Jon Jones' long road ahead to career rehabilitation

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Jon Jones doesn't want to talk about another comeback story as much as I don't want to write another comeback story.

As tired as he might be hearing questions about his absence from the Octagon for the past 15 months, most of it thanks to a one-year suspension by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, I'm just as tired hearing him convincingly explain how he's a changed man before ultimately being let down by the most frustratingly enigmatic star in the UFC.

I sat down with Jones last year before he was to headline UFC 200 in Las Vegas against Daniel Cormier. He was attempting to reclaim the UFC light heavyweight title he was stripped of after being involved in a hit-and-run accident in New Mexico on April 28, 2015, that led to his being sentenced to 18 months of supervised probation. The accident occurred less than a month before he was scheduled to headline UFC 187 and defend his title against Anthony Johnson. Cormier would take his place and defeat Johnson for the interim title.

"I want to show the world that you can be down but never out," Jones told me. "I want to be a story where someone risked losing so much but ultimately turned everything around. A lot of times you hear these stories about athletes who ruined their career and they go away and no one knows what happened to them or they're bankrupt or they end up in jail. They just ruined a great career. I want to be one of the few stories you hear where I was ruining things but ultimately turned things around and became a hero. That's my vision for the way my story is going to play out."

Not long after Jones told me that, he was pulled from the UFC 200 main event against Cormier after the USADA informed Jones of a potential doping violation that would eventually lead to that one-year suspension.

It was the second time Jones was pulled from the main event of a major pay-per-view card, the second time he was stripped of his title (Jones had won the interim UFC light heavyweight title at UFC 197), the second time he would be on the shelf for about 15 months and the second time he let down his fans and anyone who believed in him.

That's why it's hard to be totally invested in Jones again, even if he is able to safely make it into the Octagon for his first fight since April 23, 2016, and just his fifth fight since the summer of 2013. Even a win on Saturday over Cormier at UFC 214 won't mean Jones is completely back to his old self.

He has done enough damage to his career and legacy that it will take a run similar to the one that made him a UFC star to cement him as one of the greatest ever. Despite having a nightmarish 30 months since he last defeated Cormier at UFC 182, Jones can still find the happy ending he is looking for. He just turned 30 this month, and there's no reason he couldn't compete at a high level for another 10 years. Cormier, for example, is 38 years old, as is UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping. And neither of them spent two years basically away from the sport in the prime of their careers.

Jones' legacy can still go down as one of the greatest ever, but it won't happen Saturday and it won't even happen if he gets a dream match against Brock Lesnar, who was also suspended one year after UFC 200 for failing two drug tests leading up to the event; Lesnar himself has fought in the UFC only once since 2011. It will happen when Jones starts headlining big pay-per-view cards regularly and winning on a consistent basis -- making people forget about the past 30 months that now overshadow him and his past accomplishments.

"I've always thought about my legacy," Jones told me last year. "I had always envisioned going down as the greatest of all time, and that's never left my sights. I'm very conscious of my legacy and how I'll be remembered down the road. I also realize now how you live your life outside the sport is important to your legacy, and I'm trying hard to do things right from here on out. I'm in the fight of my life for my legacy inside and outside of the Octagon."

It's a fight Jones will continue fighting and has a chance of winning, but no one, Jones included, wants to hear him talk about it anymore. It's now time for him to do it and do it, again and again.