You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. The ceremonious line uttered by Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent is fitting in the long, winding narrative of Jon “Bones” Jones.
A story of youth and the relentless pursuit for greatness powered Jones’ story early on. His ebullient charisma was every bit as lethal as his world-class fighting abilities. It scooped you up, swallowed you whole and held you hostage in front of a television screen. There was no foreseeable end to the ceiling on Jones’ talent. His performances were otherworldly, and everybody wanted a ticket to the show.
The MMA world watched as a 23-year-old Jones climbed to the top of the light heavyweight division and dethroned the legendary Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to become the youngest champion in UFC history. Fans celebrated the arrival of the bona fide heir to Anderson Silva’s pound-for-pound throne.
And then things started to change.
As Jones continued to ascend to the top of the sports world, he rapidly fell out of favor with fans. The inconsistencies in his personality highlighted his ideal image rather than his actual self, and MMA fans caught on immediately. They weren’t buying what Jones was selling to the media.
The efficacious grin and copasetic tone never felt real. Those suspicions grew when cracks began to appear in Jones’ image. Not long after defending his title against Rashad Evans, he was arrested for a DUI after driving his brand new Bentley into a pole. A few years later, he tested positive for cocaine after his fight with Daniel Cormier. He was then on the news a few months later for a hit-and-run car accident involving a pregnant woman in Albuquerque.
In an in-depth look on the ups and downs of his career, Jones admitted that he was pretending to be someone he wasn’t in front of media cameras. He said to Ariel Helwani of MMAFighting:
“I think I was being extremely fake. Growing up, I always looked at Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods before his controversy. I looked at these guys as being the ideal champions. I thought I had to never swear in an interview, even though with my friends I swear all the time. I thought I had to dress a certain way and act a certain way and be a certain way.
“I was afraid to be myself because it took me too long to realize that I am a champion, with or without that belt. I’m an imperfect champion. Champions come in different colors, different styles, different attitudes, different religions, and it took me a while to realize this. So when people were looking for inconsistencies in my character, they were there plain as day because I wasn’t being Jonathan Jones. I was trying to be the Gatorade guy, the Nike guy — I was trying to be the face of the company instead of just being myself.”
Acting out of character in the public spotlight is a certain recipe for disaster. Jones was treated as the climactic antihero by fans, peers and UFC management. There are few greater examples than the forever doomed UFC 151 fight card in September 2012.
Jones, who was originally scheduled to fight Dan Henderson, was asked to take a fight with Chael Sonnen on a little over a week’s notice after Henderson injured his knee. Instead of risking everything he had worked for in a late change of opponents, Jones chose the smarter, less popular option of turning down the fight.
UFC 151’s weak main card lineup couldn’t survive on pay-per-view without its marquee champion. So the UFC cancelled the event altogether. The cancellation of a major event didn’t come without significant backlash for Jones. UFC President Dana White put the onus completely on his shoulders, calling his decision “selfish” and “disgusting.”
But Jones wasn’t the matchmaker. It wasn’t his responsibility to create fight cards with enough entertaining bouts available to compensate for unforeseen injuries. The UFC dropped the ball in this instance, and Jones became the fall guy.
Jones still holds resentment for the way the situation was handled:
“Me being an undefeated champion meant everything to my family,” he said. “It’s going to mean something to my grandkids one day. Just recently Holly Holm won her fight against Ronda [Rousey] because we have great coaches. We’re a team that believes in studying and game plans. So for me to fight Chael Sonnen on eight day’s notice would be being untrue to myself, being untrue for my goals and my visions, my ideals for what my career is going to be like.”
A great comparison would be a large slab of prime rib dangling from the ceiling of a dungy meat locker with the sound of a butcher’s knife sharpening off in the distance. Jones was seen as a piece of meat or merely a vessel for entertainment. His best interests weren’t really being taken to heart:
“They wanted me to sacrifice everything that I work for for the greater good of the company. This is a dog eat, dog world. I see so many fighters that once they’re retired, they don’t get jobs by the UFC,” Jones explained. “They don’t get checks by the UFC. The UFC lets you go when they’re done with you for the most part. So why should I risk everything I’ve earned to fight Chael Sonnen on eight day’s notice? Any smart man wouldn’t have done that, and instead of saying, ‘Hey, I’m sorry guys, but the fight fell through. I’m sorry we didn’t have a strong enough card to keep the fight going anyway.’ They blamed everything on me and made me sound like a coward when I was fighting the greatest fighters that they have to offer. They made me sound selfish. They painted me in this picture of being richer than all the other fighters and entitled and spoiled, when really I was just trying to stay true to not only myself but all of the people that helped me get here.”
Jones also touched on recent allegations involving the UFC and his championship fight with Vitor Belfort. According to MMA journalist Josh Gross of Deadspin, a UFC employee leaked an email of Belfort’s drug test results three weeks out from his UFC 152 title fight with Jones to a slew of fighters and managers. The results indicated that Belfort had elevated testosterone levels.
A follow-up email encouraged the recipients of the leaked results to delete the message.
Jones claims he fully intends on having a conversation with the UFC in light of this new information:
“Vitor Belfort was on steroids when I fought him. The UFC was very well aware way before the fight. They did nothing to penalize him. They let the fight go on knowing that I was fighting a guy on steroids, which is a hazard to my life.
“What do you do? I don’t know what I’m going to do about that yet. I haven’t brought it up to the UFC yet, but the fans know and it all gets back to what I was saying about the power of the UFC and this [Nevada State] Athletic Commission. Eventually something needs to be done about it.”
Jones is expected to make his long-awaited return to the UFC in a light heavyweight title fight against Daniel Cormier sometime in 2016. It’s never an easy situation when trust has been broken between a fighter and the promotion, and the bridge between the UFC and Jones is definitely simmering in flames, while large chunks of ash break away into a ravine below.
“They let Vitor fight on steroids against me. UFC 151 was all my fault. I know I haven’t been the greatest guy to work with in the past, I’ve made my mistakes, but they haven’t quite shown me that, ‘Hey, Jon, we’re here for you, and we have your best interests at heart,’” said Jones.