In a void, Jones’s accomplishments in MMA are undeniable, with his near-spotless 23-1 record, two undisputed UFC light heavyweight championship reigns, multiple title defenses, and a bevy of highlight reel finishes against some of the most famous light heavyweights in the sport.
In reality, separating Jones from the multiple controversies that have dogged him for years is impossible.
There was his involvement in a hit-and-run back in April 2015 that led to Jones being stripped of his first title. Then the first failed drug test that spoiled his headlining rematch with Daniel Cormier at UFC 200 in July 2016 and caused Jones to have to relinquish an interim belt. Then the second failed drug test in August 2017 that erased a knockout win over Cormier at UFC 214 and the championship victory that was to come with it.
And most recently, an abnormality found in Jones’s recent tests forced officials to move UFC 232from Las Vegas to the Los Angeles area when the Nevada Athletic Commission refused to license Jones to headline against Alexander Gustafsson at T-Mobile Arena, a story that broke less than a week away from fight night. The bout would otherwise proceed as scheduled, with Jones reclaiming light heavyweight gold via a third-round submission of Gustafsson.
Suffice to say, there is a segment of fans and critics who have taken Jones to task for his actions, even as he has apologized for constantly ending up in the headlines while also vehemently denying all accusations of intentional misconduct.
His team has little control over Jones’s image, something his coach Mike Winkeljohn admitted as much on The MMA Hour when asked how he responds to the suggestion that Jones’s legacy is tarnished.
“There’s not much response because if you already hate Jon, or if you already don’t like him, you’re one of those haters, I’m not going to change anything,” Winkeljohn told host Luke Thomas. “If you like Jon, you like Jon. So I’ve kind of given up on all of that through experience.”
He’s also supportive of the argument being put forth by Jones, UFC president Dana White, and UFC vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky that the results of Jones’s drug tests are overblown and any banned substances in his system had a negligible effect on how his fights have played out.
“When things don’t matter, why are they even talked about? And that’s kind of what I’m irritated about,” Winkeljohn said. “He shouldn’t have been suspended the first time I believe, let alone the second time, but of if you hate Jon you’re going to jump on it and make excuses, and at this point there’s nothing we can do about it but just go forward and keep dominating fights.”
After fighting just once a year from 2014-18, Jones is already set for his first fight of 2019 when he defends the light heavyweight championship against Anthony Smith at UFC 235 on March 2 in Las Vegas. Winkeljohn sees the quick turnaround as a good thing and he’s grateful to White for booking Jones even as licensing from the NSAC is still pending.
“You know what, it keeps Jon in the gym,” Winkeljohn said. “He’s focused more than ever. We used to have quite a few fights, then things slowed down a little bit. We had all these dumb little suspensions, which is kind of irritating in itself, thank God Dana White’s got the balls to do the right thing. But with that being said, I like the quick turnaround and I think it’s good for Jon to get him back to the gym, keep developing the skills, and stay on top of his game.”
What does bother Winkeljohn about Jones’s outside-the-cage issues isn’t only that they’ve kept Jones from competing, but also kept him from reaching his potential in the coach’s eyes. He doesn’t mind the distractions (Jones has admitted to leading a wild lifestyle in between fights), it’s just that not being in camps preparing for actual opponents limits how much he can improve.
If Jones stays out of trouble and puts together a consistent stretch of fights and training camps over the next few years, Winkeljohn still thinks the sky is the limit for “Bones”.
“I think he could get a lot better,” Winkeljohn said. “He needs those distractions, everybody does in life so you don’t get burnt out on whatever you’re doing. But it’s the constant repetition that I think will help him out even more, he does a lot of reps already. That’s when we’re going to start getting one punch, one kick knockouts, that’s when they’re going to start coming. And then proper timing on his takedowns, so the constant reps will definitely help, no doubt about it.
“Everybody needs distractions, because otherwise you find yourself getting kind of lazy with your training and kind of complacent. Jon’s all in, he’s fired up, that’s the difference with Jon. When he does train, he trains hard. He shows up on time, he works his butt off. He stays late and he trains harder than anybody else in the gym.”