The redemption of former UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Jon Jones prepares to enter the Octagon prior to facing Daniel Cormier in their UFC light heavyweight championship bout during UFC 214 at the Honda Center on July 29, 2017, in Anaheim, California. (Getty Images)
Jon Jones prepares to enter the Octagon prior to facing Daniel Cormier in their UFC light heavyweight championship bout during UFC 214 at the Honda Center on July 29, 2017, in Anaheim, California. (Getty Images)

It would be easy to see Jon Jones as a blatant cheater, a guy with a reckless disregard for the UFC’s anti-doping rules who did whatever he could to enhance his body and perform better in his fights.

Given Jones’ other ever-so-public mistakes, such as drunken driving, cocaine usage, a hit-and-run auto accident and the like, it makes the notion that Jones would cheat to help him win fights that much more believable.

Except, though, that it is not true.

And if it is not true, then it is good to have an all-time talent like Jones back in the Octagon battling the world’s finest fighters instead of arguing with them on social media while under a costly suspension.

The UFC made Jones’ return official Friday, announcing he would headline UFC 232 on Dec. 29 at T-Mobile Arena against Alexander Gustafsson in a rematch for the vacant light heavyweight title. Women’s featherweight champion Cris Cyborg Justino will defend her belt against women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes in the co-main event.

Jones is a rare talent, and mixed martial arts needs more, not fewer, of those types of athletes. It needs those athletes to be clean, though, and while many question Jones’ veracity, several leading authorities in the anti-doping community found him to be credible.

Jones’ positive test for the M3 metabolite of the anabolic steroid Turinabol on July 28, 2017, meant that his victory the next day over Daniel Cormier was overturned and he faced what would have been a career-ending ban of 48 months.

It was Jones’ second anti-doping violation, both of which came days before a fight with Cormier, his archrival. While Jones is widely seen as the greatest fighter of all time, Cormier is also very near the top of that list. Without taking a deep dive into the circumstances of the tests, those failures alone have tarnished Jones’ reputation forever and branded him a cheat in the eyes of many.

It’s been a case of guilty until proven innocent.

The fact is, though, that USADA, after thorough research, determined that Jones’ potential penalty should be reduced from 48 months to 18 months for the 2017 violation because there was no proof Jones intended to cheat. Jones, believing in his innocence, appealed that penalty.

Richard McLaren, who is regarded as the most respected arbiter of anti-doping matters in the world, further reduced Jones’ penalty by three months, to 15 months. Thus, Jones became eligible to fight on Oct. 28 and he’ll get the chance to regain the light heavyweight belt that was stripped from him when he faces Gustafsson in a rematch of one of the finest bouts in UFC history.

Cormier is defending his heavyweight title on Nov. 3 at UFC 230 in New York against Derrick Lewis. If he’s successful, he’ll defend it again before March 20 against ex-champion and current WWE star Brock Lesnar, and then he says he’ll retire.

UFC president Dana White told Yahoo Sports that Cormier would continue to be recognized as the promotion’s light heavyweight champion until the first punch of Jones-Gustafsson II is thrown.

Jon Jones punches Daniel Cormier in their UFC light heavyweight championship bout during UFC 214 at the Honda Center on July 29, 2017, in Anaheim, California. (Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jon Jones punches Daniel Cormier in their UFC light heavyweight championship bout during UFC 214 at the Honda Center on July 29, 2017, in Anaheim, California. (Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Cormier is one of a number of people outraged by what they saw as leniency given to Jones.

McLaren’s arbitration decision is illuminating and convincing even though Jones was never able to prove the source of the M3 metabolite for Turinabol that was found in his system. The Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL), a World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited lab in Salt Lake City, reported that Jones tested positive for between 20 and 80 picograms of the metabolite for Turinabol.

It’s important to know just how tiny of an amount 80 picograms is. One picogram is one-one trillionth of a gram. It’s like the proverbial grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Jones passed tests three weeks earlier, on July 6 and July 7, meaning he could not possibly have begun using Turinabol, had he been of a mind to do so, until after he had passed the July 7 test. Had Jones been intentionally using Turinabol after July 7 and before July 28 in a bid to enhance his body, a far larger amount would have been discovered in his system by the sensitive tests that SMRTL performed.

The microscopic amount found in his system was not enough to benefit him in any way.

He insisted he had not intentionally used a performance-enhancing drug, though he admitted to using street drugs, including cocaine, after his July 28, 2017, positive test for the M3 metabolite of Turinabol. McLaren noted that USADA found Jones to be “open, responsive and helpful” during its investigation. McLaren himself found Jones to be truthful and believed he had no intention to cheat.

McLaren wrote:

“I find the athlete to have been a truthful witness who recognizes his past mistakes and has learned from them. His demeanor at the hearing was of a person who is sorry for his past mistakes and recognizes that he can only improve on these errors by being an exemplary competitor who is drug free in the future. Throughout listening to the testimony, I found the athlete to have been a very credible person who was well intended and well meaning.”

Given McLaren’s reputation, that has to carry significant weight.

Jones has butted heads with so many in the UFC, including many in the media. I have had an up-and-down relationship with him. He was once angry at me and refused to speak to me for more than a year because of something in an article he did not like. It turned out, the article was written by Sergio Non, then of USA Today, but Jones didn’t care. And that is only one of several incidents.

But it doesn’t matter how he treats a reporter or a UFC staffer or anyone else when it comes to looking at whether he should be viewed as a doper.

The overwhelming evidence is that he is not. He was negligent, particularly in his first violation in 2016, and that’s why he served the entire penalty. But notably, the three-person arbitration panel in that case found he did not intend to cheat, either.

He’s lost tens of millions of dollars while banned, and his reputation was shredded. MMA fans were robbed of the opportunity to watch their sport’s Michael Jordan compete in his prime.

It’s great to have him back, even if he is surly or upset at a reporter or reporters when he does return.

He’s the best fighter in the world, and it’s been proven by multiple independent panels that he never knowingly tried to cheat. Given all that, count me pleased that Jones will get a chance to do what he does best once again.

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