This week’s Jon Jones news was less than ideal and did nothing to clean up his image or reputation among fight fans.
His Dec. 9 out-of-competition test revealed picogram-levels of a long-term metabolite for Turinabol was deemed not to be a new ingestion, and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency ruled the test was caused by a residual amount of the substance from 2017 that led to his 15-month suspension.
Still, it was enough for the Nevada State Athletic Commission to not issue a license for Jones to fight this weekend at UFC 232 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Instead, because of Jones’ test, the entire fight card was moved to The Forum in Inglewood, California, a state which agreed to issue Jones a license to fight Alexander Gustafsson for the UFC light heavyweight title.
The move sent social media into a rage of anti-Jones sentiment from fans and fighters alike. Nothing new there as Jones has seen his share of out-of-cage issues in his historic career. There were the two previous positive tests for performance-enhancers, the second of which led to this latest testing issue. There was the DWI in Binghamton in 2012, the accident and fleeing of the scene in New Mexico in 2015 and positive recreational drug tests.
So, when will fans tire of Jones? The answer isn’t that easy.
“Generally in sports, there’s bracketed morality. There’s this ability to separate our everyday morals from what we do or what we see or what we approve of on the court or in the ring,” said Eric Bean, Ph. D and mental conditioning coach and representative of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
That makes it easier to “forgive” an athlete of his or her transgressions, Bean said.
There’s this notion, Bean said, where fans think, “‘I don’t really care what he does outside of the ring as long as he entertains me and performs really well inside the ring.’ And then of course there are some boundaries to that. If the guy is really breaking an individual’s core values and morals, then they’ll kind of meld the two.”
Thus, if those ranting on Twitter hold true to their instant proclamations in reply tweets, pay-per-view numbers for UFC 232 may not be what they could have been. But, a lot can change in the days between the outrage of the moment and fight night when Jones is at his best. There’s a reason he gets more chances than anyone else: He’s that good. Arguably the greatest ever in mixed martial arts. A generational athlete.
The fallen hero always has been more interesting and gravitational than just the person who maintains consistent success at a high level. Shakespeare’s tragedies don’t work without the flawed character. No good drama does. And in the fight game, drama is a constant presence. It compels the dollars from your pockets to theirs.
“People like to see people fall down because it humanizes the athletes,” Jones said on the UFC 232 conference call last week. “It reminds the people at home that this guy’s no better than me. ‘Look at this guy, he’s a piece of [expletive]. He does drugs, he just got in a car accident. I’m better than him.’ It makes people feel better about themselves when they see someone who has accomplished a lot do things that everyday people do.”
We are a strange breed, indeed.
“The other piece is just our general negativity bias,” Bean said. “We have a bias toward finding what’s wrong in the environment, what’s not working, what’s not going to go well and we learn more from those experiences than we do from positive ones. It’s seeing somebody’s fall and then learning about that process of getting back up is a little bit more appealing to our mind to see somebody coming back from a fall than to see somebody with a golden spoon getting everything handed to them and it all working out.”
We admire our athletes. We buy their merchandise, talk about them like we know them personally. We let their glory be our glory, if only for that moment we have chosen to spend our time being a part of their world. And when they fall, we fall with them.
“When we see them being a flawed person, that humanizes him and it gives us a little bit of hope,” Bean said. “That’s where we really connect to from a psychological standpoint is the hope aspect. That it gives us a bit of hope that we can be successful despite our flaws.”
Jones understands this. He believes it gives people some perspective on their own issues as they see him deal with one career-threatening issue after the other and yet always manage to land on his feet and get his hand raised at the end.
There can be no great comeback without a great fall, and Jones’ falls are Niagara in stature.
“I love the fact that my story is controversial,” Jones said. “It shows that I’m far from perfect and it shows if a guy like Jon Jones can do it, who says anyone can’t?
“Dude, this summer, I was so freaking sad. I thought to myself, how easy would it be to take nine world championships, $7 million and just walk away from the sport? Delete Instagram, delete Twitter, never worry about what fans have to say again. That’s the easy route. We’ve seen people do that before. We’ve seen people in the past lose a fight and never come back. That’s the easy route. A real man comes back, faces the music, does it all over again, rebuilds it from ground up all over again.”