"I'm at a very healthy place," Jon Jones insisted to ESPN recently while in the midst of describing life changes he made over the summer during several weeks at a trauma and rehab facility. "Well, I mean, I don't know, uh, who knows?"
"Who knows?" is right.
It was an uncharacteristic moment of candor for the former UFC light heavyweight champion, who returns from his third career suspension Saturday in Los Angeles to face Alexander Gustafsson for his old title belt. Throughout his starry, soiled career, Jones has always been measured and self-conscious in how he has presented himself to the public. That's the kindest way of putting it. His bitter rivals Rashad Evans and Daniel Cormier have labeled Jones as fake, and the misanthropes who fuel social media have gleefully run with that as his defining persona.
However one chooses to frame the disconnect between Jones' calculated public image and his flawed humanness, it surely has contributed to the discombobulation experienced by fans whenever he has stumbled or bumbled, which "Jonny Bones" has done again and again, each time after assuring the MMA world that his troubles were behind him this time.
And boy, those troubles sure do always catch up with Jones. There was the DUI in 2012. There was the 2015 hit-and-run accident (in which a pipe containing pot was found in his car), an especially shameful incident because it injured a pregnant woman. There were the performance-enhancing drug suspensions in 2016 and 2017. And then there was Sunday's bizarre turn of events.
Six days before Jones's scheduled comeback from last year's drug test failure, his fight with Gustafsson, along with the entirety of UFC 232, was moved from Las Vegas to Los Angeles as a result of still another drug test result. A United States Anti-Doping Agency screening performed on Jones on Dec. 9 showed the presence of the same anabolic steroid metabolite for which he was banned last year. USADA concluded, however, that the trace amount of oral turinabol in Jones' system was not the result of a new ingestion of the substance but rather a long-term residual effect from the 2017 case. Jones was cleared of wrongdoing.
The UFC still had to take the extreme and unprecedented step of uprooting an entire fighting event, though, to keep Jones at the top of the marquee. The Nevada State Athletic Commission would not expedite an investigation of the situation in time to clear Jones to fight Saturday. With the California State Athletic Commission being more familiar with the circumstances, having had jurisdiction over last year's failed test, the path was clear to pack up Jones vs. Gustafsson and the rest of UFC 232 for The Forum in Inglewood, California.
It may well be that Jones has done nothing wrong this time. But his problematic past stirred up the atmospheric conditions for a dark cloud to hover endlessly above him, raining on his parade ad infinitum. The minute Sunday's news flash linked Jones with a drug test and an emergency move by the UFC, accusations and ridicule came flying Jones' way from fans and fighters alike.
What a plot twist for the UFC. For years, the fight promotion's officials have lived with perpetual indigestion while dealing with Jones and his misdeeds. And now he's the one catching much of the flak for their disrespectful act. Think of those 25 other weight-cutting fighters having to relocate to L.A. Think of the 20,000 fans who sold out T-Mobile Arena, many as part of their New Year's in Vegas plans. Next weekend's fights have been turned into a traveling circus. Fans and fighters are being trifled with so Jon Jones can be accommodated. But that is not his doing, it's the UFC's.
Nevertheless, Jones has no one to blame but himself for being stuck in a place where there is no benefit of the doubt.
When he sat in an ESPN studio last month during an appearance on Ariel Helwani's MMA Show, talking about his maturation and the positive changes he'd been making, Jones embraced the existential questions that surround his hazy future. Will he ever get his marvelous MMA legacy -- the best ever, bar none -- back on track and keep it from once again derailing? Or will he always be remembered for what could have been?
Jon Jones: 'Screw Daniel Cormier'
Jon Jones responds to Daniel Cormier's criticism and adds that he still isn't sure how he failed a drug test for the second time.
Jones (22-1, 1 NC) knows that no matter what happens this weekend in L.A. and beyond, he will be confronted by this harsh line of inquiry for as long as the spotlight shines down upon him. But unlike in the past, he seemed unconcerned about the noise that surrounds him.
"Along the way, I started wanting to be this guy for everybody else," Jones said. "And I've kind of gotten back to not really worrying about being something for everybody else and focusing on my own salvation, my own health, my own mental and spiritual well-being."
This personal reboot suggests that rehab and his three-sessions-a-week psychotherapy since then have helped the 31-year-old develop some degree of self-awareness. Jones, who checked himself into the trauma and rehab facility to deal with depression he was feeling over his latest performance-enhancing drug suspension and the death of his mother last year, came across in his half-hour ESPN interview like someone who's at peace with the reality that what lies around the next twist in his road remains a mystery. That's the honest truth.
However, one moment of honesty during last month's conversation did raise eyebrows. Jones has the DUI on his record, was twice caught for banned substances and once bragged cruelly to Cormier, "I beat you after a weekend of cocaine." So naturally, Jones' claims of personal growth prompted the question of whether he left rehab a sober man.
"No, I still drink," he said. "And smoke pot, too, every once in a while."
Now, hearing those words come out of the mouth of most any other fighter would not raise a red flag. Alcohol is legal for those 21 and older. Marijuana is allowed for medical purposes in 32 states, and many who compete in MMA laud the plant's anti-inflammatory and pain-relief effectiveness as a balm for the aches and pains of grueling training sessions. Pot also is legal for recreational adult use in 10 states, including California, where Jones and Gustafsson will fight this weekend.
And while it's true that athletes in the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball can be suspended and fined for testing positive for marijuana at any time, the fight game is less restrictive. Many leading MMA jurisdictions, California among them, follow a World Anti-Doping Agency standard that prohibits pot use only in competition, which covers the day leading up to a bout and an hour afterward.
It's not quite as clear-cut as that for fighters, though. Drug tests administered in the lead-up to their bouts and immediately after are not so illuminating when it comes to marijuana. According to the Mayo Clinic, pot metabolites can be detected in a user's system for anywhere from just a few days to upward of a month, depending on factors such as frequency of use and the type of test. For a fighter, then, simply abstaining while in that narrow in-competition window is no guarantee of a clean test.
So someone lacking the discipline to just say no for an extended period before a date in the Octagon is, one might say, a ticking time bong. And is there a fighter alive who has demonstrated as slippery a grasp of personal discipline outside the cage as Jon Jones?
Even Jones himself doesn't foresee his life path doing a sudden about-face and following the straight and narrow from here on out. During his interview on the ESPN podcast, he smiled at Helwani's suggestion that it might take 10 incident-free years to change the fans' perception of him.
"Ten years is a long time," said Jones, his grin widening. "I'm a wild boy, Ariel."
Jones does acknowledge, though, that sobriety would have been the ideal endgame for his stint in rehab. He almost wistfully insists that he tried.
"It was something I was striving for, especially going to rehab this summer," he said. "I was striving for complete sobriety. But I am not ready for it. It's not who I was and not who I am in my life or in my career."
That is troubling to hear. Jones has described himself in the past as a drug addict. Now he is openly accepting of his continued use. It would be naive of us to anticipate anything from his future other than the inevitable next pratfall, right? Or has something fundamentally changed in Jones?
As Jones recounted his stay in rehab, he spoke of what he had learned about the root causes of substance abuse -- how life's traumas can lead one to use alcohol or drugs to mask emotions. He spoke from experience.
"I learned to identify the things I was masking and look at it honestly," Jones said. "I am at a place where I can be honest with myself. Being in [rehab] definitely matured me a lot."
If Jones is indeed mature enough to be honest with himself, he will acknowledge that history repeats itself when we do not learn from it. And he'll recognize that there are residual effects for our actions. Jones is experiencing some of that now, if what the UFC, the CSAC and USADA say is accurate and he was not at fault this time. He set himself up for endless backlash on all those "wild boy" nights when he failed to note the essential difference between responsibly relaxing with a drink and allowing your judgment to become clouded.
Jones says he is still "not ready" to curb his use of alcohol and marijuana, all the while knowing the role they played in bringing chaos to his life. Well, he had better be ready to find some other way to introduce into that turbulent life of his the wonder drug known as sound, sober judgment.
It'll be the fight of his life for Jones to straighten things out if he is indeed the addict he has described himself as. Anyone who has been touched by alcoholism or drug abuse will tell you there are no shortcuts. But if Jones is instead just a rich, young guy with a wild streak (and a dark cloud), maybe he can grow up with some help.
Jones has a family to guide him away from ever again making a fateful decision while under the influence. He has friends and a fight team to ensure he always has a ride home at the end of the night. He has management to make sure everything he puts in his body in the lead-up to a fight has been tested for banned substances. Jones needs to get rid of the yes-men in his life and surround himself with people who will protect his future every step of the way, one day at a time.
Jon Jones' unrivaled skills as a martial artist always carry the day when the Octagon door locks behind him, leaving him one-on-one with an opponent. But this is a fight he cannot win all by himself.