. The champion staggered. That narrowing down became a fading, like the shrinking light of a switched off TV set.

Cormier stumbled, and Jones sprinted at him. With his only finish in years close, it would be easy and natural to blindly bash away. Instead, as he ran, Jones reached out to shove the older man while putting his foot outside of Cormier’s own. This little outside reap was a tiny, endlessly impressive moment of improvisation in chaos, and it had Cormier falling into the fence, where Jones bludgeoned him with vicious, chopping blows. The older man thrashed hopelessly, a fish under a knife, until the referee came to pull Jones away.

The moment spoke to Jones’ genius. He operates in the short term in the outside world, but he is present and prescient in a fist fight; wide open to consequences while weaving in moments of improvisational brilliance.

So then, a moment: “I’m going to do my best to be the champion that you guys deserve to have. Daniel Cormier has been one of the biggest sources of motivation I’ve had in the last two-three years and I thank him for that and for pushing me to a higher level.”

And you could be forgiven for getting caught up in that moment again, for thinking: maybe… maybe he wasn’t ever going to be a saint, but maybe he’d be able to make something of this. Then the test results came back again, and Jones had failed again, and he was stripped again, and why would anyone have expected anything different?

The flicker book

The take on Jones is not that he’s fake, exactly, but that he’s temporary. He draws in what he thinks he needs to make every moment the best moment.

His tweets after the failure were strange.

He wasn’t furious like a wronged man, and didn’t sit in the sullen, defensive silence of someone nursing a guilty conscience. The things he wrote and said had an odd tone-deaf quality, leaving you groping for what exactly was wrong with them.

What if life was just a constant flicker-book of moments, singular instances that you could slip into when you wanted to? What if the future just didn’t mean anything, had no costs or risks? Train because you like it, fight because you like it; sleep around and take drugs because they make you feel good. If someone asks you about being an inspiration or a good Christian, why not slip into that role as well, until the next moment presents itself?

People who want Jones to just “be himself” or go “full heel” seem to be missing something in this case, which is that there might not be much of a self there at all. He might say that all he wants is to be remembered as a bad motherf—ker… but if someone asks him if he wants to be a role model, then there will probably never be a time where he won’t shrug on that particular coat and wear it for a short time as well.

The strange thing which suffused those tweets was positivity; like an ugly metastasis of a self-help brand. Prosperity gospel mantras tell you that the return point is just around the corner. If history doesn’t matter and everything to come is made of great things, then no matter how low you get, the moment you’re occupying is simply an inflection point. The past is a great frozen slide, and the future is waiting to carry you upwards, any second now. So look around, everything is great.

The debacle

In February of 2018 Jones had his arbitration meeting with the California State Athletic Commission, and it was… not good. He had minimal record of his supplements, and referred to them as “USADA approved,” and looked classically unprepared from start to finish. The CSAC revoked his license pending the US Anti-Doping Association’s ruling later in 2018.

Most expected that, as this was Jones’ second offense, he’d be catching a four year suspension. Instead, it turned out that he’d finagled an enormous reduction in sentencing by delivering “substantial assistance” to USADA, something which essentially translates to snitching on other athletes.

This cleared the decks for him to fight less than eighteen months after his bout against Cormier. What better fight could there have been than against his other great rival in Alexander Gustafsson, the man who had pushed him furthest?

But then last week, the bad news started to come in again, because of course it did. Jones “had abnormal readings” in another test, and Nevada was unwilling to license him before an investigation had been made. So the UFC lifted and shifted the entire event, support staff, fighters and all, to Los Angeles.

The UFC is not unique among combat sports organizations in its possession of a checkered history, yet it’s hard to think of any single thing it has done which has looked worse, which has stunk quite as badly as this debacle. It’s hard to think of anything it has done as flagrantly cynical and as obviously rotten as screwing over its most loyal traveling fans and its own fighters to ensure that a convicted felon and drugs cheat can be transported to a state which is more conveniently lackadaisical about its strictures on PEDs, in order for him to boost their PPV revenues.

There were other solutions available, of course: the card could have been delayed, or rescheduled until the investigations were completed. Jones and Gustafsson could have been shifted to LA without the other fighters following suit. There were other ranked LHWs on the card- Ilir Latifi or Corey Anderson could conceivably have fought for the belt instead of Jones.

Except of course they couldn’t. There was no real alternative this time. The speed with which the UFC acted, the fact that they were completely unwilling to change anything but the location, indicates that there are some significant year-end targets to be hit, and that Jones was their only option for doing so.

In some ways it’s almost perfectly fitting, that as the organization’s gaze has become more and more fixed in the short term, that it has locked itself into a tight and dangerous embrace with this selfish, great, awful, doomed screw-up, this terrible fighter who lives in a constant present, where the future is irrelevant and the past can be rebuilt to best fit the now, and where the best story can always be made from the parts within reach.

Getting ready for the return, again

While it may or may not happen at UFC 232, Jones is going to mess things up again. The extent to which his employers will move heaven and earth to accommodate him virtually guarantees it. They’ve neatly illustrated that they just don’t have the stars to replace him, and this has not exactly been a lesson in consequences.

Jones is young enough that even if the hammer does come down, that he could wait it out, come back and do the whole thing all over again. A full four-year suspension would be one where he could pop up on twitter to crack on whoever might be champ in his absence, be it Cormier, or Gustafsson, or Blachowicz, or whoever. He could still look around and remind himself that he’s still rich and athletic. He has a loving family, and is the baddest man at the gym. He could absorb two straight four year suspensions, and still be younger than Daniel Cormier is now.

With that being said, hypotheticals like this get more unstable the further into the distance they project. Muscles slacken and tendons stiffen, and dopamine receptors stop doing their thing quite so well over time. People change. Eventually the temporal bubble rots from the outside in, and Jones will change at some point. But probably not now.

Now everyone gets ready to watch him jump back in blithe as ever, listening to him blather on about how USADA proved his innocence, hearing him gloss over what sounds like a growing substance addiction problem, watching him try to shout down reporters who have questions about his failures.

Watching this is to feel that it’s still just about possible to grieve for the Jones that wasn’t. The bad moments were bad, but he rarely seemed unsalvageable. He never had the self-hate and rage and damage of a Mike Tyson, or the laziness which sabotaged BJ Penn. It’s always been a uniquely frustrating experience to watch him smugly slide into disaster, and even Cormier’s biggest dig was basically remonstrative.

People long ago stopped wanting him to be good. Instead, they just wanted him to not be the biggest screw-up in the sport.

Instead, held in single moments he has managed to carve away almost everything but that brief thrill of watching someone do incredible things. If you thought he was a good sort deep down who just messed up occasionally, then the shocking cowardice of running back to a hit-and-run scene to grab money and drugs destroys that. If you take the libertarian perspective that PEDs are basically fine, then his snitching has exposed a lot of innocents.

In the end, the moments he is capable of generating don’t just go away. If you really try, it’s still just about possible to shake your head at them, at the fragmented instances where everything was just right, to believe that he had such a perfect place given to him that it was impossible he couldn’t translate that into functionality.

They can’t be pieced together either, though. They are and remain optical illusions of a particular type, like sitting in a train passing through a forest, and looking out of the window to see a person standing in among the trees. A moment later, and you realize it was just a coincidental arrangement of shade and branches. These are the flashes of Jones the Champion, chasing muggers and promising to be a better man, caught in the image of the person he could be and filling it perfectly. They’ll always be a trick of time and perspective, static and visible from one point, until the track unfolds, and the world moves on.

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Phil Mackenzie
Phil Mackenzie

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