With thirty-six fights and a $4 billion sale in one week alone, July of 2016 was one of the most tumultuous months ever for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the foremost promotion in mixed-martial arts. Since MMA is still niche enough to require a summary every time you talk about it: twenty-three years ago men, and only men, stepped into an eight-sided cage called the Octagon™ for the first time. Representing a variety of martial disciplines ranging from American Kenpo to Shootfighting, they participated in a pay-per-view pissing contest of a tournament to figure out which art could beat the rest, their fights ending only by knockout, submission, or throwing in the towel. The UFC maintains a monopoly on talent, and on the shape: it has been relentlessly protected by the company since that inaugural tournament, organized by the scion of a wealthy Brazilian family in order to showcase Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, their ground-grappling heavy martial art. John McCain called it “human cockfighting,” though he’s come around.
In the two decades since, the sport itself developed beyond the fundamental question of whether savate could defeat sumo. Time limits were eventually introduced, fights lasting three five-minute rounds, with an extra pair tacked on for twenty-five-minute main events. Shoes and groin strikes were banned. Competitors abandoned strict traditionalism in favor of cross training and experimentation. New trends were given handy rhyming couplets or epochal appellations by noxious commentators who resemble screaming human thumbs. The Machida era! Ground and pound! Sprawl and brawl! For a while it was illegal to strike with a closed fist but fighters did it anyway.
Despite some popularity in odd corners, the UFC was on the verge of bankruptcy by the new millennium. Lorenzo Fertitta and his brother Frank, casino-owning union-busters, along with Local Boston Man and fellow thumb Dana White, swooped in, bringing higher production values and necessary clout with state athletic commissions. Financially, things turned around upon the Fertittas’ partnering with man-child cable channel Spike TV to produce The Ultimate Fighter, a reality show competition that has churned out stars, clunkers, and personal favorite and human backpack Ryan Hall.
At some point, everyone started documenting their workouts online, which included such creative solutions as hitting a tire with a hammer or running underwater while holding a large rock. Women were never to compete, until they were to. Following a prolonged state-by-state battle spearheaded by the UFC, MMA recently became legal nationwide, with longtime holdout New York being the last to acquiesce, though not before Rosie O’Donnell’s assemblyman brother Daniel had voted against it, calling it “gay porn with a different ending.” Everyone now seems to pop for steroids, more likely a function of increased testing than increased use.
In an attempt to give a season to the season-less, pay-per-view world of combat sports, mid-summer has been punctuated for the last four years by an onslaught of programming known as International Fight Week, which takes place entirely in Las Vegas. This year, Fight Week was preceded by needlessly high-stakes drama. The UFC administered a lifelong ban to press fixture Ariel Helwani for scooping too many news items, and then, following an internet radio confessional in which Helwani admitted to being paid by the UFC to cover the sport, reinstated him two days later. Living Notre Dame logo and featherweight champion Conor McGregor was taken off the card because he didn’t want to do local press rounds for his spectacular if quixotic non-title rematch with Stockton, California’s weed-fueled Nate “I’m going to do ninja shit” Diaz.
There was actual fighting, eventually. Chin-strapped Spirit of Philly Eddie Alvarez beat the brakes off the previously untouchable lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos, and then went home to pose with two pizza portraits of himself and tweet fake vacation auto-replies at other contenders. Charismatic imp Joanna “Champion” (née Jedrzejczyk) weathered two rounds of Claudia Gadelha’s wrestling, only to eat her alive with snap kicks and flurries of punches to retain the strawweight belt. The first openly gay UFC champion was crowned as Amanda Nunes cranked the ever-loving shit out of bantamweight champ Miesha Tate’s neck. Professional wrestler, former heavyweight UFC belt holder, and fractal of muscle Brock Lesnar returned after a five-year absence to win against the 42-year-old Super Samoan Mark Hunt. Lesnar said in his post-fight interview that, in these fraught times, “from one white boy to all nationalities, we gotta stand together people.”
News broke shortly thereafter that the UFC was being sold by the Fertittas for $4 billion to WME-IMG—the talent agency supergroup led by Ari Emanuel, aka brother of Rahm, aka Jeremy Piven on Entourage. The following week, Lesnar, who had also said “I’m a white boy and I’m jacked, deal with it” in response to pre-fight doping allegations from Hunt, was revealed to have taken steroids.
It’s all too much to take in. Even as someone who unconsciously types URLs for websites with names like Bloody Elbow and MMAJunkie into my phone the way other people open up Facebook, the fights themselves can be tedious and overwhelming, an unending barrage of increasingly indistinguishable bald men and cornrowed women with terrible tattoos throwing the same one-two into a low kick and wrestle-fucking each other into the fence. Even for those of the libertarian “what two grown-ups agree to do in a cage under the eyes of a referee and an athletic state commission is fine” bent, the potential for brain trauma is obvious and worrying. I often find myself asking why I’ve read multiple articles about some fighter’s new nutritionist. At this point, I’m mostly here for the greatest mixed martial artist alive. But Jon Jones didn’t enter the cage in July, and might not again for quite a long time.
The 28-year-old Jones is the middle child, sandwiched between two NFL pros. One has won a Super Bowl, and, since I began writing this, tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, receiving a four-game suspension from the NFL. The other has been hospitalized for smoking K2. Their father, a Pentecostal minister, kept his three sons indoors after sunset with naught but a bloodstained wrestling mat in the basement to play with. The three remain close, ribbing each other in the press about each’s chances in the other’s sport and who would win in a fight now. (The consensus pick seems to be Arthur, the oldest and heaviest.)
After dallying with the idea of becoming a Lockheed Martin janitor for the benefits, a 20-year-old Jones violently won six fights in small-time Northeast organizations over three months and was promptly signed by the UFC. He then tore through the promotion’s ranks, using bizarre and often erratic striking techniques, fantastic grappling, and a tendency to push people’s faces away such that he poked them in the eye. At 23, he won the light heavyweight belt, becoming the youngest UFC champion in history. The only blemish on his record is not so much a loss as a non-win; he was disqualified in one fight for throwing “12-to-6” elbows, the name for which comes from the image of bringing an elbow from up high (at the twelve o’clock position) straight down (to the six o’clock position). MMA prohibits these moves, though any deviation from that axis is totally legal.
There was a counter-narrative that used to dominate comment sections and Reddit boards: at six feet four inches tall and with an eighty-four-inch reach, Jones is too big and long for his division; he’s somehow cheating and should fight heavyweights, who weigh in at as much as 265 pounds. The notion that Jones is somehow too big is nonsensical, as Jones weighs in at 205 and rehydrates his post-weight-cut desiccated corpse like every other light heavyweight. Of course, wingspan and height and the torque and leverage those biometrics generate are all certainly real, but you can be taller and bigger than everyone in your division and still be a total scrapheap (a problem, admittedly, more common in heavyweight, where gargantuan data points on the far end of the genetic bell curve like Stefan Struve and Bigfoot Silva fight). Having undeniably developed a surplus of skill to match his raw physical potential, however, Jones is no such scrapheap. In the five years since he first won his championship, he’s ruined legends and mauled contenders, being legitimately tested only once, maybe twice.
Writing this gives me an excuse to watch Jones’s development from lethal newborn deer to a self-possessed man with a bag of murderous tricks and the tactical intelligence to use them, and all I want to do now is watch. I want to see him hit people with spinning back kicks that sound like I momentarily spiked the volume on my computer. I want to see him compress opponents into themselves like springs on the ground and then slip an impossibly long elbow through their defending forearms, making ribbons of their eyebrows. I want to see him ruin everyone’s joints with side and oblique kicks to the leg that jam knees back into sockets. I want to see him choke people unconscious as they stand, their bodies sagging to the floor afterwards as if boneless. I want to see him sit on his grounded opponent’s stomach and try to hyperextend their knee ligaments, and, when that doesn’t work, casually backhand them in the mouth.
MMA’s drama tends to be somewhat undercooked and boring, or terrifying and repulsive: incidents of domestic violence; hyping fights with xenophobic slurs (please, Conor and Joanna, stop telling your Brazilian opponents to go back to the jungle or that you’ll ransack their villages on horseback) or intense narratives about face-punching for Jesus/America/family legacy. There are a few fighters who thrive on being death spirits personified (Robbie Lawler, for example, who soberly told a broadcaster he takes people’s souls on Atlanta local television), but an actual story is often lacking, as are characters. This makes for difficult viewing, given how many fights there are, and the fact that you usually have to pay to watch, as well as the time spent sitting through ads for MetroPCS and new appetizers at Buffalo Wild Wings. And so I appreciate Jon Jones—not only for displays of prodigious skill, but also for how he’s managed to become a cartoonishly dastardly anti-hero outside the Octagon™. He’s made a heel turn, as they say about professional wrestlers.
The preacher’s son originally had a church boy routine that never really fit. A New York Times profile from 2013 gave us a Jones who addressed everyone by ma’am or sir, and stopped a thief from making off with a woman’s GPS unit. It made small mention of his wrapping a car around a pole in upstate NY in a 2012 DWI.
The more interesting Jones arose when he faced Daniel Cormier, whose undeniable babyface-ness pretty much cracked Jones’s heroic demeanor. A short, stocky Olympic wrestler from Lafayette, Louisiana, he’s risen again and again from horrific personal tragedies, including the shooting death of his father when he was 8 and the car crash deaths of his cousin and his first daughter, to become the best light heavyweight in the world. That is, had Jon Jones not existed.
Cormier seemed to bring a particular petulance out of Jones, who bragged to Cormier the first time they met, backstage during an event and still yet unmatched, that he could take the Olympian down. They brawled at a presser when they were actually scheduled to fight. The ramp-up to said fight consisted of social media jabs revolving around Cormier being fat or Jones being fake. They called each other pussies and got into an off-air argument during an ESPN interview over whether Jones could actually “absolutely kill” Cormier if spat upon. Schoolyard stuff, but given the low bar for appealing MMA narratives, at the time it felt like something was actually at stake, even if it was whether a freakishly talented, now openly shitty bully would murk the do-gooder.
It helped that the fight was fantastic. Mostly taking place in the clinch, Jones folded himself over into Cormier, applying exhausting head pressure and hitting tight elbows from overhooks, thrusting his shoulder into Cormier’s chin as they wrestled against the fence. Cormier, who had never been taken down before in his MMA career, was sent to the mat three times by Jones. The first takedown was a beautiful kick catch to leg sweep in the first round, the second and third resounding dumpings in the fourth. More impetuous than ever, Jones held Cormier down after spinning him off balance at the end of that round, his palm lingering on Cormier’s forehead big brother-style after the bell. With less than ten seconds left in the fifth round, Jones actually lifted his hands up in victory and began to turn away as Cormier doggedly tried to finish a single-leg takedown. When Cormier let go, looking up in confusion, Jones turned right back and clocked him in the face. As the final bell rung, the two men were still swinging, Cormier even catching the referee with a punch.
Walking away, Jones did the “Suck It” crotch chop made popular by peak-’90s professional wrestling faction D-Generation X. Afterwards, Jones seemed to live entirely in something dreamed up by Attitude-Era World Wrestling Federation storywriters trying to build up heat before Wrestlemania. He had tested positive, it was revealed, for cocaine metabolites during training (and odd testosterone levels, which were less reported). He then mocked Cormier for losing to someone who had failed a drug test, and went into rehab for exactly one day. In April of 2015, he crashed another car, this time in Albuquerque, leaving a pregnant woman with a broken arm and onlookers with the vision of Jones sprinting away and then back to the car to grab cash out of the rental. The UFC suspended him and stripped his title, and Cormier won the vacant championship.
After a lot of community service where he talked to kids about how dangerous weed was, and an astoundingly indulgent hour-long walk-and-talk of contrition with Helwani1, Jones was reinstated in October. A rematch scheduled for UFC 197 fell through when Cormier injured himself checking a kick during training. Following a stop for allegedly drag racing—during which Jones called a police officer a liar and a pig and received five tickets, leading to a brief stint in jail for violating parole—Jones fought instead the lisping and recalcitrant Ovince St. Preux, beating him handily in a boring match for the “interim” light heavyweight title. For all the redemption talk, Jones seemed happy to flip Cormier off after leaving the cage that night, which made everyone giddy. Jones was back, in all of his sociopathic glory, and for a brief while MMA seemed interesting again.
Of course it didn’t last. Jones tested positive for performance enhancing drugs and was taken off the card three days before the fight. It would be unfair to describe this as another heel turn: casting the possible two-year suspension for estrogen blockers2 as such makes little sense. At the press conference following his ejection, he sobbingly pleaded his innocence. Fighters don’t get paid to not fight, and one commentator estimates Jones will lose $30 million dollars in total revenue over the suspension. Moreover, unlike, for example, Brock Lesnar throwing a man in a wheelchair down a set of stairs on a 2003 episode of Smackdown, these car crashes are not scripted, these broken arms not faked.
If Jones’s tearful protestations are true and he unknowingly took a tainted supplement, then he’s likely to get six months instead of twenty-four. Meanwhile, at 37, Daniel Cormier’s already at the wrong end of the aging curve. Jones may return, but the rivalry that galvanized MMA has likely come to an end.
MMA rolls on regardless. So far, since UFC 200: aforementioned death spirit Lawler actually lost his title in a first round knockout. Mark Hunt, righteously pissed, is demanding all of Brock Lesnar’s prize money. Diaz and McGregor are making the late night TV rounds before their rematch this weekend. The Association of Boxing Commissions, which maintains health and safety standards in boxing and MMA, modified MMA’s rules, legalizing clavicle grabs and heel kicks to the kidney and making extending one’s fingers out towards the eyes of the opponent—poking them in the eye, in other words—a foulable offense (we will see how Jones adjusts upon return). It’s not clear what WME intends for the promotion, beyond funneling more fighters into bit parts in Vin Diesel franchises. Those plans are unlikely to include Jones, who, recently booted from the sport’s official rankings, has been relatively silent since his ejection, lauded by drug testing officials as proof that the sport can and will be cleaned up.
But even if you were to thoroughly root out PEDs and their ilk, sanitizing the sport of its oddballs and sociopaths seems unlikely, and seeing war-worn fighters with scar tissue and CTE slog through lines in the newest Fast and the Furious or XXX movie probably won’t imbue a sense of narrative in the fights themselves. These people are simultaneously too little and too much. My brain needs to dry out.
Used by athletes as part of a performance enhancing drug cycle. The blockers keep the body from producing estrogen in response to an artificial rise in testosterone. ↩