Jon Jones’ UFC return in December a new start suspension-riddled stretch

The first act of Jon Jones’ MMA career was brilliant. Act II was a mess.

So, when he makes his return to the octagon at UFC 232 on Dec. 29 in Las Vegas, the former UFC light heavyweight champion is aiming to start his third act with another gold belt wrapped around his waist.

"I know that I can take time off and come back and perform,” Jones, who will face Alexander Gustafsson for the light heavyweight crown he won in March 2011 and defended eight times through April 2015, told amNewYork in a phone interview Monday.

Jones (22-1, 1 no contest) didn’t lose that title in the cage. Instead, he was unceremoniously stripped of his crown for violating the UFC’s code of conduct policy, stemming from an April 2015 hit-and-run incident in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that eventually led to 18 months of probation.

After returning one year later to win the interim championship, a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs less than three weeks ahead of a lucrative grudge match with champ Daniel Cormier earned him a one-year suspension from competition. He came back in July 2017 to knock out Cormier in a rematch of their January 2015 bout, but another positive test for PEDs forced the victory to be overturned and the title returned to Cormier, and for Jones banned for 15 months.

The tumultuous past four years have allowed the 31-year-old Jones, in his opinion, to grow up.

"I’m getting older," Jones said. "I feel like I’m maturing, slowly but surely. [I’m] making better decisions."

That includes having security with him when he goes out to have fun, hiring a driver on weekends and frequently being a "five-star customer" on Uber.

"I still go out and enjoy myself," Jones said. "I just try to do things way more responsibly than I used to even think about when I was younger."

Professionally, Jones’ path to redeeming his once-promising MMA legacy begins with the rematch against Gustafsson (18-4), with the winner claiming the 205-pound crown that dual-champion Cormier will relinquish to focus on defending his heavyweight championship early next year. Jones defeated Gustafsson via unanimous decision in a close September 2013 fight that he characterized as "by far the toughest" of his career.

"He cut me; he’s the only guy who ever made me bleed in a fight," Jones said of the Swede. "[He] took me down; he’s the only guy to ever take me to the floor in a fight. He pushed me, man. He had me dog tired. I learned a lot about myself that day … as a fighter and as a man."

The upcoming fight, which serves as the headliner of what should be a stacked end-of-year event, figures to be one of the last times Jones will compete at light heavyweight. He foresees victory over Gustafsson, followed perhaps by a title defense against fast-rising contender Anthony Smith. But Jones says a long-speculated move up to heavyweight will come "sooner than later," in part due to the ever-increasing difficulty of cutting his 230-pound frame to 205 for weigh-ins.

Believing he could fight for at least five more years, Jones thinks the biggest matchups available to him exist at heavyweight. That includes champion Cormier and ex-UFC and current WWE champion Brock Lesnar, who may face each other in March for what the 39-year-old Cormier has said possibly will be his retirement bout. 

Regardless of who stands across from Jones on future fight nights, the former champion wants the next phase of his career to be rife with positives in and out of the cage.

"The way I can grow my legacy is just by doing the right things," Jones said, "[by] staying out of the headlines for anything negative, and continue to win world titles [and] take high-level fights. I think that’s the best thing I can do for myself."