Jon Jones said so much Monday in his brief response to being asked about his decision to remain on Saturday’s Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view card even after the injury withdrawal of light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier.
“I’ve let my fans down enough,” Jones responded.
Indeed, the UFC’s 28-year-old, top-ranked pound-for-pound fighter’s return to the octagon at MGM Grand in Las Vegas against sixth-ranked light-heavyweight Ovince Saint Preux (19-7) is part of his reputation-recovery mode after a nightmarish 15 months that stripped away great dignity and provided the latest example of how what we think we know of athletes can be greatly divided from the individual’s reality.
In January 2015, Jones improved to 21-1 by successfully defending his light-heavyweight belt for the eighth time, handing former Strikeforce champion Cormier his first loss in a triumph by unanimous decision.
Days later, the Nevada State Athletic Commission revealed Jones had cocaine in his system in a pre-fight screen intended to search only for performance-enhancing drugs, not street drugs. Jones spent one night at a drug-rehabilitation center and reported he wasn’t an addict.
But then a year ago, he crashed his car into that of a pregnant woman who suffered a broken arm. He was spotted fleeing the scene without assisting the woman, taking a bunch of cash from his vehicle, and drug paraphernalia was found left behind in his car.
With UFC President Dana White beside him in court, Jones escaped jail. But his punishment of probation caught up to him last month when he was pulled over in Albuquerque for racing and proceeded to call the officer a “liar” and “pig,” again skirting jail but getting assigned anger-management classes.
Even as Cormier has taken to trashing Jones, calling him a “loser junkie,” and urging him on Twitter to not “get ur dumb [rear] arrested again,” Jones said he is striving to become a better person.
“Every day, constantly trying to make good decisions,” Jones said of how he’s thought since his brush with the officer led to two days in jail. “I’ve matured. I understand consequences even now better than I ever did. I have a lot clearer head to make those decisions than I ever have.”
In Saint Preux, he’ll face a fighter who’s 3-2 in his last five fights, including losses to Glover Teixieira and Ryan Bader.
“Saint Preux has had some outstanding highlights and I’m excited about the challenge,” Jones said. “Ring rust is a small concern of mine. I’ve never been in a situation like this, never had this much time off. When I start thinking about ring rust, though, I think about my time in the gym … I know I can go five hard rounds right now and I know the longer the fight goes, the more comfortable I’ll become.
“I’ll get better as the fight progresses … cardio will be in my favor, as will my overall experience. I’ve been in more high-level fights than he has.”
Jones, who lives in upstate New York, said he believes if he emerges victorious and healthy the UFC will place his rematch with Cormier at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 12 – the first UFC fight in New York since Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation last week that reversed a prior law banning the sport due to its prior “no-rules” format.
“I’m trying not to think too much about Daniel Cormier at this point because I know I have a big challenge ahead of me,” Jones said. “At the same time, fighting Daniel Cormier at the Garden will be a dream come true. If I get out of this fight … I would love to roll around and be ready for November.
“My appreciation for the game is a lot stronger than it used to be. My gratefulness is … more than it’s ever been. To compete, to be a pro athlete, competing for a world championship, being back here now after so much discussion … means so much.”
At a March news conference, Cormier aimed some verbal blows at Jones, and actually drew jeers from the crowd who didn’t have the appetite for his criticism.
“Daniel Cormier is an antagonist,” Jones said. “I’d like to think I represent second chances, I represent hope, redemption, a comeback. There’s a lot of pressure not only to be fighting for my reputation, but for inspiration to other people who have failed themselves. A lot of people want to see a comeback from so much negativity.
“Daniel Cormier represents the people who say you can’t do anything, you can’t be anything, you can’t change your life, you can’t get your life together. He represents a future that … I’ll never make it. He represents that thought I’m not good enough. And it’s not going over well. Daniel is playing that guilt trip, the role of high and mighty, Mr. Perfect: ‘I’ve never had a drink, I’ve never had issues, I’m a better human than Jon Jones.’
“No one’s perfect. We all know that.”