It’s been a long, strange week for the UFC.
On Tuesday, featherweight champion Conor McGregor, who was scheduled to headline UFC 200 in a few months, tweeted his retirement from out of the blue, and bedlam ensued. Everyone was trying to figure out what was going on, even us.
The same day, he was scratched from the UFC 200 headline.
On Thursday, McGregor wanted to make it clear that he’s not retiring and seems to have no idea where anyone would get such a silly idea. That wasn’t good enough for the UFC, who are not budging on his removal from UFC 200.
We haven’t heard nearly the last of this story, and the UFC knows it. That’s why they want to get everyone as focused as they can on their next big event, UFC 197. And in doing so, the spotlight now centers on one of the evening’s headliners, former light heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones.
Jones is widely considered to be one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the UFC, and possibly the best ever. On April 23, he’ll have his first fight in 15 months to try to prove it again when he takes on Ovince St. Preux in the main event at 197. In fact, it’s only been since October that he’s been reinstated by the UFC after serving an indefinite suspension (more on that in a moment).
Let’s take a look at everything that’s riding on Saturday’s showdown, and what led to this monumental fight.
Toughness and athleticism is in Jon Jones’ blood. His two brothers, Arthur and Chandler, play in the National Football League. Jones himself was a football standout in high school — in fact, it was his football coach that designated him his “Bones” nickname, due to his slender build.
But wrestling was where he truly excelled, winning a state championship at Union-Endicott High School. After more success at the junior college level, he dropped out of college to pursue mixed martial arts full-time.
On paper, Jones has had a career that most fighters can only dream of. Since entering the UFC in 2008, he’s been an absolute wrecking ball of strikes, submissions and takedowns.
In fact, Jones has only one loss in his UFC career, and, depending on who you ask, there’s a big asterisk next to that defeat. It happened in 2009 against Matt Hamill. Jones was dominating the fight when he used a 12-6 elbow, which is illegal in the UFC for reasons most people don’t understand.
Jones, believing he had recorded a knockout, was disqualified and given the loss. It’s regarded as one of the most controversial finishes in UFC history, with many fans convinced the referee should have stopped the fight before the elbows were even thrown.
But Jones bounced back. In 2010, after defeating Vladimir Matyushenko by TKO in the first round, UFC President Dana White said, “This kid is one of the top eight in the world in that weight division. He’s got to keep his head together, stay focused and keep doing all the right things in training … He’s going to make a lot of money — this kid is going to do very well.”
White would make good on his prediction, when in March of 2011, Jones put on a dazzling display of elbows, knees and punches to defeat Shogun Rua at UFC 128 and become light heavyweight champion. At age 23, this made him the youngest champion in UFC history, a record that he still holds today.
For almost five years, Jones was undefeated as he defended his light heavyweight title. He ended up successfully defending his title eight times, the most of any light heavyweight in UFC history (second overall only to Anderson Silva’s 10 defenses of the middleweight championship). But his time in the UFC hasn’t come without baggage.
In 2012, Jones was arrested for driving under the influence when he drove his Bentley into a pole. The incident resulted in a fine and a suspended license.
Jones also received heat in 2012, when he refused to face Chael Sonnen at UFC 151. Sonnen was a last-minute replacement for Dan Henderson. As a result, the entire event was cancelled, costing the UFC about $40 million all told. It was the first time the UFC cancelled an entire event in the company’s history.
Two years later, Jones would find himself in hot water again, this time because of alleged social media activity. After a Swedish man posted a negative remark to Jones’ Twitter page, Jones went on the man’s Instagram and left homophobic remarks on several photos.
Then there was the staredown at a promotional event leading up to UFC 178. Jones was set to square off against Daniel Cormier. When the two men met on stage, Jones decided that aggressively pressing his forehead against Cormier’s was more effective than just staring. Cormier response was about what you’d expect from a guy who fights for a living, and a brawl ensued.
Jones and Cormier had already expressed dislike for each other, but this kicked their rivalry up to a heated level that’s never cooled, even with Jones out of action for over a year.
Stripped of Title
Which leads us to his suspension. On April 28, 2015, Jones was stripped of his light heavyweight championship and suspended indefinitely by the UFC. The punishments were a result of a hit-and-run incident with which Jones was involved, where he ran a red light, crashed into another vehicle and fled on foot. He would return to the scene shortly thereafter to grab what witnesses describe as “a large handful of cash” before fleeing on foot again.
He was eventually sentenced to 18 months probation for the incident. In a response via Twitter, Jones wrote “Got a lot of soul searching to do. Sorry to everyone I’ve let down.”
Looking to Get Back Up
For the duration of his suspension, Jones didn’t speak to the media. Instead, he said, he got back to the basics.
“I’ve had the opportunity to just kind of reevaluate life,” he says in an interview with MMAfighting.com, “(to) look at myself outside of being this UFC champion, and just kind of get back to Jonathan Jones as a person, as a father, and not just this athlete. So I definitely appreciate the time away. And I do feel great.”
With his suspension lifted as of October, Jones will now try to regain his former in-ring dominance while leaving less desirable aspects of his reputation in the past. He was looking forward to a rematch with Cormier, whom he got the better of in his last fight before the suspension. Cormier is the reigning light heavyweight champion, having picked up the belt after Jones had the title stripped. But an injury has forced Cormier out, and Ovince St. Preux has drawn the task of replacement.
St. Preux brings his own set of challenges for Jones. He’s an explosive puncher and kicker with attack dog-like aggressiveness. His deficiency is that he has almost no ground game to speak of, something that Jones — with six submission victories — will look to take advantage of. (Jones is still the heavy favorite entering the fight.)
But Jones has had a lot more to think about since being reinstated than how he matches up with opponents.
“I am thankful to be able to do what I love once again,” Jones said, “and I look forward to proving myself as a champion in and outside of the octagon.”
What’s at Stake
That’s not to say Jones doesn’t appreciate the opportunity in front of him. With Cormier out due to injury, Jones can capture the interim light heavyweight title with a victory against St. Creux. That would streamline a light heavyweight title fight with Cormier when he is cleared to return.
Now if only there were a major UFC event in the not-too-distant future with a recently vacated main event…
With everything happening involving McGregor and White, a mega-rematch between Jones and Cormier for the light heavyweight title could be the best way to placate UFC fans angry about the scratched McGregor/Diaz rematch. And Jones says he’s more than happy to fill the void.
“Absolutely,” says Jones. “I would totally step in to UFC 200 and fill in that main event or co-main event slot.”
Cormier seems on board as well, as long as his recovery stays on track.
“If they’re telling me in 4-6 weeks I’m supposed to be better, that would leave me with 10-12 weeks to train for UFC 200. I could be ready to fight then,” he said earlier this month.
Whether or not it happens at UFC 200, it’s bound to be a match for the ages. And oddly enough, Jones says he’s been alright with his longtime rival holding the title he was forced to vacate. But now that time is over.
“So, me not being in there, you want to see a guy like (Cormier) have the belt. So a part of me, in a weird way, is happy that he got the opportunity. But now he’s had it long enough. I hope he enjoyed it. It’s time to pay his rental fee and get that a** whooped when I finally face him.”
That’s the kind of matchup fans get maybe once or twice a year. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Jones has a formidable opponent on Saturday to focus on first. And it’s about more than winning a fight. It’s about showing the world he’s still the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
For him, fifteen months of waiting comes down to Saturday. We’ll see if this very strange week in the UFC culminates with an icon and former champion showing the world he’s still a force to be reckoned with.