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LAS VEGAS – Jon Jones was a bit player in the mixed martial arts world in 2008, a late injury replacement on a UFC card that included Georges St-Pierre and Brock Lesnar, the promotion’s biggest stars, at the top.
He was brought in on short notice to replace Tomasz Drwal in a preliminary card bout at UFC 87 against Brazilian capoeira specialist Andre Gusmao.
He was raw then, still very much learning, but his athleticism was shockingly good and his size and his aptitude made it apparent that he was going to be a significant player in the sport before very long.
He had a dazzling smile and infectious personality. Fighting was fun and his enthusiasm for it was palpable. He regaled the media with stories of learning moves off YouTube and was so charmingly innocent it was hard not to fall in love with him almost immediately.
The phone rang a few days ago and Jones was on the other end of the line ready to talk about his bout at UFC 197 at the MGM Grand Garden against Ovince Saint Preux for the interim light heavyweight title.
It figured to be an awkward conversation.
In the seven-plus years since that unexpectedly wonderful debut, Jones has gone on to become the sport’s best pound-for-pound fighter and, to some, the greatest MMA fighter who as ever lived.
But over the last couple of years, some of that light-hearted innocence has disappeared and the smiles have become less frequent.
MMA had become work, particularly the business side of it.
Jones, now 28, always wanted everything to be perfect. He wanted to be portrayed a certain way and obsessed over the words the media would write about him.
At his core, he’s a shy guy whose generational talent thrust him into the glaring spotlight in a way he could never have imagined in 2008.
Life as a superstar has been difficult. In early 2012, he had a DUI near his home in upstate New York.
Later in the year, when Dan Henderson got hurt less than two weeks before his title fight with Jones in 2012, the company offered Chael Sonnen as a replacement. Because Sonnen was a vastly different style of fighter than Henderson, Jones refused to take the assignment.
That infuriated UFC president Dana White, who canceled UFC 151 and placed the blame fully on the shoulders of Jones and coach Greg Jackson.
In early 2014, Jones was accused of making a homophobic slur via social media. In the summer of that year, he brawled in the lobby of the MGM Grand with archrival Daniel Cormier following a news conference. That led to a fine and an order of community service by the Nevada Athletic Commission.
It got worse. In December of that same year, he was randomly drug tested by Nevada, and it came back positive for cocaine. Following his dominant victory over Cormier at UFC 182 on Jan. 2, 2015, Jones spent a night in rehabilitation after the news broke.
In April of last year, Jones was involved in a hit-and-run accident in Albuquerque, N.M., his car colliding with one driven by a pregnant woman. He pleaded guilty and was given 18 months of supervised probation. The UFC stripped him of his belt.
And earlier this year, during his training camp, he was stopped by a police officer in Albuquerque, and the two got into a verbal altercation. He eventually spent a night in jail for a probation violation.
Life in the fishbowl has been hard.
When Jones called, he knew the conversation would drift toward some of the out-of-the-cage issues that have plagued him.
“It hasn’t been too easy to be a Jon Jones fan these last few months,” he said slowly, haltingly as the conversation began.
He took a deep breath after saying that, and a brief period of silence followed.
“You know, I’ve got my sobriety for about seven months now, and I feel I’m in charge of my life,” Jones, 28, said. “I want to do the right thing.”
At a news conference last month to promote the UFC’s full slate of spring shows, Jones received the loudest and most sustained ovation of any of the fighters on the stage.
And when he arrived for his public workout on Wednesday just adjacent to the sports book at the MGM Grand, he received the warmest welcome of any of the fighters that day. Fans pleaded with him to pose for photos or to sign autographs, and when they felt the media were taking too long, they started shouting at him to break it up.
When Jones slipped past the cameras and reporters and moved into position in front of the backdrop to begin talking questions, he grinned broadly.
“It feels great to be back, and I’m super grateful,” Jones said, reflexively clapping his hands. “I missed this game so much. I missed all you guys [reporters] so much. Unbelievable. Great energy in here right now and [I’m] very excited.”
He said all the right things, but he’s often done that. In the past, there was this sense that he said what he thought he needed to say, and he didn’t always ooze sincerity when, for instance, he was apologizing for some transgression or another and vowed to do better.
Addictions are difficult, and Jones has admitted issues with drinking and marijuana. In some of his pre-fight interviews, he’s spoken as much or more about drugs as he did about his fight.
He’s been open about his issues and hasn’t asked reporters to varnish the truth.
It’s almost as if talking about his issues has been cathartic for him.
“What’s changed is that everything is out there now for the public to see for themselves,” he said. “There’s no hiding anything anymore, and it’s really freeing to be so open and honest with all the fans. I believe someone out there somewhere will draw strength from my struggles and see the way I’ve dealt with them and come back from them. They’ll find some strength and inspiration from it, hopefully, and me knowing I’m not only fighting for my own life, but I’m fighting to inspire so many other people. That gives me extra added strength.”
This seemed to be the mature version of Jones that was long thought he’d grow into. After he won the title by destroying Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in a shockingly one-sided bout in New Jersey in 2011, he told a story post-fight about chasing down a thief hours before he arrived at the venue.
He was funny and light-hearted as he spoke, and he clearly captivated the media. A new era was about to begin.
The new era changed course, and he went through a series of battles, with reporters, with competitors, with the UFC and with some of the fan base. He had his personal issues, as well.
One comment he made during that telephone interview was telling. He was talking about the reaction of the fans at the March 5 news conference for UFC 197, and how his return to competition was greeted so enthusiastically.
Cormier, one of the sport’s truly good men who was later forced to pull out of UFC 197 because of injury, was clearly stunned when the crowd roared its support for Jones and booed him.
“We all want everyone to like us and for everyone to cheer us and support us,” Jones said. “But that’s not how it is in life. Some people are for you and some are not. People make mistakes. We all make mistakes. I think what the people see [in me] now is a guy who understands his flaws and is working to improve them and overcome it all. I don’t know, but I think maybe people can relate to that struggle a little bit.”
Despite how long he’s been around, and how long it seems he has ruled this sport, if he wins on Saturday he will be the third-youngest of the UFC’s 10 champions. Only featherweight champion Conor McGregor, who is 27, and women’s straw-weight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who is also 28 but born a month later, are younger than Jones.
He’s got a long time in this sport if he chooses to compete that long, and there’s plenty of time to change the negative impression some have of him.
He’s hired a driver to help him and he has begun to surround himself with people who are watching out for him and not looking to take him out partying.
The temptations will always be there, and they won’t always be easy to resist.
But for the first time in a long time, Jon Jones seems just like that friendly, happy-go-lucky kid who was so impressive at UFC 87 all those years ago.
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