Staying Active Is Jon Jones' Clearest Path to Salvaging His Reputation

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterJuly 5, 2019

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 02: Jon Jones reacts to his win against Anthony Smith in their UFC light heavyweight championship bout during the UFC 235 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 2, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Jon Jones will beat Thiago Santos on Saturday night. Suggesting otherwise is an attempt to create interest and mystery in a fight in which there is none.

Santos is a perfectly fine fighter who is perhaps capable of beating anyone else in the UFC's light heavyweight division. But to pretend he earned this through anything other than being an opponent Jones has not yet decimated is silly.

If someone tells you Santos is going to shock the world Saturday, they are doing so because they want to be able to say I told you so in case of a fluke. 

Jones has so thoroughly owned and dominated the light heavyweight division since wresting its mantle from Mauricio Rua eight years ago that we are left with title challengers who have been granted the biggest opportunity of their careers solely because Jones has not sent them packing at least once already. That Jones has spent so much time on the sidelines waging war against his personal demons and yet still arrived here is a testament to the magnitude of his greatness.

So we pretend. We convince ourselves that this is MMA, that anything can happen in MMA, that Santos just needs to land one clean punch and he can shock the world, that anyone can do what Matt Serra did to Georges St-Pierre or what Holly Holm did to Ronda Rousey.

All of those things might be true, but they don't provide a compelling reason to believe Santos is anything other than simply an opponent Jones has yet to dust.

If Jones continues to stay out of the kind of trouble he has created for himself over the past five years, these are the sort of not-so-challenging challenges we will continue to see him face.

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 02:  Jon Jones battles Anthony Smith (not pictured) in their UFC light heavyweight championship bout during the UFC 235 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 2, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Which is why Jones needs to move to heavyweight.

It isn't because he needs to move up for a third fight with now-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. He's already proved himself on that front, and who could blame him if he doesn't feel the need to open that forever-festering wound once more?

It isn't because his legacy needs a move to heavyweight, either. Jones' athletic and personal legacies are written in stone. He's the greatest fighter of all time. Nothing Jones does from now until the day he walks away from the sport will change that.

No, Jones doesn't need to move to heavyweight for us. He needs to move up for him. He needs to move up because he is driven and fueled by challenges, by unlocking the answers to puzzles, by discovering things others have never come close to discovering.

I've been in Albuquerque during his training camps, and I've watched him do things no other fighter does. The research. The film. The practice and the execution and the coaching.

Jones' greatest strength is not his made-for-the-sport frame or his endurance. It is his intelligence and his determination not just to beat opponents, but to figure them out in a way nobody has and then to use that knowledge against them in a way that leaves them physically and spiritually broken.

Those challenges no longer exist at light heavyweight. If he stays there, the rest of his career will be a revolving door of opponents like Santos. Opponents who stand across the cage not because they are great or because they are uniquely challenging or have in any way earned that place, but because they are just the next person in line.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 02: Jon Jones (R) and Anthony Smith trade punches during their light heavyweight title bout during UFC 235 at T-Mobile Arena on March 02, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Jones won by unanimous decision.  (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty
Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Can you just imagine how excited and curious we'd all be if Jones was mere days away from throwing down with Francis Ngannou or Stipe Miocic instead of Santos or Johnny Walker or another prospective challenger? That's the sort of intrigue that has been absent not just from his career, but from mixed martial arts as a whole. That's the kind of blockbuster fight we used to get all worked up about on a regular basis.

And that's the kind of challenge Jones craves.

So, after he puts Santos in his rearview mirror—and he will, mind you—Jones has a decision to make. He's already the greatest fighter of all time. But does he want fans a century from now to look back on him the way we view Babe Ruth or Muhammad Ali today?

If that's what he wants, there's one way to ensure it happens.

He's accomplished all he can at light heavyweight. His legacy there is secure. There are no risks to moving up a weight class. If the experiment ended in failure, it would be chalked up to a difference in size.

But if he moved up and became the world heavyweight champion? It'd be a whole lot easier to forget about all the damage he did to himself in the prime of his career.

It is a no-lose situation where only great challenges, lucrative opponents, greatness and glory await.

Jones chased those things in earnest when his career began. It's time for the chase to begin all over again.

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