Jon Jones clear-eyed, clear-headed facing Smith at UFC 235
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Jon Jones used to cry for days when he heard about his positive doping tests.
Although his system still isn't clean, Jones' eyes are finally dry heading into UFC 235.
The UFC's light heavyweight champion memorably wept in a news conference after getting pulled from UFC 200 in 2016, realizing his career was headed into a spiral. Jones cried again in a friend's arms a few months ago when tests showed more traces of the steroid metabolite that could be in his system for years.
But when two more tests last month revealed tiny amounts of the metabolite, Jones finally didn't cry. Although the results are casting a shadow over his every achievement, he has come to grips with his predicament — and more importantly to Jones, he is allowed to fight on.
Jones said he will take on Anthony Smith on Saturday night in the main event at T-Mobile Arena with clear eyes and a clean conscience.
"I'm at a place now where I've been hurt so many times," Jones said. "So many things have happened — I've caused a lot of my own pain, and there's been a lot of pain inflicted — that I just feel like I'm so comfortable with this scenario. I'm not going to allow anybody to hurt me anymore. ... I take responsibility for this whole thing, (but) I'm not going to let it bend me or break me."
Jones has always denied knowingly taking performance-enhancing substances, and mixed martial arts' various regulatory bodies believe his recent results are microscopic echoes of past violations, not a reason to ban arguably the most gifted fighter of his generation.
Jones has grown increasingly defiant in recent months, standing up to condemnation for what he claims to be an honest mistake with a supplement — a stance that makes his opponents laugh.
Now 31, Jones (23-1) is moving on to chase big paydays and career-defining excellence. He is a huge favorite against Smith (31-13), but Jones believes he is largely competing against himself.
"I do kind of feel like my younger self," Jones said Thursday. "I feel set free from a lot of things that's happened. I've finally learned how to forgive myself for a lot of things, and so I feel reborn in a way. I feel like I have the second half of my career, and the question is, what are you going to do with this second half of your career? My second half, I vow to respect myself better. Respect my body, respect my team, respect the organization and the fans, and just try to do better. And I know a great start to that is staying in the gym. Staying busy."
In fact, Jones is picking up speed: He is in his second fight in just nine weeks at UFC 235.
Jones' suspensions and legal woes limited him to just two fights in a nearly four-year stretch of his prime, forever depriving the sport of the chance to see the full scope of his career. But he followed up his third-round stoppage of Alexander Gustafsson in California last December by agreeing to headline another pay-per-view show.
UFC 235 also features welterweight champion Tyron Woodley's defense against Kamaru Usman and 34-year-old wrestling star Ben Askren's long-awaited UFC debut against former champion Robbie Lawler.
Most observers expect those fights to be more competitive than Jones' meeting with Smith, who only joined the UFC in 2016 and got a title shot after just three straight stoppage victories in the thin 205-pound division.
Jones' last two opponents — Daniel Cormier and Gustafsson — prodded Jones relentlessly about his failed drug tests, affixing an asterisk to his achievements. Smith has pointedly ignored Jones' checkered history except when asked directly about it, preferring to keep his focus on an upset.
"I don't understand the science behind it, but (Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director) Bob Bennett has been doing this for a long time," Smith said when asked about the positive tests revealed this week. "I just don't think he would put me in a position where someone else starts with a head start. That's not me giving Jon a pass, though. Obviously there's been some sort of indiscretion there. I think at some point, he has used PEDs, and I don't think we can argue that. But as far as now, I think that Jon is a clean athlete."
Jones insists that's the case, but he knows many fans will never believe him.
The champion said he is finally comfortable with an asterisk next to his name while he attempts to add another exclamation point.
"I feel like I'm just at a place where I'm confident in my own skin," Jones said. "My career goes up and down and up and down. What I've learned, whether I'm on an up like right now, or in down moments, just enjoy it all. It's just such a privilege to be a part of the UFC, to be the light heavyweight champion of the UFC, and we've got the best fans in the world. It just feels good, man. I really just feel so alive."