On June 6, 2016, only days before one of the most highly-promoted fight cards in UFC history was about to take place, the UFC Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance announced at a press conference that Jon Jones, the former light heavyweight champion, would not be facing current champion Daniel Cormier for the belt. Jones had just tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).
Jones received a one-year suspension, which he is still waiting out, but the UFC has already announced that he will be facing Daniel Cormier for the belt at UFC 214. At the UFC 214 Press Conference, fans cheered Jones’s return and his upcoming fight is expected to be one of the most-watched in UFC history.
How did this happen? How was an accused cheater with a history of public scandals able, in the span of only a few months, to rebuild his reputation and win back the trust and admiration of fans? In his response to USADA’s allegations, Jones followed several key rules of crisis response: he got out in front of the message; he was sincere, honest, and authentic; and his statements remained consistent.
At first, the PEDs announcement seemed like the end for a once-great fighter. After being pulled from a previous fight with Cormier for cocaine use and sentenced to probation for a non-fatal hit-and-run, this looked like it would be the final straw for fans and the UFC. UFC President Dana White implied as much when he said Jones would “never headline a card again”.
In less than 24 hours after the PEDs announcement, Jones claimed innocence. Jones was glassy-eyed, his voice frequently cracked, and, at several points, he broke down in tears. It was a side of the fighter the public had rarely seen before. Known for his undefeated record and his cocksure attitude, Jones, who first won the UFC championship belt at 23 (the youngest ever), was now a pariah and an accused cheater. Not only would he lose out on his six-figure payday from UFC 200, but he faced a potential two-year suspension from the sport. Perhaps worse than risking his livelihood, Jones’s reputation was now in tatters – a fighter with such preternatural ability was ripe for accusations of cheating; his otherworldly skill was now chalked up to steroid use.
From the start, Jones asserted his innocence saying the test was, at best, a mistake and, at worst, a tainted supplement he took unwittingly. In either case, Jones would not be culpable for his supposed cheating and he would face a lesser punishment if he received one at all. Likewise, in the court of public opinion, either option would exonerate the athlete and reestablish his reputation.
While he answered reporters’ questions, Jones had to pause several times to collect himself and wipe tears from his face. With a shaky voice he apologized to fans and ticket holders, lamented the “long ladder” he had to climb again to prove his wins were legitimate, and apologized to his opponent, Daniel Cormier. Jones broke down completely, barely choking out the words “I’m sorry” between asking for tissues to wipe away tears. Cormier, the 38-year-old former Olympic wrestler renowned for his professionalism and positive attitude, has played a perfect foil to the upstart Jones. At 29, Jones was known for his constant partying and frequent criticism of his opponents (he has bragged about beating Cormier “a week after doing coke,”). But this moment of vulnerability allowed the public to connect with Jones and understand his distress – it made his story all the more believable.
Ultimately, Cormier did forgive Jones, saying that the former champion was the only fight he really wanted and he would wait through Jones’s suspension to face him. By stating this, Cormier helped open the door to jilted fans to forgive Jones – they wanted the fight, they had paid for the fight, and they could still see it happen, just at a later date.
Throughout the process – the initial press conference, the weeks of re-testing alternate blood samples and supplements, and his eventual exoneration – Jones stuck by his story. While some elements were revealed slowly (like the fact that Jones’s positive results were due to his use of over-the-counter erectile dysfunction drugs), the main thrust remained constant: Jones did not use PEDs; he was not, nor had ever been a cheater; and the test results had to have been caused by human error of some kind. Jones didn’t have to keep multiple untruths straight in his mind. Instead, he told the public what he knew, and he knew he was innocent.
Jones’s adherence to these three principles – getting his side of the story out front of the issue; being sincere, honest, and authentic; sticking with his message – allowed him to return to the UFC without much, if any, damage to his reputation. At the press conference announcing Jones’s eventual return, fans cheered Jones and jeered Cormier. While their rematch is still months away (and Jones may yet get himself into more trouble) it appears every party involved has been willing to wipe the slate clean and give the former champ another chance. Had Jones not followed these rules of crisis response, he might not be preparing to fight at UFC 214 – he might not be fighting in the UFC at all.