Sometimes the narrative in a combat career reads like a fairy tale: Young man overcomes disadvantage, unlikely odds, and impossible physical toll to slay the dragon sitting atop the division and live happily ever after. More common these days is the comeback narrative: the tale of great success and then personal woe, followed by redemptive clash against both his opponent and his own demons.
That was the plan with Jon “Bones” Jones, the best pound-for-pound fighter in all of cagefighting, who seemingly tossed away a chance at UFC greatness back in 2015 when he was stripped of the UFC lightweight title following a bizarre three-car hit-and-run incident in which he drove his car through a red light and into the car of a pregnant woman, breaking her arm, before he fled the scene on foot and then came back to grab a handful of cash. The crime of the century it was not: He was ID’d by multiple witnesses. All of which is horrible for the victims, bad for Jones the person, and a threat to the sport. Jones was suspended and stripped of the title. But at the end of it, at least they had the comeback story to sell.
Jones returned to the octagon 15 months later. A few months after that, in the run-up to UFC 200 (where he was scheduled to appear in the main event), he tested positive for illegal substances and was yanked from the card, resulting in a teary press conference in which he said “I would never cheat. I pride myself on my work ethic,” and blamed the positive test on some, um, non-illicit performance enhancers, which if nothing else added some light comedy to the story line. “I believe that something good will come from this, but right now it’s hard to see it,” Jones said. Once again, he was suspended and stripped of the title—the first time that has ever happened twice to the same fighter.
All of which leads us to last month at UFC 214, when the narrative took on otherworldly strains: The comeback wasn’t ancillary to the career arc—it was the career arc. The quest for redemption was indistinguishable from the quest for victory. When Jones unloaded on Daniel Cormier in the third round at 214, taking a stout opponent and rendering him a weeping, concussed shell in a post-match interview, it felt like the reclamation not just of a winning streak but of a man’s grasp on humanity.
But MMA careers are fleeting, and so, it seems, are the redemption arcs of its fighters. News broke Tuesday that Jon Jones, just like Brock Lesnar before him, tested positive for steroids. Barring a reversal, he will likely be suspended for at least two years and stripped of the title, again. It will be the first time such a thing has happened to the same fighter three times.
The sport of MMA—and Jon Jones in particular—has rewritten the book on redemption narratives. Part of it is a sheer comedy of errors—Jones is hardly the first pro athlete to dope, and get caught. Part of it is the bad juju of the UFC, which, for as much as it tries to normalize the sport for the masses, can never quite escape that underground-fight-club stench. But more than anything, in a sport so rife with symbolism, it’s a metaphor for the ultimate failure of the redemption narrative in the modern era. We fans know too much, see too much, and more than anything, know that our idols are as mortal as we are.
No longer will articles about Jon “Bones” Jones be content with sighing phrases like “This is the latest in a string of issues Jones has had in recent years.” Now the narrative has shifted: it’s about the end of a potentially definitional career, the self-destruction of the greatest hero in the fight game. The fairy tale wasn’t his career, it was the way UFC and writers and fans all made Jones a legend before his career really became legendary. Sometimes we’re so hungry for a narrative—especially in the cage, where careers are so short that star-making is a preemptive measure—that we worry more about constructing one than watching what’s happening before our eyes.
Last year, Jones said: “I want to show the world that you can be down but never out. I want to be a story where someone risked losing so much but ultimately turned everything around. A lot of times you hear these stories about athletes who ruined their career, and they go away and no one knows what happened to them or they're bankrupt or they end up in jail. They just ruined a great career. I want to be one of the few stories you hear where I was ruining things but ultimately turned things around and became a hero. That's my vision for the way my story is going to play out.”
Maybe it’s time to stop looking for the happy ending, and realize that sometimes, we’re just telling ourselves stories.