It would be both cliched and inaccurate to say Jon Jones is down to his last chance in the UFC.
For years now, pundits have opined that Jones had already used up eight of his nine lives as one of MMA's biggest stars. Yet through a litany of mystifying misdeeds and miraculous missteps, the UFC has stuck with its most talented, most headache-inducing fighter.
Not that it has any choice, mind you. So long as Jones keeps himself out of jail and remains a pay-per-view draw, the Octagon's overlords will keep giving him more rope. If nothing else, to keep him out of the clutches of the gaggle of smaller promotions that would love to make Jones the centerpiece of their efforts to catch the UFC.
The former light heavyweight champion will be gunning for this third taste of gold—fourth if you count pesky interim titles—when he returns from his latest suspension to rematch Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 232 on December 29.
We know what's in it for the UFC. As usual, however, what's in it for Jones remains murkier.
Here is a guy who has already achieved more inside the cage than nearly any of his peers, while trying everything he could think of to screw it up outside. Jones turned 31 while the US Anti Doping Agency was taking its sweet time adjudicating his latest drug-test failure, this one for the steroid turinabol.
We haven't seen him fight since his knockout of Daniel Cormier at UFC 214 in July 2017, but many observers already consider Jones the greatest MMA fighter of all time. What he has left to prove and what he can still accomplish during his latest tour of duty in the Octagon could be a matter of some debate.
Here, Bleacher Report lead MMA writers Chad Dundas and Jonathan Snowden discuss Jones' comeback and what, if anything, they hope to see from Bones when he returns.
Chad Dundas: Let's talk about the Gustafsson fight first, Jonathan. Considering the lay of the current UFC landscape, this was the expected booking for Jones' comeback bout. Nonetheless, it's an interesting matchup.
At least prior to Jones' unanimous decision win over Cormier in that pair's first bout at UFC 182, Gustafsson had given him the stiffest test of his career at UFC 165 in September 2013. Fans weren't accustomed to seeing Jones in competitive fights, so it made a bit of a stir.
I'd wager it made an impression on Jones, too. In the wake of that, Jones' camp confessed he hadn't taken Gustafsson seriously. He hadn't trained as hard as he normally does leading up to their clash.
Ever since, he and Gustafsson have occasionally exchanged words through the media, like the time in May 2017, when Gustafsson said he didn't consider Jones a champion because he thought he was "not a good person." Jones responded thusly:
Considering what I know about Jones as a competitor, I think he'll take this second fight as a personal challenge. Not only will it be his return after another protracted absence, it'll also be a chance for him to prove the first fight was a fluke.
Gustafsson has some physical traits that make him a difficult puzzle for Jones. He's 6'5", a lanky striker with an 18-4 MMA record and a 79-inch reach (which would be impressive against anyone besides Jones, who checks in at 84.5). He also has good takedown defense and—weirdly enough—became the first man ever to take Jones down during their first fight.
But I think Jones will be out to make a statement, taking the title while proving the king is back and Gustafsson was never on his level.
What do you expect Jones will want to prove in this fight?
Jonathan Snowden: I think you've correctly pinpointed the issue for athletes of Jon's caliber. The normal metrics of success, like winning, losing or even the accumulation of UFC title belts, don't apply once you reach the heights Jones has scaled. It's what separates mere greats from legends. If Jones is to be a legend, he will need to manufacture reasons to keep stepping into the cage beyond just money.
And that's not easy—because the truth is, Jones has little to prove to anyone.
Even if Jones had retired forever from MMA, he's already accomplished everything you can achieve in combat sports. He won the world championship at 23 years of age and proceeded to dominate his division like no other fighter in UFC history. His resume includes victories over six former champions. Both of the men it makes sense for him to fight (current heavyweight kingpin Daniel Cormier and the top contender Gustafsson) are both prior victims.
Beyond these elite fighters, it's hard to even imagine someone managing to beat him.
This is where Jones will need to get creative and fabricate reasons to come to the gym every day. He'll tell himself that Gustafsson is a threat. That he wants to beat him more convincingly than Cormier did. That ring rust might make him more human in the Octagon than laziness or cocaine managed.
Maybe the things he needs to prove are things he can only prove to himself? Because Jones has never been vulnerable to another fighter, Chad. Where he's faltered, only one man has been to blame: Jonathan Dwight Jones.
Chad: Ain't that the truth. Maybe that's why, as a keen observer of the sport, the things I'd still like to see Jones accomplish in the time he has left—which could be a lot—are mostly focused on Jones himself.
It once seemed a given that Jones would walk away from MMA as the greatest ever to lace up four-ounce gloves. But after managing just four fights during the past five years, Jones' place in the history of the sport suddenly doesn't seem like such a foregone conclusion.
Right now, I believe you have to give the nod as GOAT to Georges St-Pierre, especially after he returned to defeat Michael Bisping to become a two-division champion at UFC 217 in November 2017.
But make no mistake, Greatest of All Time status is still in play for Jones. All he has to do to get there is, as his nemesis Cormier might put it, stop disqualifying himself from competition.
At this point, any news of a Jones return to the cage sets off a weird psychological response among MMA fans. First, we feel overjoyed because one of the most naturally talented fighters we've ever seen is resuming his glorious career. Second, we start to feel nervous.
We wonder: How is he going to screw it up this time?
So, what do I want to see Jones prove during this latest stint in the UFC? Well, first of all, I'd like to see him come back and compete on a regular basis. I'd like to see him stay on the active UFC roster without any further intrusions from his personal life.
I'd like to see him prove he's still the dominant competitor that he was from 2011 to 2013, when he won the 205-pound title and went on that unprecedented run of success you mentioned.
Who knows; maybe I'd also like to see him move up to heavyweight someday, perhaps becoming a two-division champ himself. Perhaps I'd like to see him claim the mantle as the best MMA fighter ever, which once seemed like a foregone conclusion for him.
How about you?
Jonathan: I do think the standards have changed a bit during Jones' extended sabbatical. Cormier, St-Pierre and Conor McGregor all became multi-division champions, something Jones has never achieved. Being great in one weight class is super—but collecting two championship baubles is de rigueur in 2018.
Maybe it's time for Jones to dream a little bigger?
Heavyweight glory gives Jones a new goal to shoot for and unconquered ground to claim. Defeating Gustafsson for the light heavyweight strap is merely a reclamation project, a chance to right self-imposed wrongs. But it doesn't accomplish anything new—it's just a return to the status quo.
If there's a path to the summit, at least for Jones, it goes right through the heavyweight division. While there is no great standard-bearer there, no legend to dethrone, it will allow Jones a chance to put the past behind him and walk forward into a new future.
And if Jones can blaze a trail of destruction at heavyweight the same way he did at 205 pounds, who could possibly dispute something that already seems inarguable to many—that Jon Jones is the greatest fighter in UFC history?