All eyes on Jon Jones following tumultuous hiatus

LAS VEGAS — Jon Jones has never been an easy read.

Whether inside the cage or out, Jones prefers we see only what he wants us to see. It’s a trait that has led many fans, some media and certainly his greatest rival, Daniel Cormier, to refer to him as “fake.” It has also helped make him a fascinating professional athlete to follow, particularly so now.

Because as Jones, 28, prepares to make his glorious return to the Octagon at UFC 197 on Saturday — following a year in which he was flagged for cocaine use, charged with a felony hit-and-run after fleeing a traffic accident at an Albuquerque, New Mexico, intersection and ultimately stripped of his UFC title — there’s really one, meaningful question at the center of all of this.

Who is Jon Jones … And has the answer to that question changed in the last 12 months?

Clearly, something had to change and Jones says it has. Over the course of hundreds of interviews ahead of his comeback, he has admitted to being a partier and a marijuana addict. He says he took things for granted, but won’t now. How could he, after losing a UFC title, mainstream sponsors and … his freedom?

“You have to think about how you can use your life and your platform and your story to maybe save a life,” Jones told ESPN.com. “So, I’ve surrendered myself to my fans and put my true story out there. It sets me free and it can possibly set someone else free from whatever they may be going through.”

For the record, Jones will face Ovince Saint Preux (19-7) for the interim light heavyweight title on Saturday, but until proven otherwise, the opponent in Jones’ fights has never mattered much. His greatest challenge has long been himself. If he is in fact telling us his “true story” now and has conquered that challenge, there is no limit to what he can do.

“There’s so much more to this guy’s story,” said UFC president Dana White. “Can he come back and win the title again? He could possibly move up to heavyweight. As long as Jon Jones can keep his out-of-the-Octagon situation handled, I think there’s so much more to his story. He’s one of the greatest ever. He could go down as the greatest ever.”

Several of Jones’ coaches at Jackson-Wink MMA in Albuquerque, where Jones relocated last year from New York, say there is real change. He’s more reliable to show up when expected and, although the relocation obviously got off to a rough start with the hit-and-run charge, having Jones in the gym on a regular basis is a luxury.

“There is that duality of Jon Jones, the crime fighter in New Jersey [when Jones famously ran down a would-be thief prior to his first title fight],” said striking coach Brandon Gibson. “That’s who he is, too. A lot of the things he has shown is who he is. He’s a great father, family man, church man.

“But yeah, he was also some other things sometimes, too. I think he has put that part behind him.”

Fellow coach Mike Winkeljohn said, “First off, hardly anybody can tell Jon Jones what to do. That’s a good thing and a bad thing all at once. It’s one of those situations where it can be a great advantage that he leads his own path, but sometimes you have to stop and see what other people are seeing. It’s that way in a fight and it’s also that way in life.

“I’m one of the few people who has the ability to give Jon a hard time, being an older coach. I think deep down, he’s starting to listen. Hopefully.”

There have already been potential cracks in Jones’ return. Even this weekend’s fight at UFC 197 was placed in jeopardy last month, when Jones was cited for drag racing in downtown Albuquerque. Jones denied any wrongdoing and got into what he later described as a “heated” confrontation with the police officer. He was arrested on probation violation the following week and eventually agreed to anger management classes and restricted driving privileges.

But, as it always seems with Jones, it’s hard to know what to make of that incident. Jones has entered a plea of not guilty on the charges and body camera footage of the confrontation shows the officer acting smug after pulling Jones over. The officer was, arguably, excessive in writing tickets as well, ultimately citing Jones for five different minor offenses.

Jones was released two days after his arrest and was in the gym within hours of being set free. Gibson referred to Jones’ pad session that night as “ruthless.”

“That one hurt more than usual, I’ll say that,” Gibson said.

The intersection where Jones’ life changed one year ago is the corner of Juan Tabo and Southern Boulevard. That’s where he wrecked an SUV in a three-car accident and fled the scene, which ultimately led to the hit-and-run charge against him. That intersection is still there, obviously, and when asked if he tries to avoid it in his daily life, Jones answered no.

“I’ve driven past that intersection quite a few times,” Jones said. “It doesn’t really — I don’t know, it doesn’t do anything for me.”

Is that the healthy response of a man far removed from a bad incident that ultimately changed his life for the better? Or evidence of one who still doesn’t grasp what he nearly threw away at that intersection one year ago?

With Jones it’s always hard to be certain. Here’s hoping it’s the former.

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