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In June 2017, Jon Jones lost his mother, Camille, to diabetes. Two months later he was busted by USADA for having a performance-enhancing drug in his system. It was his second dirty test, resulting in a four-year suspension from competition.
“It might be the end of his career,” UFC president Dana White said at the time. “It’s probably the end of his career.”
His mom, his career and his reputation were all gone, the culmination of a multi-year descent in which real-life issues (drug, alcohol, legal) derailed the finest mixed martial artist of all time. Anytime he logged onto social media, he was bombarded with hate and insults and trolling comments no one would ever dare say to his face.
“I was so depressed, dude,” Jones said. “The lowest of the low.”
Jones had already been in counseling, in part to figure out how to remain positive in the face of negativity.
He was so gifted that success had come so naturally and quickly and easily for him, or at least as easily it can come in combat sports. At age 23 he was UFC light heavyweight champion, the youngest titleholder in the promotion’s history. He was a multi-millionaire. He was famous. He had endorsements. He had the life.
“Driving around in a Bentley,” he laughs.
Only then did the hardship arrive, much of it self-inflicted. And that’s when the doubters pounced. His original counseling plan was to learn to embrace it.
“It’s a freeing feeling to be looked at as a piece of [expletive] by so many people,” Jones said in 2017.
Now, though, it was too much. He’d proven the critics correct, or at least in their mind he did. He realized he could no longer just be the heel. At the depths of his depression, with seemingly everything gone, he decided to no longer run toward the negativity, but rather ignore it and seek out whatever support remained.
He figured out how to turn social media from an anchor dragging him down to a lifeline lifting him up.
“I read things online constantly from people all over the world that say, ‘We love you, my kids love you, your abilities are great. Thank you for being so outspoken about Christ. Thank you for teaching me to not give up,’” Jones said.
“I hear a lot of positive things,” Jones continued. “So I know there are so many people who love me. And that gives me the strength to go through that summer of being suspended and my mom dying.”
Jones is headlining Saturday’s UFC 235, defending his title against Anthony Smith. Last fall his four-year suspension was reduced to 15 months for myriad reasons, including the low levels of the substance in his system. He maintains he never tried to cheat anyone or anything.
After fighting just twice in essentially four years due to his two USADA suspensions, he’s now fighting for the second time in essentially two months — he reclaimed his belt on Dec. 29, 2018, by whipping Alexander Gustafsson.
The 31-year-old is clearly trying to make up for lost time. It’s been years of Jones laboring to the future, in part so he could leave his many travails behind him. Maybe now, he’s finally getting there.
When he fights, he is able to remind fans why he ever mattered to them in the first place. He’s 23-1-1, with a controversial disqualification and a no contest due to the positive test, but no one has ever really come close to beating him. He’s considered the greatest of all time for a reason.
Jones has always been a convincing talker, only to have his words come up meaningless. At 31 though, he seems to have been through so much of the fire that he simply won’t allow himself to return. Time will tell.
“Whatever doesn’t break us will make us stronger,” Jones said.
Mostly, he’s philosophical. The supporters that stuck with him meant more to him than he means to them. It’s the opposite of the traditional give and take between the adoring fan and championship athlete.
Simply put, he says he wouldn’t be here without them. And where he would be is anyone’s guess.
“My fans gave me strength to come back to work, to get out of bed, to fix my problems, to go see a counselor, to go back to the gym,” he said. “I was facing a four-year suspension and I stayed in the gym for my fans. I knew for a guy like me, it’s not my job to roll over and die. That sends a bad message to everybody.”
To the ones who still call him out, he stopped trying to use it as fuel. Now, he says, he ignores them. Life, he notes, is too short.
“I’ll never convince them,” Jones said. “So you just have to let it go. You have to let go of the hate.
“I had to seek counseling and help, but I did come out of it,” he continued, “I feel like my troubles have humanized me in a way that lets people know that, ‘Hey, listen, no matter how many crappy things are said about you, no matter how many crappy things you’ve done, there is always tomorrow. And we look forward.’”
Forward to Saturday, of course. And then to everything else.
His career was derailed and nearly ended … numerous times. In the end, he’s still standing and fighting, still pushing for the life he’s always believed he should have.
“I think there is so much future left,” he said.
As always, it’s up to Jon Jones to decide what the future will be.
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