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Jon Jones' comeback story incomplete without UFC title

Jon Jones is watching television in a green room in Los Angeles, occasionally glancing out the window as producers update him on the timing of his upcoming morning show appearance.

There was a time when Jones didn't mind days like this, days when he would be ushered from one interview to the next and forced to answer the same questions over and over again. But the questions have changed over the past year, as has his penchant for these long media tours.

Last year, Jones was involved in a hit-and-run accident in New Mexico that not only led to him being sentenced to 18 months of supervised probation but also forced the UFC to strip him of his light heavyweight title. At the time, UFC president Dana White said: "Obviously he's very disappointed. He's upset. He wanted to go down as one of the greats, or the greatest ever."

Jones was -- and still is -- disappointed and upset about what happened, but his goal of going down as the greatest still remains entering Saturday's rematch against Daniel Cormier at UFC 200, where Jones will attempt to reclaim the title.

"I feel like the stars are finally aligning and I'm doing what I was meant to be doing," Jones told ESPN.com. "The fans know I never lost the title. I've been dreaming about this day and waiting for this day to fight D.C. for my belt back for a long time. At the end of the day, when I win this fight, it's going to erase him from the books as a legit champion. People are going to know he was only the champ because Jon Jones was out of the game. He won't be considered a real champion without a victory over me, and that's motivating and inspiring. I want this era to be mine. I don't want to share it with anyone."

As Jones answers questions, he routinely looks over at Denise White, who became Jones' PR manager after his hit-and-run incident in April 2015. White, who was introduced to Jones through the UFC, specializes in crisis management and has been nicknamed "The Fixer" after taking on clients such as NFL players Brandon Marshall, DeSean Jackson and Terrell Suggs and rehabilitating their images. There's currently a movie in the works based on her life, with Jennifer Aniston playing White. In between questions, White looks at Jones and nods her head and smiles like a pleased coach in between drills.

"I've been teaching him how to handle strenuous situations in front of the camera," said White. "I prepped him for court, what to say to the judge, helped him get through his probation and am guiding him to be more comfortable. Jon had a bad issue with anxiety and still does. When I first started working with him, he was so nervous, but now it's a cakewalk for him. He's so good at it. When I first came, it was to handle crisis management, but then you transition into rebuilding his image, and that's where we're at now."

Jones' ongoing transition includes finishing his probation. He was ordered to make 72 separate appearances for charity or youth outreach as part of his probation, and to date, has made 76 such appearances, according to White and Jones' attorneys. He still routinely goes to a homeless shelter in Albuquerque and buys them barbecue lunches every Sunday. So far he's doing and saying all the right things as he rehabilitates his image outside of the Octagon while training to reclaim his place as the king inside of it.

"I want to show the world that you can be down but never out," Jones said. "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."

The next chapter of Jones' new story begins Saturday. Despite winning the UFC's interim title against Ovince Saint Preux in April, it still eats at Jones to see Cormier wearing the full title -- the same one Jones never lost. When Jones was in the middle of his downward spiral last year, it was the sight of Cormier winning the vacant belt at UFC 187, a pay-per-view Jones was supposed to headline, that provided a much-needed wake-up call.

"The biggest turning point for me was the night I saw my light heavyweight championship being won by someone else," Jones said. "That's when reality really hit me when I saw Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson competing for what I never lost. They were competing for something that meant so much to me and I couldn't do anything about it. That night is when the realization hit that I needed to get back in there and reclaim everything that I was losing. I couldn't watch it with anyone else. It didn't feel right watching it. I kept thinking I should be on the screen, not in front of the screen. That's when everything changed. That's when I began the climb back to the top."

Jones was considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world and the best light heavyweight champion the sport has ever seen after a record-setting eight consecutive title defenses. It's a reputation he can reclaim on Saturday, along with his championship, but the memory of wasting an entire year at the peak of his career as sponsors like Reebok severed ties with him still bothers Jones as he thinks about his legacy.

"The hardest part of being out of the game was feeling like a wasted talent," Jones said. "Knowing that you have a unique talent and you're in a unique situation and you're not out there getting big endorsements and winning world titles and breaking records and being the star that you could be. Instead, you're at home, wasting away and ruining something that was special. I've always thought about my legacy. 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."

Jones is so protective of his legacy and his near-pristine record these days that he has couched previous talk of moving up to the heavyweight division, where there no champion has ever recorded more than two consecutive title defenses. The parity has left the division void of big stars that would make a jump in weight class worth the risk to Jones.

"I watch these heavyweights and I watch how hard these guys are hitting and how none of them are able to hold on to the belt; the belt is getting passed around because the division is so competitive," Jones said. "It makes me think, why risk fighting a guy who's much bigger than me with huge knockout power when I can continue to fight at light heavyweight, where I've had a tremendous amount of success. They say if it's not broke, don't fix it so I feel pretty good at my weight class and most of my goals are still at light heavyweight. Maybe I'll mix it up for the right superfight down the line."

Jones, who turns 29 later this month, said, "I don't plan on leaving the sport anytime soon, I believe I have another five years at least. I can see myself doing this for quite a while longer." He did, however, smile when talking about being on the same card as former WWE and UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, who is still currently under contract with the WWE, while entertaining the idea of one day entering the squared circle.

"It's great to see these WWE guys come over to mixed martial arts; they're huge for our sport and they bring a gigantic fan base with them," Jones said. "I'm super honored to fight the same night as Brock Lesnar. I think I'll gain a lot of new fans that are Brock Lesnar fans by the end of the night. Would I ever go to the WWE? I would love to do it but I don't think anybody wants to see me running around with a Speedo on. I have little chicken legs so I don't think I would look too good in the WWE ring but I'm not opposed to it at all."

As Jones looks over at the UFC light heavyweight championship belt that is part of the promotional tour he is on, he picks it up and just looks at it. It represents his rise back to the top, reclaiming what he had lost and the beginning to what he feels will become one of the most unique comeback stories ever told.

"I don't think there have been too many stories like mine," Jones said. "You have athletes, who are perfect golden boys, who do everything right or you have athletes who just ruin it all. You don't have too many stories of a guy who was able to turn it around in the middle of their career and ultimately end up in an amazing place at the end of their career. That's what I'm planning on doing. I'm going to be that rare story of someone who got their head out of their ass and shocked the world."