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Back in April, as UFC 223 geared up in Brooklyn, Conor McGregor managed to dominate fight week headlines in spite of not being on the card in question, not having fought in over a year and not being scheduled for any future bouts.
In a case of amusing irony, this week Jon Jones managed to upstage McGregor’s UFC 229 press event in spite of not being on the card in question, not having fought in over a year and not being scheduled for any future bouts. Oh, we paid attention to the press conference, of course. But fans and media within the sport quickly moved on from ephemeral questions like “Was Khabib shook?” and “Can I return this whiskey for a refund?” and got back to what’s truly important: freaking out about the return of “Bones.” It’s quite a feat to upstage McGregor, let alone on what was meant to be McGregor’s week, and Jones even pulled it off without directly interfering with the event or hurting anyone -- yet.
The announcement that the former light heavyweight champion’s suspension by the United States Anti-Doping Agency had been reduced to 15 months, leaving him eligible to compete before the end of October, has kicked up a storm of conflicting reactions and opinions, which seemed to come in waves, crashing one over the other. Fighters, media and fans alike have been sounding off.
The first and initially loudest reaction was outrage: people protesting that the proceedings were a joke, that the independent arbitrator was not independent -- but certainly arbitrary -- and that Jones was getting off easy because of his bankability and the resulting pressure from the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The second reaction was contempt, spurred by the revelation that one of the factors used to justify Jones’ reduced suspension was that he had “delivered substantial assistance” to investigators. I have no idea why this provoked as much of a response as it did; one of the very first things we learned about Jones during his rise to stardom was that he used to turn in fellow students for smoking weed. We knew this as far back as 2010, by his own cheerful admission, in which he went so far as to call himself a snitch.
The third reaction, which seems to be rising to the top of the cauldron as the initial furor boils away, is glee: Jon Jones is back. The man who we all know deep down inside to be the best light heavyweight on the planet -- and who could perhaps be the best heavyweight as well -- is coming back. Whether the glee is of the guilty-pleasure type or shouted from the housetops, it’s plain to see that a lot of people are excited to see this man in the Octagon once more.
Before I get to my next point, I’d like to make something clear. Any time I discuss divisive or controversial subjects here, there is always one question in my mind. I ask it of myself constantly as I write, and when I file the article for publication, I am asking it of you. I’ve always thought the question was obvious even if it was implicit, but just to be safe, I am going to make it explicit now.
What do you want this sport to be?
That’s the question. What do you want? How do you want mixed martial arts to be regulated? How do you want it to be organized and promoted? What kind of people do you want competing, and how do you want their compensation to be determined? What do you want the in-cage product to look like? (Yes, “in-cage.” If you want your mixed martial arts in a ring, go away.)
With that question in mind, I’ve been unpacking my own response to the news of Jones’ impending return. I’ve felt all three of the emotions listed above: plenty of outrage, a bit of eye-rolling contempt and yes, excitement to see the best fighter in the world back at work. As I’ve done this, I’ve asked myself: What do I want this sport to be? What am I really upset about, if anything, and what does it say about my priorities?
I don’t really care about performance-enhancing drugs in mixed martial arts. (If you’ve noticed how much space I’ve devoted to waxing nostalgic over Pride Fighting Championships, this should not surprise you much.) I would not especially care if fighters entered the cage with hypodermic needles sticking out of their glutei, other than the problem of the needles themselves.
However, the reality is that in the UFC, there is a list of chemicals that fighters are not allowed to use and a set of guidelines to cover consequences for those who are found to have used them. There are a rare few smoking-gun cases where a fighter gets warned for pulling out his CBD inhaler at a press conference, but for the most part, USADA doesn’t punish fighters for using PEDs, it punishes fighters for testing positive for them or their metabolites. That may seem like a distinction so fine as to be meaningless, but if you’re like me and you don’t actually care about the drugs themselves, it makes all the difference in the world.
What I want is for the rules to be clearly stated and consistently enforced. I don’t care if a fighter is using steroids, but I do care what happens when he is caught. Just like making weight, providing a clean urine sample is simply something fighters should have to do, or face consequences. If a fighter chooses to do that by not using anything he shouldn’t, great. If he chooses some other route and elects to run that risk, fine. That’s the only level playing field any regulatory entity can really provide: Both of these competitors passed the same testing.
If you are like many fans -- and both Diaz brothers -- and believe that the majority of high-level fighters are using PEDs, then it should actually be disturbing to you that so few fighters are caught, relatively speaking, and that even fewer are caught multiple times.
Which brings us back to Jones. He is one of the most-frequently busted fighters in the history of the sport. Yet he is also one of the highest paid, and has trained for years at one of the premier facilities in the sport. He has access to the very best products and specialists, or he should. How does he keep doing this? I’m not upset at him for being a cheater; I’m upset that he’s such a lousy one. I believe that Jon Jones is the most skilled, most talented fighter we have ever seen, and by the time he is done, he may be the most accomplished as well. Frustratingly, I believe he would be the best fighter in the world without the steroids. Or the eye pokes. Or the oblique knee kicks. But perhaps if he wasn’t the kind of man driven to seek that edge, he wouldn’t be the same fighter anyway.
Likewise, I’m not mad at USADA for suspending Jones. I’m upset that the reduction in his suspension was such a transparent farce that, as multiple fighters and countless observers have pointed out, it comes close to rendering the whole system meaningless. If they were going to do this, they might as well not have suspended him at all, and let us enjoy two or three more “Bones” performances in the prime of his career. USADA choosing to enforce its own rules so selectively does more harm than good, and I would argue that it does more harm than if it didn’t exist at all. In other words, I can’t even bring myself to say that organization is “better than nothing” anymore.
Whether you agree with me or not, the question is out there: What do you want? Decide what you want this sport to look like and advocate for that. Vote with your voice and your wallet. But whether you are against PEDs and want a truly “clean” sport, you wish every fighter was juiced to the eyeballs or you just want some sensible regulations in place, you should recognize that USADA is not the vehicle to get you there.