Jon Jones returns as a heavyweight with the wonder and curiosity of his 21-year-old self

LAS VEGAS – It was late 2008 or early 2009 when the phone rang and a young fighter was on the other end of the line. It was a promising light heavyweight who turned heads in his UFC debut as a last-minute substitute. He wanted to talk, so we met at the food court in a strip mall.

Jon Jones’ UFC debut came on August 9, 2008 at UFC 87 in Minneapolis, Minnesota against Andre Gusmao. He accepted the fight with two weeks’ notice, replacing an injured Tomasz Drwal. He struggled in the preliminary rounds, scoring a unanimous decision win, 30-27 twice and 29-28.

The card featured the then-legendary Georges St-Pierre in the main event, defending his welterweight title against Jon Fitch. In the co-main event, future heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar faced Heath Herring. Other notables on the card included Demian Maia, Kenny Florian and Cheick Kongo.

It was difficult to say with certainty what had become of him, although it was obvious he was built to be a fighter. He was a slim 6ft, 4in but had a massive 84½in reach.

Not long after that impressive debut, he wanted to speak, so we met in the Fashion Show Mall’s food court, where he had a drink from Orange Julius. He was exuberant, upbeat, and generally playful. He spoke of his dreams of winning a championship and being an important player in the sport.

He spoke of challenging then-UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva, who at the time was the fighter widely regarded as the GOAT of the sport. He was respectful and polite and never said a bad word about Silva or his skills.

However, he frowned when it was hinted that he might one day fight at heavyweight.

On Saturday, nearly 15 years after that encounter, Jones will make his heavyweight debut. He ends a three-year absence to fight Ciryl Gane again in the main event of UFC 285 for the title, which was vacated when Francis Ngannou failed to agree a new deal with the UFC.

And after a career of turmoil and discord both inside and outside the Octagon, the Jones who is about to return to the Octagon for the first time in 37 months most closely resembles the 21-year-old, who is carefree, fun and cheerful. Lucky guy covering MMA and his career with a reporter in a mall food court.

He has proven to be a brilliant talent, perhaps the greatest the sport has ever seen. But he’s had many touches with the law and clashes with people ranging from UFC management to fellow fighters to reporters and fans.

But when he prepared to fight Gane, it was very different. He has spoken respectfully about Gane, although he has expressed his belief that he will win. He’s tried to put his career in perspective without coming across as cocky, arrogant, or disingenuous.

“I was focused on myself, man,” Jones said. “Focusing on myself and personal growth: growth as an athlete and friend and member of the community, as a father and family man. I’ve been focused on family and focused on growth. I can honestly say I’ve never felt better.”

HOUSTON, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 8: Jon Jones celebrates his victory over Dominick Reyes in their light heavyweight championship bout during the UFC 247 event at the Toyota Center on February 8, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

The last time Jon Jones fought in the UFC, he defeated Dominick Reyes on February 7, 2020 at the Toyota Center in Houston. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Getty Images)

Jones was so dominant for so long and no one really got close to him. Matt Hamill suffered his only loss in 2009 when he was about to quit the fight and was disqualified for an illegal elbow. He should have only taken a point deduction. The only fight ever close was his 2013 title defense against Alexander Gustafsson in Toronto when, after partying and mostly without practice, he fell two rounds to zero and had to rally in the last three to salvage his title.

Both men ended up in the hospital that night.

A move to heavyweight seemed inevitable given the way he dominated the light heavyweight division. After defeating Dominick Reyes in his most recent fight, a light heavyweight title defense on February 8, 2020, in the main event of UFC 247 in Houston, Jones left the sport.

He wasn’t happy with his salary, despite signing a long-term contract and planning to finally make the heavyweight division. He wasn’t nearly as motivated in his last few light heavyweight fights. The fear, he said, was gone. These fighters had dreamed of facing him for years. For him, these fights meant little excitement and nothing that pushed him to do the extra work he routinely did before.

After an arrest on the night of his induction into the UFC Hall of Fame on September 23, 2021, he appears to have managed to put his life in order. However, time is always the ultimate bringer of truth.

But he did re-sign a contract — “It’s basically the same deal as before, except they pay me more,” Jones said — and he built his physique into a heavyweight. He did it carefully, strategically, and scientifically. He has never been stronger and expects to weigh in at around 245 or 250 at Friday’s weigh-in.

His eagerness to fight again, and especially for the heavyweight title, is evident.

“It’s a dream come true, just a dream come true,” Jones said of the opportunity to contend for the heavyweight championship. “I’ve talked about it for a long time. It took a lot of courage to take that leap and embark on that weight gain journey and that confidence building journey that it takes to fight some of these gargantuan gladiators. We’re here now and I feel very resilient. I feel like I’m a hard man to break. I just feel stronger than ever.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JANUARY 2: UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon

Jon Jones, shown here at the UFC 182 weigh-in, will be a lot bigger and more muscular when he weighs in for UFC 285’s main event on Friday. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Getty Images)

He’s still only 35 and still has a long way to go if he chooses to do so. He wants to fight again this year but otherwise doesn’t look ahead.

He’s like the 21-year-old version of himself, now hopeful of a world of opportunity. He’s reached the highest highs and the deepest lows, but seems fine with where he is in his life now.

“You can’t cry over spilled milk,” Jones said of his previous struggles, which have included drug test failures, arrests for drunk driving and battery. “My journey makes me who I am today. The pain, the pain, the stupid choices, it all makes you the man you are today. I’m thankful for my strength and resilience because… I’m proud of it. I’m proud of that, I have life experience.

“I will one day be able to sit down with kids and let them know, ‘Hey, you might not want to do that. Maybe you don’t want to go that route.’ I’ll be able to talk to my kids about how I screwed up and how I embarrassed myself and my family and things like that. I am thankful for everything. I survived everything and I think it makes me more accessible to people.”

He survived and now stands on the precipice of another title that, if he pulls through, could prove to be the most significant fight he’s ever had. Jon Jones returns as a heavyweight with the wonder and curiosity of his 21-year-old self

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