UFC 285: Jon Jones returns as a heavyweight with the wonder and curiosity of his 21-year-old self

LAS VEGAS — It was late 2008 or early 2009 when the phone rang and a young fighter was on the other line. It was a promising light heavyweight who turned a lot of heads as a last-minute replacement in his UFC debut. He wanted to talk, so we met in the food court at a mall on The Strip.

Jon Jones' UFC debut came on Aug. 9, 2008 at UFC 87 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, against Andre Gusmao. He accepted the fight on two weeks' notice, replacing an injured Tomasz Drwal. He fought on the preliminaries and scored a unanimous decision win, 30-27 twice and 29-28.

The card included the by-then already-legendary Georges St-Pierre in the main event, defending his welterweight title against Jon Fitch. In the co-main event, future heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar faced Heath Herring. Other notables on the card were Demian Maia, Kenny Florian and Cheick Kongo.

It was hard to know, for sure, what he'd become, though it was obvious that he was built to be a fighter. He was a lean 6 feet, 4 inches but had a massive 84½-inch reach.

Not long after that impressive debut, he wanted to speak, so we met at The Fashion Show Mall's food court, where he had a drink from Orange Julius. He was ebullient, optimistic and generally playful. He talked of his dreams of winning a championship and being a major player in the sport.

He talked about challenging himself against then-UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, at the time the fighter most widely considered the sport's GOAT He begged me not to include his comments about fighting Silva because he worried how it would be perceived. He was respectful and courteous and never once said a bad word about Silva or his skills.

He frowned, though, when it was suggested he might one day be fighting at heavyweight.

On Saturday, nearly 15 years after that encounter, Jones is set to make his heavyweight debut. He's ending a three-year absence to return to fight Ciryl Gane in the main event of UFC 285 for the title that was vacated when Francis Ngannou couldn't come to terms with the UFC on a new deal.

And after a career filled with turmoil and discord both inside and outside the Octagon, the Jones who is about to return to the Octagon for the first time in 37 months most closely resembles the 21-year-old carefree, fun and happy-go-lucky guy who shot the breeze about MMA and his career with a reporter in the food court of a shopping mall.

He's shown himself to be a brilliant talent, maybe the greatest to have ever done it in this sport. But he's had many brushes with the law and clashes with people ranging from UFC management to other fighters to reporters to fans.

But as he's prepared to fight Gane, it's been vastly different. He's spoken respectfully of Gane, though he's made clear his belief he'll win. He's attempted to put his career in perspective but hasn't come across as cocky, arrogant or disingenuous.

"I've been focusing on me, man," Jones said. "Focusing on me and personal growth: Growth as an athlete and a friend and a community member, as a father and a family man. I've been focusing on family and focusing on growth. I can honestly say, I've never felt better."

HOUSTON, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 08:  Jon Jones celebrates his victory over Dominick Reyes in their light heavyweight championship bout during the UFC 247 event at Toyota Center on February 08, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
The last time Jon Jones fought in the UFC, he defeated Dominick Reyes on Feb. 7, 2020, at The Toyota Center in Houston. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Getty Images) (Josh Hedges via Getty Images)

Jones has been so dominant for so long and no one really came close to him. His only loss came to Matt Hamill in 2009 when he was about to finish the fight and was disqualified for an illegal elbow. He should only have had a point deduction taken. The only bout he had that was ever close was his 2013 title defense against Alexander Gustafsson in Toronto, when after partying and largely not training, he fell down two rounds to zero and had to rally in the last three to save his title.

Both men wound up in the hospital that night.

A move to heavyweight seemed inevitable given the way he dominated the light heavyweight division. After he defeated Dominick Reyes in his last bout, a light heavyweight title defense on Feb. 8, 2020, in the main of UFC 247 in Houston, Jones walked away from the sport.

He wasn't happy with his pay, even though he was signed to a long-term deal, and planned to finally make the move to heavyweight. He wasn't nearly as motivated in his final few light heavyweight bouts. The fear, he said, was gone. Those fighters had been dreaming of facing him for years. To him, those fights carried little excitement and had nothing that pushed him to do the extra work he'd routinely done before.

Following an arrest on the night of his UFC Hall of Fame induction on Sept. 23, 2021, he appears to have managed to straighten out his life. Time, though, is always the ultimate truth-teller.

But he signed a new contract — "It's basically the same deal as before, just that they're paying me more," Jones said — and he built his body into a heavyweight. He did it carefully, strategically and scientifically. He's never been stronger and expects to weigh roughly 245 or 250 at Friday's weigh-in.

His eagerness to fight again, and especially for the heavyweight title, is clearly obvious.

"It's a dream come true; just a dream come true," Jones said of the opportunity to fight for the heavyweight championship. "I've been talking about it for a long time. It's taken a lot of courage to make that leap and to get on that weight-gain journey and that confidence-building journey it takes to fight some of these gigantic gladiators. We're here. We're here now and I feel very resilient. I feel I'm a hard man to break. I just feel stronger than ever."

LAS VEGAS, NV - JANUARY 02:  UFC light heavyweight champion Jon
Jon Jones, shown here at the UFC 182 weigh-in, will be a lot thicker and more muscular when he weighs in Friday for the main event of UFC 285. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Getty Images) (Josh Hedges via Getty Images)

He's still only 35 and has a long time left to fight if that's what he chooses to do. He wants to fight again once more this year but otherwise doesn't want to look ahead.

He's like the 21-year-old version of himself now looking hopefully ahead at a world of possibilities. He's hit the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but seems at peace with where he is in his life now.

"You can't cry over spilled milk," Jones said of his past struggles, which included drug test failures, drunk driving arrests and battery. "My journey makes me who I am today. The pain, that pain, the dumb decisions, it all makes you the man you are today. I'm grateful for my strength and my resilience because .. I'm proud of it. I'm proud of it. I have life experience.

"I'll be able to sit down with kids one day and let them know, 'Hey, you may not want to do that. You may not want to go down that route.' I'll be able to talk to my kids about the way I've messed up and the way I've embarrassed myself and my family and things like that. I'm grateful for it all. I've survived it all and I think it makes me more relatable to people."

He's survived and now stands on the precipice of another title which, if he pulls it off, just may turn out to be the most meaningful fight he's ever had.