Jon Jones, Turinabol, and the Failure of Narrative in Sports
There is nothing we love like a good story, of this I am certain. We love them so much that we look for them in the real world just as we do in the fictional. Our predilection for doing this has brought us some of the great moments not just in sports, but in human achievement. Ali versus Foreman at the Rumble in the Jungle. Michael Jordan playing a killer game while riddled with the flu. We’ve even seen it more recently in the ascent of Conor McGregor and in the 2016 NBA Finals. We love stories. But sometimes, in our eagerness to find one, we base our narrative on a fallacy. And this mistake brings us to Jon Jones.
Let’s be very clear about two facts upfront: First, Jon Jones is probably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. I say probably not to give credit to his competition for that claim (I love me some Demetrious Johnson, but I digress) but because we’ll never actually know if he is. This brings us to the second fact: Jon Jones is a cheater. These facts are intrinsically linked through a tremendous irony, that irony being that Jon Jones likely did not have to cheat in order to be the greatest of all time. Turinabol does not innovate the oblique kick. Estrogen blockers don’t help a fighter find the opportunities to connect elbows to the face of opponents the way Jones seemed supernaturally conditioned to do. No steroid can provide a fighter with the skill required to become the youngest-ever UFC champion and then steamroll through a murderer’s row of future Hall of Fame light heavyweights. It is extremely probable to say that Jon Jones could have accomplished all of this without the added boost of performance-enhancing drugs. But we’ll never know. The world we live in is one in which Jon Jones cheated, and we cannot know what his career would have been like had he fought clean throughout.
In the interest of fairness, it seems pertinent to mention that there is no proof that Jon Jones has been using PED’s throughout his entire career. We only have the evidence at hand, of his failed drug tests over the last year, as proof of his cheating, and definitive as that proof may be in relation to the Jon Jones standing before us today, it can provide no definitive evidence condemning his past accomplishments. However, this is unfortunately all semantics to fans of the sport. Getting caught using steroids casts the entirety of his accomplishments into doubt, doubt that may never be definitively confirmed or denied, but will exist nonetheless.
Falls from grace are something of a specialty for Jones. They’re easily more recognizably his trademark than oblique kicks or trash-talking Daniel Cormier. Jon Jones screwing up should not surprise fans at this point. Yet when the news broke of his having failed a drug test in the wake of UFC 214, I felt my gut drop. It hurt. I was saddened, deeply, by the news. A friend later told me that he was sorry to hear I was let down but that he had given up years ago. In the moment, I wished I had as well. But it’s important to note that leading up to UFC 214 we had not been sold the reality of Jon Jones, screw-up extraordinaire. We had been sold a story.
We understand the world and our place in it through narrative. It’s engrained in us from birth. We perceive ourselves as living in stories, and through characters that populate them we see ourselves. There is a reason Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is as eternally present as it is in fiction. There is a reason you share the results of your Which Game of Thrones Character Are You? quiz with all of your friends on Facebook. And, frequently, there’s a reason we gravitate towards people in the public eye. We assign narratives to celebrities, politicians, and athletes alike. We do this because it’s easier to understand people we observe from a great distance when we’ve established a story through which we can interpret their every move. And few facets of real life lend themselves to narrative like sports. Sports are a simulation of combat, of struggle, both internal and external simultaneously. As such, the most resonant athletes are often the ones onto whom we can project ourselves. And it’s far easier to see yourself in the trials of a screwup than in a squeaky-clean generational talent. It’s why Allen Iverson’s popularity only grew with his (admittedly unjust) notoriety while Steph Curry’s detractors seem to clamor for a misstep louder and louder with every milquetoast post-game presser; it’s why Bryce Harper is never more popular than he is the day after an on-field meltdown. And, ultimately, it’s why in a fight between Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones, the latter would be on the receiving end of cheers rather than jeers ten times out of ten.
Jon Jones is a man just as famous for being stripped of his titles as he is for winning and defending them. Logic would dictate that we cheer for Daniel Cormier, by all accounts a great guy and inarguably a great fighter, over a man who has proven time and time again that he does not grasp the gravity of his position, a man who takes for granted his unparalleled talent, and a man who seems to have never learned from the multitude of consequences laid on him as penance for his failures. But at the end of the day, we more often see ourselves as Jon Jones than Daniel Cormier. We never let go of the hope that he’d pull it together, that he’d overcome his inner demons and come out of them a new and better man, a warrior now forged in the flames of both combat and Real Life. How could we let go of that hope? To abandon Jones would be to admit that some people are beyond saving, and that we might be, too. So when his return at UFC 214 was announced, we prepared ourselves for the worst but hoped for the best. Through the weeks of buildup, tensions between Jones and DC rose, and with them our anticipation just as much as our dread. What if he couldn’t do it? What if the demons won? What if Jon Jones was no longer anything more than wasted potential? And then finally, it came. Two men walked to the Octagon. Apprehensively, they touched gloves. The referee called, “Fight!” And in the middle of the third round, Jon Jones rose from the dead.
Few victories in combat sports have felt as cathartic as that one. From the head kick heard ‘round the world to Big John McCarthy giving DC every chance to get back up to Jones, belt around his waist, collapsing to the floor weeping while Joe Rogan interviewed him squatting down to the Octagon canvas, it was a moment that felt important; indisputably one of the greatest in the history of the sport. He left no doubt. It did not go to the judges. Jon Jones definitively cemented his claim as the Greatest Of All Time. And as he sat in the very ring that had made him a legend over the last decade, his voice full of relief and exhaustion, he said, “I made it back, man….it’s never over.” He did it. He gave us the perfect ending to the story we’d been writing for him for years. It was, in every way, perfect. Until suddenly it wasn’t.
A few weeks later Jon Jones tested positive for Turinabol, a banned substance. We waited for the inevitable. A few weeks after that, Jones’ B-sample tested positive for the same banned substance. The bout was ruled a No Contest by the California State Athletic Commission and Jones was, for the third time in his career (yet another record of his that will likely never be broken), stripped of his title.
It feels improper to say it was all a lie when the fact is that Jon Jones has never been dishonest about who he is. Sure, he would say in interviews that he had never taken PED’s, that this time would be different, that this time he was back. But at no point in Jon Jones’ career had he shown us evidence that he was anything other than a screwup and a compulsive liar. An astoundingly talented one, but a screwup and a compulsive liar nonetheless. Jon Jones did not earn back our trust. We gave it to him willingly, freely, and, even taking into consideration the countless UFC promotional videos pushing UFC 214 as Jones’ last shot at redemption, of our own accord. We did this because there is nothing in athletics so compelling as a comeback story. We wanted this to be that. But it never was. Now we’re back where we were last year, and in 2015, and many, many times before that. The only difference is that this time, it feels permanent.
There will be no more redemption stories for Jon Jones. It is likely that there will be no more stories for him at all. This is not to say that he’ll never compete again. The UFC needs its cash cows and fighters need to fight (and get paid). Jon Jones will probably step into the Octagon again. But we will not believe in him. And he will never again find himself the protagonist in our narratives. He is the living, breathing embodiment of the failure of narrative in sports.
See, stories get the resolution they warrant. Even at their most twisted, nonlinear, and abstract, they end the way they need to. You get the feeling that even Twin Peaks: The Return gave audiences the resolution they deserved, even if that resolution was defined by a lack thereof. Real life, as we are all too often reminded, is not as tidy as fiction. It does not provide act structure, character arcs, or storybook endings. More often than not, it is muddy, complicated, and leaves you craving resolution to something that can never provide it. We cling to stories to help us make sense of the senseless. It leads us to a perpetual search for stories in our own world that deliver what fiction gives us. When we find them and they deliver on their promise, it’s among the most powerful, transcendent experiences in the human experience. When Ali beat Foreman, the world shook. When the Red Sox broke the curse, the impossible seemed possible again. Just describing The Miracle on Ice aloud can bring grown men to tears. We see our struggles personified in athletes. They are ideal protagonists for this very reason. But in our eagerness to find stories, we all too often forget that athletes are not characters. They’re people. They are just as imperfect and fallible as we are. And while the rare Jesse Owens story can happen, more often than not they will fail to deliver on the promise of their prescribed narrative.
Perhaps it’s irresponsible, even unfair, for us to assign these stories to athletes, to expect them to reach accomplishments that defy their character. I’d personally argue otherwise, but it’s not a completely false assessment. But the fact of the matter is that even if it is irresponsible, we’ll never stop. We can only learn from the ones that let us down and hope we are more discerning when selecting our heroes in the future.
Someone on Twitter observed in the wake of Jones’ victory at UFC 214 that in order for there to be another Jon Jones there will have to be another Rampage Jackson, Rashad Evans, Shogun Rua, Chael Sonnen, Daniel Cormier, and every single other man Jones beat in his meteoric rise to the top of the UFC. As hard as it may be for us to admit, there will likely never be another like him in any of our lifetimes for this reason. Even more difficult to admit is that at the end of the day, Jon Jones is a phantom. He never existed as we believed him to. And as convenient as it’d be to lay the entirety of the blame at his feet, we bear the responsibility of a small piece of it. After all, we are the ones who were dishonest with ourselves about Jon Jones. He has done everything in his power to let us know exactly who he is since day one.