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After a tumultuous week that ended with Jon Jones once again winning the UFC light heavyweight title, how do we look at one of MMA’s most complicated figures in light of recent events? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.
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Fowlkes: Daddy’s home, Danny. After the MMA world spent nearly a week being educated on turinabol metabolites and trying to imagine the size of a picogram in terms of salt granules, Jon Jones went out there in the UFC 232 main event and reminded us that he’s still really good at fighting – whether or not you believe he’s been getting some anabolic assistance.
Jones steamrolled Alexander Gustafsson to reclaim the UFC light heavyweight title, ending a crazy and controversial week back on top of the heap at 205 pounds. My question is, how do you like Jon Jones now?
Is he the best to ever do it at light heavyweight? The best fighter in MMA history, regardless of weight class? Does his story – and the UFC’s shifting narrative – about his history with drug tests affect your assessment of him at all?
Downes: I don’t see how any serious person can deny that Jones is the best MMA fighter alive today. You may not like the guy. You may think he’s a pompous ass, and I totally understand that. What I don’t understand, though, is how anyone can deny his greatness.
He systematically demolished Gustafsson. Jones tells a lot of stories, but when he says he didn’t really train for their first encounter, it’s hard to doubt him now.
The only real question is whether or not you think performance-enhancing drug use has played a factor in his dominance. To be honest, I don’t really have any interest in this question. I don’t care about picograms or watching Jeff Novitzky on Joe Rogan’s podcast for two hours.
I do care about how USADA and the UFC handled the situation, though. They repeatedly changed the story and timeline of events. They decided to move a huge event on a week’s notice for Jones, while fighters like Tim Means and Tom Lawlor have faced far greater consequences for much less.
Perhaps we should thank Jones for showing the naked hypocrisy and flaws in the UFC’s anti-doping system. You were all aboard the USADA train when it was announced, but do you really think we’re better off today than we were a few years ago?
Imagine if USADA actually dropped the hammer and Jones was suspended. Amanda Nunes would be getting more of the shine she rightfully deserves, but we wouldn’t have seen the GOAT do what he does best. We’re already on morally shaky grounds cheering for this sport in the first place. What are a few more granules of salt in the swimming pool?
Fowlkes: That’s some fine equivocating there, Danny. But let me back up and deal with your points in order.
Do I think Jones is the best fighter in MMA? Yes, I do. Sometimes he’s done it in spite of himself, but he’s done it again and again. In his quest for MMA greatness, Jones has nothing to fear but Jones himself.
Did drugs of the performance-enhancing nature play any role in his success? Up until very recently I was inclined to say no, even though it made me feel like I might be playing myself through sheer willful naivety.
The tainted sex pill excuse? Hey, they had the receipts (so to speak) to back it up. And then the unexplained turinabol metabolites? Well, he’d passed so many other tests, and the timing was weird, and the amount was tiny. Grains of salt in a swimming pool, Danny! And, lest we ever be at risk of forgetting, that pool was indeed Olympic-sized.
But it’s weird that this keeps happening to him, isn’t it? For a totally clean fighter to be so plagued by dirty drug tests, I mean, how unlucky can one guy get?
So then we have to ask ourselves whether you can be hounded by PED accusations – or, at the very least, reasonable doubts – and still be the greatest. Should it immediately disqualify him?
I’m inclined to say no there as well, mostly because then we probably have to replace him in that GOAT conversation with someone from an era or a place where testing was either far more limited or else entirely non-existent. If this was 2006, or if it were New Year’s Eve in the Saitama Super Arena, no one would even know about a few picograms of turinabol.
Which brings us to the anti-doping program itself. One reason I was in favor of the UFC bringing on USADA was because it served as a competent answer to an increasingly pressing question.
The UFC wasn’t just running events in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and Los Angeles, where athletic commissions (aka “the government”) handled the testing and the oversight. It was also in Macau and Uberlandia and Gdansk. In places with no regulatory body, it regulated itself. It did not always do so well.
The promoter can’t be the regulator, for obvious reasons. If we’re to have any oversight at all, it needs to be done by independent third parties. But those parties must actually be independent. They must be fair and consistent and transparent. As time has gone by, I can’t say USADA has inspired much faith in me on those counts.
The Jones situation highlights many of the reasons why. Which then makes me wonder, is Jones a victim of those flaws more than a special beneficiary of them? Or is that me playing myself again?
Downes: He’s both. There’s no denying that he benefited this past week from USADA working seemingly as an arm of the promoter. It certainly was convenient that the California State Athletic Commission was not given notice of Jones’s failed tests before his December hearing.
Was it in the interest of “being fair and having due process afforded to the athletes,” as Jeff Novitzky claimed? Perhaps, but I’m a bit skeptical. That skepticism that the system is rigged for the biggest stars of the sport doesn’t help Jones’ public standing, but he certainly stands to gain more than lose in the current situation.
I understand why there can only be so much smoke before you assume there’s a PED fire in the Jones camp. At the same time, you’re in a small minority if you think it matters. People don’t dislike Jones because he may use steroids. They dislike them for a whole host of other reasons and then use PED accusations to justify it.
It’s like how I don’t care what NFL team you root for, but if you cut me off on the freeway and I see a Raiders bumper sticker, I’ll mutter “figures.”
Even your moral paragon Daniel Cormier only cares about steroids when it suits him. Jones disqualified himself because he’s a cheater, but Brock Lesnar deserves a title shot. Why is that? It’s because Cormier doesn’t like Jones and doesn’t want to deal with him anymore. If he just came out and said, “I’m done with Jon Jones,” people would accuse him of ducking. By taking a moral stand against doping, there’s a veneer of nobility to it.
Lesnar is going to get a heavyweight title shot. Multiple-time PED user Chael Sonnen is the face of ESPN’s MMA coverage. Cris Cyborg has had a slew of PED accusations, and now appears to be a darling of the MMA Twitter bubble.
Jones is young, rich, famous, and the greatest athlete in his sport. From all accounts, it appears performance enhancing drugs can at least be career-enhancing.
Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.
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