It was him and no one else. He struck the match. He left the oven on. He brought the house down. The behaviour of an asshole rather than arsonist, Jon Jones had everything and then nothing.
It went up in flames – hot, then really hot, then cold – and Jones, the former UFC light-heavyweight champion, left alone with his thoughts and a million regrets, surveyed the damage, the debris, settled into temporary accommodation, got big, got small, changed his hairstyle and then finally, only when he was good and ready, looked to get back all he had squandered.
The process starts properly this Saturday (July 29) when he meets Daniel Cormier, his bitter rival, a man he has already defeated, a man who, crucial to this tale, is only too happy to remind Jones of all he has lost. Not only that, Cormier blames him. Calls him a f**k up. Pokes him with reminders of his failings and flaws. In a sense, he compensates for losing to the New Yorker in the Octagon by reminding his rival just how superior he is in the arena of life – the arena where it all counts – and how he’s currently in possession of some the things, material or otherwise, Jon Jones lost in the fire.
Things Jon Jones lost in the fire: his UFC championship, successfully defended eight times, is now the property of Daniel Cormier, at least until Saturday night; his spot at the top of the mythical pound-for-pound list; his reputation as the greatest of all-time; his reputation as a good guy; his smile; friends (ones he could do without); sponsors (ones he could do with); his freedom (if only temporarily); his status as a clean athlete; fans.
Jones, of course, will care about the loss of some of those things more than he will others, but they are black marks against his name nonetheless, mementos of the almighty mess his life became, and when presented in list form hardly make for comfortable reading. Rather, it all suggests Jones is as reckless outside the Octagon as he is brilliant inside it. He won’t deny it, either. He’ll even boast about winning fights having partied the previous weekend. In fact, Jones, circa 2017, has perhaps never been as honest. He can afford to be now. There’s nothing to lose. Nothing to hide. Jon Jones has yet to be exposed in a fighting sense, but his personal life is out there for all to see and judge. It’s been this way since 2015.
Jon Jones, they say, has always been a wild man. He played a part for a while, kept his mask firmly in place, but then, aided by money and power and God knows what else, it started to slip. Now, in 2017, he’s presumably still a wild man, only now he’s playing this character out in public, embracing all the flaws and controversies that come with it; call him a wild man or a f**k up and he’ll choose to look at the positives of such a tag – the connotations of being a maverick, a danger, a risk-taker – rather than shy away from or flat deny it.
He does this for a couple reasons. One, there’s no point pretending to be anything else at this stage; the reveal happened long ago; we now know the real Jon ‘Bones’ Jones. Two, and relevant to what happens Saturday night, Jones knows the wild man image can serve to unsettle anyone he faces in the Octagon, including Cormier, and that framing his prior achievements with a history of ill-discipline simply makes an already incredible fighter seem all the more incredible. I did all that while I was a mess, he says. Imagine what I’ll be like when I’m re-focused.
It’s hard to establish the veracity of such claims without knowing Jones personally, but talk about owning your mistakes and flipping the narrative. On evidence so far, it’s working for Jones, too. Play the carefree juvenile who gets by on talent and athletic gifts alone and – ta-da! – somehow Jones endears himself to a whole new audience. He has even given the UFC, his paymasters, the opportunity to reinvent him as some good-guy-gone-bad-going-good-again ahead of UFC 214 (as witnessed in their promo video for this particular event – below). They, too, are taking control of the narrative and reshaping it in order to explore some kind of redemption story.
“The first time I watched it (the UFC 214 promo), I was uncomfortable because it showed me talking in 2011, saying how I would never want to do something that would harm the image of the sport,” Jones said on a UFC 214 conference call. “That was genuine. I never intended on having an image of being the bad guy. I really didn’t. Somewhere along the way, though, I got lost. I got caught up in my own sh*t. I started having fun and partying – and still winning. I just took it all for granted. Genuinely, I really wanted to be an inspiration to other people and be a role model.
“But it’s all out there in the public now,” Jones continued, “and that’s a freeing feeling to be looked at as a piece of shit by so many people, and to be able to just be real and take responsibility for the things you’ve done wrong. I feel so free, man. It’s a great feeling to be who I am. Jon Jones, the f**k up. Jon Jones, the great. However, you look at me, it’s just great to be me. Alive. Whether you like me or hate me, it’s just a great feeling to be relevant.”
F**k up or great, loved or hated, Jones, for all his past mistakes, is at least real now. The gloss and the concealer has all gone. Scrubbed away, it’s made way for something more relatable, more human. The super talent, the man for so long deemed superhuman, got his comeuppance. He was humbled. Moreover, this twist has inadvertently recast Jones as the antithesis of Cormier – the happy-go-lucky, forever grinning, family man – and a man of whom excitement and controversy is expected. We had it for years with Jones inside the Octagon, of course, but now we have it in every interview and at every press conference, too. We have it every day. There’s an energy to him he once lacked; bland and preordained answers have made way for a shoot-from-the-hip mentality that has his legion of PR goons quivering in their boots and smiling the smile of people who have no idea what their ‘client’ is about to come out with next.
So that’s good. For us, at least. It’s good for us.
Another thing that is good about The New Jon Jones is the fact he is still effectively unbeaten – let’s look past a DQ loss to Matt Hamill in 2009 – and therefore still carries the swagger of someone who knows he’s the baddest man on the planet. That, no matter how many personal life faux pas he makes, counts for something. It ensures he remains a tough proposition for anyone unfortunate enough to fight him. Better yet, it ensures he maintains his air of invincibility, something that has followed him throughout a a mixed martial arts career that stretches back to April 2008. Because here’s the truth: Jon Jones, now 30, is a phenomenal fighter. You know it, I know it, we all know it. Even Daniel Cormier, someone who hates Jones perhaps more than anyone, knows it. Hate the person, respect the fighter. It’s become something of a mantra for Cormier, and many others, throughout the latest episode of this long-running soap opera.
“I do respect him as a fighter,” DC told Fighters Only. “How can you not? He’s done a lot of things in his career. But there are a few things on the opposite end that I really don’t respect all that much. Even Jon says it at times: ‘This is not my personal life.’ You know what? He’s right. So, whatever. I just want to beat him.”
Asked if a two-and-a-half year layoff might hamper Jones on Saturday, Cormier shook is head. He was adamant. “I think the guy is so talented that it won’t make that much of a difference,” he said. “I think he’s so talented, he’ll be fine. But there will be a few things. I think he’ll be okay, though. He’s a talented guy.”
The air of invincibility remains, then, if not much else.
The weaknesses of Jon Jones, outside the Octagon, are by now public knowledge. His buttons are easily pressed. His pressure points easily triggered. But it’s inside the Octagon where he remains an enigma and where his character still has room to grow. It’s there he remains dominant and brilliant and frightening. It’s there his rep is squeaky clean. Check his Octagon rap sheet: a DQ loss to Matt Hamill, an arm-bar attempt by Vitor Belfort, a competitive slugfest with Alexander Gustafsson and a lacklustre decision win over Ovince Saint Preux. That’s it. The rest? Pretty much perfect.
In the Octagon, his world, Jon Jones is a model citizen.