Serving more than two years' worth of suspensions, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones has maintained his innocence over failed drug tests. He speaks with Christopher Reive about his exile, returning to the top and the legacy he will leave.

After 15 months in the darkness, Jon Jones finally saw the light.

Reclaiming the UFC's light heavyweight title against Alexander Gustafsson in California in late December last year, the 31-year-old had returned to a throne he thought may have been lost to him permanently.

Jones was exiled from the UFC and stripped of his light heavyweight title in 2017 after returning two positive tests for turinabol, an anabolic steroid.

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An independent arbitrator found Jones did not intentionally take the substance and there was a small amount found in his system, but it was enough to see him cast aside for more than a year.

"Being accused of doing steroids, it was really sad for me," Jones tells the Herald.

"There were never full-blown steroids ever found in my system and I've always been open to drug testing, so it made no sense to me, it made no sense to my team, it made no sense to the UFC, to the scientists – why would anyone do steroids at such a low level; at a level that gives you no performance enhancing benefits? It was just sad, man, it was so sad."

This wasn't the first time he'd been banned from the UFC. In 2015 he was suspended indefinitely by the company for violating the Athlete Code of Conduct policy after a hit and run in which Jones was alleged to have run a red light before crashing, which the collision leaving a pregnant woman in another car injured.

Jon Jones beat Alexander Gustafsson to reclaim the UFC light heavyweight title. Photo / Getty Images
Jon Jones beat Alexander Gustafsson to reclaim the UFC light heavyweight title. Photo / Getty Images

He returned in April 2016 with a decision win over Ovince Saint Preux, but later that year he was handed a one-year ban for returning a positive test for two prohibited substances ahead of his scheduled bout against Daniel Cormier in July. While he was handed the ban for testing positive, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) concluded at an arbitration hearing that Jones did not take the substances knowingly and was not a drug cheat.

With the ban in 2017 being his second as the result of a failed drug test, Jones faced a much tougher sentence – with the possibility of four year ban. Served with a 15-month lay-off, Jones fell into a deep depression.

"I actually had to go through counselling," he says. "It was hurtful to go through what I just got out of, but to be back and to stay faithful to it all and to stay training even though I was facing a possible four-year suspension... I just continued to train and stay positive, and just knew there was going to be light at the end of the tunnel, even though I couldn't see a glimpse of light at the time.

"Now, we're living back in the sunshine and we're just so grateful to be back. Perseverance, man, that's really the best word to describe my situation."

After reclaiming his title, Jones has wasted no time in booking his first defence, with a bout against fellow American Anthony Smith headlining UFC 235 in Las Vegas on Sunday (NZ time).

Smith, who holds a 31-13 professional mixed martial arts record, only joined the UFC's light heavyweight ranks in June last year, but wins over perennial contenders Mauricio Rua and Volkan Oezdemir saw him catapult up the rankings and earn a shot at the title.

While Smith is just three fights into his light heavyweight career after moving up from middleweight, Jones knows he's going to be tested when the two face off.

Jon Jones will look to defend his title against Anthony Smith at UFC 235. Photo / Getty Images
Jon Jones will look to defend his title against Anthony Smith at UFC 235. Photo / Getty Images

"He's fresh to the division but he's not fresh to fighting," Jones says. "It's not even up for debate that this is the most experienced martial artist I've ever faced and I'm excited about that challenge."

Ahead of the bout Jones, who holds a 23-1 record in his professional mixed martial arts career, has made himself accessible to drug testing from three different agencies, with USADA, the world Anti-Drug Agency (WADA) and the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) all testing him for banned substances.

"It shows I have nothing to hide," Jones says.

"My mum taught me if you did nothing wrong just tell the truth and that's what I've done – I've been open and honest, I've answered every question and now I've been fully accessible to these guys, so I'm glad it's happening. Hopefully it'll help a younger fighter in the future; I'm almost certain it will."

Despite his impressive record and unquestionable talents inside the octagon, Jones' place as one of the UFC's greatest ever talent will always be a topic of heated discussion among MMA fans given his chequered past.

But while some refuse to acknowledge his achievements in the sport, Jones has learnt to block out the noise as he's matured and focus on what really matters.

"The world we live in, people have a lot of hate, it's just a natural thing to hate the guy on top, it's a natural thing to want to see someone who has done very well, who has worked really hard fall… people will always find a way to muffle another person's greatness," he says.

"What's most important to me is the way my kids view me. My kids get to see my true nature, they get to see me at home, and they get to see how much I work.

"Honestly, that's what matters – the legacy I leave with my kids and my personal friends who really know me, I think I'm at a place in my life where I know that's really all that matters."