Jon ‘Bones’ Jones is the greatest talent the sport of mixed martial arts has ever seen. The youngest ever UFC world champion, he ran through a plethora of Hall of Famers to utterly dominate the light-heavyweight division. His ability to turn the tables and beat former champions at their own game raised the bar in what an athlete was capable of inside the Octagon.
His return on Saturday night, at UFC 247 in Houston, Texas, should be a moment to saviour as the flag bearer for greatness once more crawls into the cage. But instead, fans are bracing themselves for yet more controversy, pulsing picograms and reticent rounds from the unsolicited bad boy of MMA.
For the 32-year-old, salvation lies not on familiar ground but up at heavyweight. This, his 15th consecutive light-heavyweight title bout, must be his last. It’s time Jones stepped out of his comfort zone and built on a decade of controversy-laced dominance by joining the elite double weight division champion club. He must dare to be great (again) before it’s too late.
The last five years of Jones’ unbeaten reign as the sport’s pound-for-pound number one has also run tag team with litigation, suspensions, drug test failures and even a hit-and-run and battery cases. He’s been stripped of his world championship belt three times, despite never being stopped or outpointed inside the octagon.
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During that same five-year time frame, Georges St-Pierre, Canada’s former welterweight champion who is also a strong candidate in MMA’s GOAT debate, returned to claim the middleweight crown, adding a little sugar to his legacy.
Conor McGregor has also emerged, banking the kind of dollars even Jones could only dream about while also becoming the UFC’s first simultaneous two-weight world title holder. A feat that’s now been matched by presiding female Amanda Nunes, former Olympic gold medallist Henry Cejudo and Jones’ old foe, Daniel Cormier.
Russian mauler Khabib Nurmagomedov has also broken through, at lightweight, ensuring Jones is no longer the only Rubik’s Cube champion yet to taste true defeat in octagon combat.
And while admittedly none of their fighting styles carry the same aura of majesty Jones possesses, current middleweight kingpin Israel Adesanya most certainly has that free-flowing flair. The Nigerian-New Zealander even pushed one-time GOAT Anderson Silva off his perch during his meteoric rise. In two years, he’s gone from Octagon debutant to the most exciting talent in the UFC – and generated plenty of headlines taking verbal pot-shots at Jones along the way.
After stepping in a late notice in March 2011 to take the 205lb belt from ‘Shogun’ Rua, Jones would prove to be almost untouchable. Through 2010 to 2013 he swathed through the best possible opposition, a who’s who of former champions, with relative ease.
But soon enough his secret party lifestyle caught up with him. Jones had started the decade with eight finishes from nine wins, mixing an array of highlight reel knockouts with black belt level submissions. But as his personal life became front page news, his performances waned.
Jones has scored just two stoppages in his eight wins, one of which was overturned to a no-contest for a PED test failure. His fight finishing rate has slumped dramatically, from 89% to a mere 25%.
Now this could be down to simply getting a little older, a little slower, a little less confident. And there is no doubt he will have been distracted by the chaos he generated outside of the cage. But another logical explanation is that Jones is no longer truly being tested by current line-up of challengers standing in front of him.
Repeat victories over Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson are where the recent stoppages came. Opponents with history, with needle, with motivation for success. It appears a clear lack of motivation against the newer generation of contenders allows Jones to “cruise” his way to points decisions, and it’s chipping away at his legacy.
At the start of the decade, when he became champion, Jones was matched up against fighters who had pioneered in the sport. Globally recognised former champions, all future Hall of Famers, Jones perhaps had the fear every top-level athlete needs to bring out the very best in them when the bright lights and TV cameras are switched on.
He’s never going to find that motivation, that fear, again at 205lb. He’s dominated that weight class for a decade. For Jon Jones to truly return to his best he needs to be tested, he needs to push the advantages back in the other guy’s favour – and that only happens up at heavyweight, where his 85-inch reach advantage may not count for as much against guys weighing in over 250lb.
Thankfully, Jones agrees. “There’s a really good chance heavyweight is next. I really want to fight Stipe Miocic [UFC champion]. I feel like I could beat him. Based on his performances against DC, I feel like I’m the guy to beat him,” Jones told ESPN last week.
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“Right now, it’s Dominic Reyes. But I’ve been cruising through some of these victories. Whether I get the heavyweight title against him or whether it’s a few years from now, I just want to be appreciative of the moment. The future will take care of itself… I could even go up and down the weights.”
Meanwhile, UFC president Dana White has got similar ambitions. “If Jon Jones can get out of this fight with a win, I don’t even know what’s next for him. He’s probably going to have to move to heavyweight.” He then added: “He has no reason to go up to heavyweight, unless it makes financial sense for him.”
I disagree. Regardless of whether it’s financially a good move for Jones and there is no reason to suggest it wouldn’t be – his legacy now demands a switch to fight sports’ golden division. There’s fighting, then there is heavyweight fighting. It has an aura all of its own. And the title of ‘heavyweight champion of the world’ still has that historical significance that light-heavyweight simply does not.
There are also now a handful of mixed martial artists who have achieved two-weight champion status and, combined with Jones’ current run of ‘lacklustre’ points victories, it’s becoming increasingly difficult – even for the staunchest of Bones fans – to keep making a case for his status as the sport’s GOAT.
To be truly great an athlete must push themselves to their limits, not cruise to world title defences. Jon Jones has a decision to make. He either wants to cement his legacy as the greatest ever, or simply go down as the best light heavyweight the sport has known.
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