Whether you love or hate him, Jon Jones has forever etched his legacy into mixed martial arts as one of the best fighters to ever step into the octagon. After cementing himself as the greatest 205er of all time and taking three years off to get accustomed to the weight class, Jones has announced his intention to test his skills at heavyweight.
On March 4, Jones will fight Cyril Gane for the undisputed heavyweight championship after Francis Ngannou decided to vacate the title and leave the UFC. With a win, Jones will have solidified his place as the greatest fighter of all time, leaving zero doubt in the mind of fans who still argue that Georges St. Pierre, Demetrious Johnson, or Khabib Nurmagomedov deserve this recognition. But, before Jones' return, let's look at the ten most significant moments in his career that pushed him to the forefront of the MMA landscape.
On these two dates, Jon Jones beat UFC Hall of Famer Daniel Cormier to cement his legacy over him. While these were potentially the biggest matchups in Jones' career, they can't be celebrated more than the other nine moments because of the controversy that tied into these fights. After the first fight, Jones was stripped of the title due to a violation of the UFC Athlete Code of Conduct due to testing positive for cocaine and being at fault in a hit-and-run accident soon after the fight. After the second fight, Jones was stripped of the title due to testing positive for a turinabol metabolite, which also resulted in the fight being changed to a No Contest. Despite these unfortunate events that left us questioning "Bones'" character, his first win remains intact on his record. Beating DC can be viewed as a great accomplishment from a fighting standpoint, especially considering that Jones was able to take down and outwrestle a former Olympic wrestler.
In April 2013, Jones walked through Chael Sonnen in one round to defend his LHW title with a TKO finish. This fight was the culmination of a TUF season that saw Sonnen and Jones face off as coaches, giving the fight plenty of buildup. Along with the TUF prelude, the fight's importance would be evident in the post-fight interview, where Jones and the rest of the MMA community noticed his broken pinky toe. Due to this gruesomely disfigured toe, John would have lost the title via doctors' stoppage had he not finished the fight in the first round. This fight would mark one of many close calls in Jones' career and reminded us of the lone loss on his record that he suffered via disqualification against Matt Hamill.
In Jones' most recent fight, he beat Dominick Reyes by a unanimous decision to break the UFC record for most wins in title fight history. This tremendous accolade would typically find a better spot on the list if it were not so closely contested and marred with controversy regarding who won the fight. With most MMA journalists and fans giving the fight to Reyes, this win gave Jones a massive feather in his cap that won't be broken anytime soon but also gave naysayers another piece of ammunition to use against his legacy. Regardless of the debate, the result remains etched in history as a win for Jon Jones, and the community is bound to side against him in any close decision due to his history outside of the cage.
The rest of these entries are controversy free! On this date in 2011, Jones finished current Bellator heavyweight champion Ryan Bader in a submission of the night. This win marks a momentous occasion in Jones' career because it was the win that secured him his first UFC title shot. Dana White had initially promised Jones a title shot with two finishes. Still, Jones received the opportunity after just one fight because teammate Rashad Evans had fallen out of the running due to injury. Not only did this fight mark the start of championship dominance that we haven't since seen, but it also marked the first crack in Jones' relationship with Evans, thereby hindering the "good guy" image that Jones had been working on throughout the beginning of his UFC career.
After beating Ryan Bader, Jones went on to win three title fights to meet former teammate Rashad Evans in another LHW title fight. Evans had also built himself back up from his injury, beating Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in a heated rivalry fight and finishing Tito Ortiz. The stage was set to crown the baddest man at 205, and Jones dominated Evans to win a unanimous decision. Jones had a knack for using fighters' greatest skills against them, and this was evident in his fight with Evans, where Jones showed superior wrestling skills to capitalize on the victory. This fight will always stand out in Jones' career as he defeated the man he had previously considered a big brother. Evans and Jones' relationship was never the same after the fight, but Jon Jones took home the glory that day.
On December 10, 2011, Jon Jones submitted Lyoto Machida from standing position with a guillotine from hell. While this fight is just another regular title defense for Jones, it stands out as his career's most vicious finish. Jones started the fight just as he always does, opting to beat his opponent at his own game, standing with the dangerous karate striker. After holding his own, he would take the fight to the ground in the second round before bringing it back to the feet and surprising Machida with a vacuum-sealed choke against the fence. Machida would go unconscious in Jones's grip, sealing the guillotine finish. To add insult to injury, Jones would hurl Machida's unconscious body to the floor after the referee came to break up the action. This kind of relentless performance cemented Jones in fans' minds as a complete savage, setting the stage for the rest of his career performances.
Okay, I get it; this one's kind of a cop-out. But it's undeniable that regardless of the result, Jones' first fight at heavyweight will surely be an accomplishment that he and his entire camp can take pride in. Jones announced his intention to move to heavyweight over two years ago, and while there have indeed been roadblocks that delayed this debut, Jones has also made sure to leave no stone unturned. He spent much of his camp at Henry Cejudo's Fight Ready camp, allowing him to take advantage of their measured approach to fight preparation. Jones also made sure to alter his body to accommodate the heavyweight difference. We've seen Israel Adesanya come into a higher weight class with an approach that rejects gaining weight, met with mixed results. Jones, therefore, made a conscious effort to ensure he would be a heavyweight fighting other heavyweights rather than stepping in as a 205er and giving up the size advantage. If he successfully wins the belt, this accomplishment can quickly jump to the top of this list.
Do you remember what you were doing at 23 years old? The earliest accomplishment on this list, Jones dominated Mauricio "Shogun" Rua to win the UFC Light Heavyweight title for the first time. This third-round title finish gave Jones the most impressive record in his UFC career, making him the youngest fighter in UFC history to get his hands on gold at age 23. This record still stands today, and this fight served as a symbol to announce the arrival of a newer generation.
Jones really did disrupt the natural flow of MMA history with this win. Rua had entered the UFC two years ago as a PRIDE legend, having defeated almost all of the best fighters in the promotion (Randelman, Rampage, Lil Nog, Overeem x2, Arona) in their respective primes to win gold at 205. After some mixed results, he would steal the title from the then-undefeated Lyoto Machida in a rematch. Between Machida (whose "era" would be preemptively announced by Joe Rogan) and Rua, it seemed clear that these two seasoned, proven veterans would spearhead the division for the foreseeable future. In comes Jon Jones, fresh off his battle with puberty, effortlessly swooping in to dominate both guys and rule the division with an iron fist for the next ten years. You can't write this stuff.
What accomplishment can rank over the legacy-making, record-breaking Rua accolade? It has to be the time that defined Jon Jones' grit in the octagon, the moment that defines the lengths he is willing to go to get the victory. This moment came in 2012 against a TRT-fueled Vitor Belfort. As far as we know, Jones had yet to take performance-enhancing drugs, meaning Belfort had an illegal advantage going into this fight. Halfway into the first round of the fight, Belfort locked an armbar that would have forced a tap from 99% of the opposition; Jones was lifting Belfort in the air and slamming him down on his head to try to get Belfort to release the grip, and after a 30-second struggle, Jones finally managed to escape the submission. This attempt compromised Jones' right arm, but he still submitted Belfort with an Americana in the second round. While we have constantly questioned Jon Jones' behavior outside of the octagon, we cannot dispute his motivation against Vitor Belfort and the grit he continued to show in the rest of his fights.
The number one spot on this list has to go to one of the best fights in UFC history, a hall-of-fame-worthy fight between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson. This fight would be the first of two fights between the light heavyweights. The first three rounds were heavily contested, with each round potentially going either way. The entire fight would incorporate unique movement on both sides, with tons of spinning kicks, oblique leg kicks, and parrying hooks from different angles. On the ground, the wrestling exchanges would be just as enjoyable. Overall, the bout was Jones' real first close fight that could've gone either way on the scorecards. Gustafsson never looked the same after this performance, but his legacy will live alongside Jones' after the fight was inducted into the HOF in 2020. The fight would also break the record for Jones's most consecutive title defenses at LHW.