His self-inflicted troubles began in 2015, around the time of his first victory over Cormier. Before that fight, Jones tested positive for a cocaine metabolite in an out-of-competition drug test; several months later, he was stripped of his belt after a hit-and-run accident in Albuquerque, N.M., in which he broke a pregnant woman’s arm. In his absence, Cormier won the title.
Before he could return to the octagon to fight Cormier in a rematch scheduled for July 2016, Jones tested positive for two separate estrogen blockers often used by athletes cycling off steroids. He was suspended for a year, delaying the rematch with Cormier, a three-time defending champion, until last month. That was why the kick — delivered weeks after Jones’s mother had died — seemed to bring his career full circle, and to restore order in the chaotic world of mixed martial arts.
Jones is now reported to have again tested positive for a banned substance — this time for turinabol, an easily detectable anabolic steroid — raising the possibility that he was seeking an edge few thought he would ever need.
In sports terms, Jones is less Floyd Mayweather Jr. or even Sugar Ray Robinson than he is Wilt Chamberlain or Oscar Robertson — an athlete who so thoroughly outclassed his contemporaries that he outpaced the sport itself.
The tension in fighting derives from the potential for profound personal humiliation. The fear and ultimate certainty of such humiliation informs every fight and the actions of every fighter. They grapple with it in various ways. In an interview in December, Jones said he partied hard and drank heavily the weekend before every fight; doing so gave him an excuse should he ever lose. He never needed that excuse, though. Not even once.
“Are you afraid of anything?” I asked Jones before the first Cormier fight.
“Nah, man,” he replied. “I’m not scared of anything.”
Jones was lying: to his opponents, to his fans and to himself.
In the end, despite all the ways in which Jones was unique among his contemporaries, his fear of personal humiliation made him one of their ilk. His tale, though, casts a shadow over a much sadder one.
“When I look back at the things I accomplished and the things that I achieved for what was expected, I knocked it out of the park,” Cormier told me in June before the rematch.
Before mixed martial arts, Cormier, 38, was a wrestler, a two-time Olympian who spent nearly two decades pursuing the goal of becoming the best in the world. When he fell short of that, admitting at last that other wrestlers were stronger and better, he made peace with them beating him, and forged a new career in mixed martial arts.
By the time he fought Jones the first time, Cormier was considered one of the best light heavyweights in mixed martial arts, and the two men’s distaste for each other produced a bitter rivalry.
To be considered the best, a fighter must beat the best. In the conflict between Jones and Cormier, contempt was an added fuel: Each thought the other was a fraud. Cormier never beat Jones, but he wound up with the title anyway because Jones failed a doping test. Now he has lost to him again, and he could wind up with the belt anyway — again.
Cormier is obsessed with Jones because of his suspicion that Jones only beat him because he cheated. Interviewed at his house in Gilroy, Calif., this summer, sitting in a chair in his man cave in front of a wall of photos that memorialize his first loss to Jones, Cormier laid out a surprisingly detailed theory about how and when Jones had used steroids over the course of their rivalry. He sounded like he was in denial, like someone having trouble accepting having been humiliated at the hands of a better man.
The rematch consumed Cormier. His plan was to beat Jones, do it again in a rubber match and then walk away as the greatest fighter ever.
“It’s not based on the fact that I know he’ll be clean this time,” Cormier said. “I know I’ve stayed the course.”
After Jones knocked Cormier out with the kick to the head, though, Cormier, concussed and heartbroken, wept in the cage. At 38, and having been beaten twice, he probably knew a third shot at Jones was out of the question.
“In my mind, on July 29, I competed and I lost,” Cormier told MMAFighting.com Tuesday night. “I thought Jon Jones was the better man that day. I don’t know what to think anymore.”
The only thing crueler than losing to Jones twice is seeing his archrival apparently fail drug tests both times. Denied the resolution he has long sought in the ring, Cormier must now confront the reality that he will probably be handed the belt again — and, if so, that many will always regard him as a paper champion.
In fighting, time is tracked in eras, by the reigns of champions. Cormier and Jones were fighting to determine whose era this would be, whose story would be told.
“This is my story,” Cormier insisted before the rematch. He was wrong. His final chapter was stolen from him.
Cormier may be the best fighter never to have failed a drug test. Depending on one’s opinion, he could retire as, technically, the greatest light heavyweight of all time.
But this era will probably always be remembered as belonging to Jon Jones, and Cormier as a casualty in Jon Jones’s story. And that would be the saddest end of all.
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