It’s been a minute since MMA fans heard anything of substance from Jon Jones, but the former UFC light heavyweight champion’s manager struck an optimistic tone this week.
With Jones’ hearing before the California State Athletic Commission to adjudicate his second positive performance-enhancing drugs test set for February 27, Malki Kawa said this week he’s certain Jones will fight in the UFC again before the end of this year.
Or, at least, almost certain.
“I got to assume that by the end of March, for a fact, we will get this resolved and get an idea of what it’s looking like,” Kawa told Luke Thomas on SiriusXM radio. “I’d like to say about a 95-percent chance [he fights in 2018].”
That’s a cheery outlook for Jones, who could face up to a four-year ban after being flagged for a potential violation of the UFC’s anti-doping program in August 2017. Jones’ UFC 214 win over Daniel Cormier has already been converted to a no-contest and his 205-pound title stripped for the third time in his career.
So the idea the man who may be the Octagon’s most talented—and arguably most troubled—champion will get his latest personal drama cleared up in time to fight in 2018? That’s about as positive an outcome as Jones could hope to get.
But should fans share Kawa’s optimism? Is Jones really going to skate out of yet another career crisis with a slap on the wrist? And if he does, how will he be greeted on his return?
Here, Bleacher Report lead MMA writers Chad Dundas (that’s me) and Jonathan Snowden discuss what might become of Jonny Bones’ future.
Chad: It’s been six months since word leaked that Jones had failed another drug test. Since then, the former champ’s public statements have been reduced to a series of inspirational platitudes that infrequently pop up on his personal Twitter account. If the wheels of justice have turned at all in this case, it’s happened behind closed doors.
The first time Jones tested positive for PEDs—in July 2016—the United States Anti-Doping Agency ultimately handed him just a one-year ban, upholding his claim that he’d ingested the prohibited substances unintentionally while taking a tainted supplement. That was great news for Jones but also puts a lot of added scrutiny on this second failed test.
It’s unclear how Jones will defend himself from another PED allegation without going back to the tainted supplement well. Arguing Jones got ahold of another load of bad creatine (or, as the case may be, sexual enhancement products) would be the equivalent of saying lightning struck twice in the same spot. To buy it, you’d need to believe Jones is not only MMA’s best fighter but also it’s unluckiest.
Personally, I feel like that would be a lot to swallow. It’s also hard to believe that at least some MMA fans—many of whom have been looking for reasons to dislike Jones for years—would just forgive and forget. No matter what happens here, the guy’s legacy will be sporting a few dents.
Yet UFC drug czar Jeff Novitzky has been oddly supportive of Jones throughout this process. He’s said on multiple occasions that he doesn’t believe Jones knowingly took PEDs.
So, Snowden, what on earth is going on here? Will it surprise you to see Jones back in the cage in 2018? And do you think this second positive test can effectively be explained away?
Jonathan: The assumptions underlying the UFC’s more robust out-of-competition testing are that fighters had gotten too smart to be caught with the standard pre– and post-fight screenings. They knew exactly when, where and how they would be tested and adjusted their PED intake accordingly. A PED screening in the old UFC was little more than an IQ test—unless something went horribly wrong, fighters knew how to beat the system.
That’s what makes this failed drug test so odd for Jones. He wasn’t caught when USADA unexpectedly popped by his gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In fact, he’d passed several drug tests that quarter. Instead, he was flagged at the weigh-ins the day before his championship bout with Cormier, one of the few times he could be absolutely certain he’d face a test.
MMA editor Brian Oswald and I actually talked with Jones a couple of weeks before the fight. He was paranoid about accidentally consuming anything that could potentially lead to a false positive, to the point he refused our offer of an energy drink just to be on the safe side. Sure, he could have been lying to us. But when you combine this anecdotal evidence with the odd timing of his test failure, you can’t help but scratch your head in confusion.
It is, in a word, weird.
But no matter how strange it all seems, as American hero Steve Austin once said, Jones tested positive and “that’s the bottom line.” As you note, he’s talked his way out of one positive test already. USADA may not be so willing to listen a second time.
The wild card, of course, is that UFC badly needs Jones to compete. And UFC also employs USADA to conduct the tests and hand out the punishments.
It would be inappropriate to suggest the possibility that UFC could influence USADA‘s decisions, except they’ve given the impression of impropriety before.
In 2016, UFC was allowed to waive the requirement that Brock Lesnar re-enter the drug testing pool before his return at UFC 200. A normal fighter would have been required to face testing for four months before they could fight.
But Lesnar is a star, and UFC got what UFC wanted.
The rules also don’t seem to apply to Ronda Rousey, who according to USADA‘s website wasn’t tested a single time in 2017 despite never officially retiring from the sport. While there is no evidence of doping, a star fighter was given a long grace period where anything went. That destroys any illusion of an even playing field.
What do you think Chad? Will his star status give Jones extra leeway in what should be one of the few areas of a fighter’s life where no one gets preferential treatment? Or is that just the cynicism talking?
Chad: This is MMA, my man. Any amount of cynicism you possess has been hard-earned after years of watching our beloved sport waffle between circus sideshow hijinks and the occasional compulsion to go clean and disavow its misspent youth.
The UFC-USADA relationship isn’t ideal. Like most everything that happens in the upper echelon of MMA, it lacks transparency. But in the absence of evidence of any wide-spread malfeasance—above and beyond the Lesnar situation—I’m left to think the system mostly works as advertised.
Assuming Kawa’s confidence and Novitzky’s apparent support aren’t misplaced, it’s starting to seem likely Jones will find his way back to the Octagon sooner than expected. When he does, I have no doubt he’ll go right back to being among the most successful fighters in UFC history, no matter which weight class he chooses to enter.
History has already taught us Jones can likely reclaim the light heavyweight title whenever he wants it. With Cormier moving up to challenge Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight title this summer, will the 265-pound strap be in play for Jones as well? A potential move to heavyweight could make him an even bigger draw for the UFC moving forward.
But we all know the true crux of this conversation, right? If Jones does return this year, most fans will merely be on the edge of their seats, waiting for him to run afoul of the rules all over again. That’s a sad commentary, but it’s the reality he’s made for himself.
Owing to a variety of out-of-the-cage transgressions, Jones has fought just once each year since 2014 and he’ll be 31 years old by the time he returns—even on Kawa‘s most optimistic timeline. Where once Jones was deemed a shoo-in to finish up as the greatest MMA fighter of all time, it’s now starting to feel like he’s burning precious daylight.
He still has enough time left in his athletic life to live up to the sky-high career expectations observers set for him while he was still a young up-and-comer.
But he doesn‘t have enough time left to do it and continue to be a screwup.
That’s why the biggest challenge of his career still awaits.
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