Despite his sordid history, the science backs Jon Jones' claims of innocence

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

Imagine for a moment there is a serial bank robber who has spent several stints in jail for the offense, who suddenly and inexplicably finds himself working at a bank. One day, when the bank is robbed, the man with the long history of robbing banks is seen, as the alarm wails, sprinting out the front door of the bank where he now works.

The people in the bank and those on the sidewalk all get a clear look at the man’s face, and testify that he was the one they saw leaving the bank as a teller shouted, “We’ve been robbed!”

But a nuanced observer would note that even if all three facts are correct: The man has a history of robbing banks; the bank he was in was robbed; and he was seen at the time of the robbery sprinting out the front door; doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the one who pulled the heist.

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That’s kind of the situation where Jon Jones stands now, as he prepares to fight Alexander Gustafsson on Saturday at The Forum in Inglewood, California, in the main event of UFC 232 that is a rematch of their classic 2013 bout.

Jones, the former UFC light heavyweight champion, has a sordid history. He’s failed multiple drug tests, both for performance enhancing drugs and street drugs. He’s spent time in a drug rehabilitation center. He’s twice been found guilty of driving under the influence. He once left the scene of an accident in which the woman driving the car he hit was pregnant.

It’s easy to assume upon learning that a minute amount of a banned substance was found in his system on Dec. 9 that Jones is guilty of cheating yet again.

That assumption, though, would be wrong.

And it’s highly unfair to Jones, even though he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt given his history in this area.

The overwhelming belief of the public and the MMA media is that Jones is guilty of yet another anti-doping violation and that the UFC worked to cover it up by moving the fight to California when Nevada wouldn’t sanction it because Jones is such a pay-per-view draw.

That argument falls short on numerous fronts, though. It would have been cheaper for the UFC to either cancel the event completely, because it has insurance that covers the kind of losses it would incur in that event, or to pull Jones-Gustafsson from the card and reschedule it. The pay-per-view with the women’s featherweight title fight between Cris Cyborg and Amanda Nunes wouldn’t have sold as well without Jones-Gustafsson, but the losses are going to be millions more after having moved it.

UFC president Dana White told Yahoo Sports Thursday that the company will lose at least $6 million by moving the event to California.

Jon Jones poses for a portrait during a UFC photo session on Dec. 26, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Getty Images)
Jon Jones poses for a portrait during a UFC photo session on Dec. 26, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Getty Images)

More than that, though, is the science, which backs Jones’ claims of innocence. Just like when he failed his July 28, 2017, drug test the day before his victory over Daniel Cormier at UFC 214, the level of turinabol in Jones’ system was microscopically low.

Jeff Novitzky, a long-time anti-doping crusader who is now the UFC’s vice president of health and performance, said the amount found in Jones’ system in a test administered by USADA was one-50 millionth of a grain of salt. USADA took the extraordinary step of writing to the Nevada Athletic Commission and noting it did not consider this a new violation.

Richard McLaren, an arbiter and perhaps the foremost anti-doping expert in the world, also agreed. Dr. Larry Bowers, who is now retired but once was the science director at USADA, concurred.

Given that Jones had passed tests given to him just a few days before, it was impossible for him to have taken a new dosage of turinabol and then turned up with so little of it in his system. Novitzky referred to the amount found as pulsing, a phenomenon that has been seen in recent years in which the long-term metabolite for the drug will just randomly reappear.

Not that long ago, the amount of this drug in Jones’ system wouldn’t have been detected because it is so minute, and that’s actually worked against Jones.

“It’s important to note that in all the tests they’ve done on Jon, including the one where he was held strictly liable, they never ever found the parent compound, the DHCMT, and they never found short-term metabolites,” Novitzky said. “That’s indicative of one of two things: Such a small amount entered his system that those passed really quickly, or conceivably when this entered his system it could have been years ago where you’re still seeing the recurrence of this long-term metabolite. This is a big concern I have.

“When I started in the world of anti-doping, the science was way behind and dopers were easily able to escape detection. I think now, in some cases, the pendulum has swung even too far here where you’re able to detect a 50 millionth of a piece of a grain of salt. Who knows where that could be coming from? Environmental contamination, [so many ways]. There is no doubt, and all the experts say this, that at some point, the parent compound entered his system. But similar to McLaren’s report, there is zero evidence it was done intentionally and in this recurrence, there is zero evidence it was re-ingested or that he is receiving any performance-enhancing benefits.”

Jones told Yahoo Sports that he “freaked out completely,” when he was called and told of the test result. That day, he left his training camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and flew to Los Angeles, where he was again tested and found to be clean.

The result, combined with his past, put him in a difficult spot. By moving the event, it has multiple impacts on fighters. It complicates their weight cut. Many fighters had friends and family flying to Las Vegas and had paid for hotels, or even had rented a home. There is no state tax in Nevada, and by going to California, they’ll have to pay an approximate 10 percent tax on their earnings, which means a cut in pay.

Dana White said the UFC will lose at least $6 million by moving UFC 232 from Las Vegas to California. (Getty Images)
Dana White said the UFC will lose at least $6 million by moving UFC 232 from Las Vegas to California. (Getty Images)

There are a slew of other ramifications to having the fight moved. Jones’ reaction to those issues has been striking. Anyone who has known him for any length of time would not have been surprised had he shrugged it off and not given it a second thought.

That’s not, though, what he did. He reached out to all of the other fighters on the card and apologized. He did nothing wrong but his past created a firestorm that led to a serious impact on others for this event.

“I feel horrible for all the people who have been affected by what has happened, I really do,” Jones said. “And let’s be honest: I know a lot of people are never going to believe me. I get it. I had quite a few fighters and fans give me dirty looks. I have to be adaptable and positive and show my remorse, and I am remorseful. But just because I say it, I get that people won’t just automatically believe it. They’re going to believe me because of my actions over time, not because I say something now. But until then, I have to just focus on the things I can control and consistently try to do the right things.”

Jones has spent millions of his own dollars defending himself through his various failings over the years, and lost even more because of endorsements he’d otherwise have gotten that he failed to get because of his actions.

He’s not a scientist and doesn’t understand how something he didn’t take is showing up in his system, but he gets it’s something he’ll have to deal with for the rest of his career.

“I don’t know what is going on, but I do understand the position I’m in,” Jones said. “I hope that my situation in the long run will ultimately help other fighters. In a roundabout way, I think it may change the rules and get them to tighten things up so that when a fighter is in a similar situation as me, they don’t have to go through this.”

Jones said he’s a different man than he was in 2013 when he first fought Gustafsson in a bout that some hail as the greatest in MMA history. If it’s not the best, it’s at least high on the list of the best fights.

Jones, though, said he barely trained for the fight, and for a very specific reason.

“That fight happened right at the time I was becoming a party boy,” Jones said. “That was right at the beginning of it. I was becoming more recognizable than ever, and growing up as an underprivileged kid from the city, I got to see things I’d never thought I’d be able to see.

“I was winning fights decisively and around that time, I just started to feel untouchable, really untouchable. I learned that I was very touchable. It’s been a humbling time.”

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