INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Jon Jones has been suspended for various transgressions to the tune of more than three years since winning the UFC light heavyweight title in 2011.
Instead of thinking about what those periods of inactivity cost him in terms of money and accomplishments, Jones prefers to look at it as time tacked on to what he has left of his career.
“I feel like it has preserved my body and my mind,” Jones said after winning the belt for the third time by knocking out Alexander Gustafsson in the main event of UFC 232 on Saturday night. “I’m 31 years old and I feel like I have a lot more in me. I’m here to stay. I believe this is my era and I’m going to own it for many years to come.”
Jones admits he has made some mistakes, though he still disputes ever knowingly consuming a banned substance despite two performance-enhancing drug suspensions and another testing irregularity that prompted Saturday’s event to be moved from T-Mobile Arena to Los Angeles on less than a week’s notice.
He believes that in addition to preservation his time away from competition compelled him to take a more introspective approach to his life and career.
“It’s been very educational,” he said. “The biggest thing I’ve been able to do is start to have an appreciation for who I am outside the sport. Outside of ‘Bones Jones,’ who is Jonathan Dwight Jones? I got to go to therapy this summer and talk a lot about who Jonathan Jones is and what means most to him. I got to see how people treat me when I’m not in the limelight, when I’m not training for a fight and when my reputation isn’t the best. I got to learn to differentiate between legitimate friendship and people who are just around.”
Jones has heard several former athletes talk about the emptiness they feel after leaving the field of play, but he was able to experience it while still in his prime.
“The result of that is a greater understanding for what this sport means, what this belt means and what it means to be in my position,” he said. “I think that’s going to make me an even better athlete.”
He doesn’t have a whole lot more to prove in that department. Jones faced the one fighter who had given him any real difficulty in the cage in Gustafsson, but recorded a far more decisive win on Saturday.
His goal now is to answer the skeptics who still question his legitimacy due to his testing history.
“My plan is to take everything head on,” Jones said. “To answer every question, to take every test, to pay every penalty, to do whatever I have to do to prove my innocence.”
UFC president Dana White has had his issues with Jones, but stood by him last week by making the decision to move the fight card so Jones could stay on the marquee.
He hopes his faith in Jones is rewarded by not having to deal with any more testing issues.
“Jon Jones’ future depends on a lot of different drug testing,” White said. “He needs to pass a lot of drug tests, he needs to stay clean, stay straight, keep training, keep winning. And he can completely turn his life around.
“The thing is with him, if he can get his personal life together, who knows what he can accomplish? Who knows what he can do?”
Jones once again showed what he can do in the cage despite all the chaos and drama that surrounded last week, including the relocation of an entire card caused by an issue with his tests.
He said the canceled UFC 151 card when he didn’t accept a very late-notice replacement opponent and his removal from UFC 200 just days before the event for a failed drug test prepared him to handle adversity in his career, but other real-life situations have had a massive impact.
“I feel like losing my mom and having the belt stripped from me for something I believe I was innocent of, there’s nothing the sport can throw at me or what an opponent hits me with that could be as hard as life hit me. I know to be in my position is a total blessing. To be talked about, to be cared about — to be hated, even — is ultimately a blessing. I believe maybe God or something is saying it’s not designed to be easy, but it’s totally going to be worth it. I live by that. To be the greatest ever is not meant to be easy. That’s the way I feel.”
He made it look about as simple as possible on Saturday. Now comes the hard part of waiting for the next test results.