UFC superstar and reigning light heavyweight champion Jon Jones put in a remarkable performance last Saturday night at UFC 182, beating Daniel Cormier in what was one of the most highly-anticipated fights in recent years, be it mixed martial arts, boxing, or anything else. (I don't really know what "anything else" would be -- kickboxing? Nothing against kickboxing, but I don't know what their big fights are. I am getting away from the point, hang on...)
But that win is now being overshadowed by the news that Jones failed a drug test for cocaine, with the 27-year-old fighter saying he will be entering rehab to deal with the issue. I was asked by someone if there have been issues in boxing with cocaine usage, and while there aren't that many high-profile boxers who have tested positive for cocaine a few do come to mind. There was one that immediately sprang to mind, and is the case that Jon Jones might want to draw some inspiration from as he looks to deal with his problems head-on, and then come back to his sport.
That, of course, is Johnny Tapia, the highly talented and highly troubled fan favorite who lost his license in 1991 after repeated issues with the drug. Tapia, who had last fought in 1990, had his career put on ice for three and a half years before he returned in 1994, and after a few tune-up fights, he won the WBO super flyweight title in October of that year, and entered into the most successful and memorable period of his career from 1995-2000.
Tapia had a lot of issues with the law, some stints in rehab, and struggled with his demons for his entire life. He died of heart failure at the age of 45 in May 2012, after sort of reemerging on the boxing landscape and doing some work for Showtime Sports as an interviewer, which was very well-received and a lot of fun to watch. (And by the way, if you have not watched the HBO Sports documentary Tapia, which was released late last year, do yourself a favor and find some time for that. It's outstanding.)
Not every story is like Tapia's, though -- really, no overall story is quite like Johnny Tapia's, but that's a whole other topic. Another notable case was heavyweight Tony Tubbs, who failed a test for cocaine in 1989, and like Tapia, admitted to having a longstanding problem with the drug, entering rehab as well. Tubbs was a fantastic amateur fighter who briefly held the WBA heavyweight title in 1985-86, beating Greg Page for the belt and losing it in his first defense against Tim Witherspoon nine months later. He's also known for his TKO-2 loss in 1988 to the young Mike Tyson. Tubbs had beaten Orlin Norris in 1989 for the NABF heavyweight title, but the fight was changed to a no-contest after the failed test.
Tubbs' statement at the time was similar to what Jones released today:
"I am seeking professional help for this problem immediately. I realize I can't beat this alone, and as a result I am going to put my career on hold until I have control of my life, and that can only happen once I get control of this disease. I want to apologize to my family and to my manager, Harold Smith, who put his heart and soul into my return and my future. I let everybody down and I deeply regret my actions."
Tubbs, who was 31 when he entered rehab after the failed test, never was a contender again in the division. He did lose to a young Riddick Bowe in 1991 in a competitive 10-round decision, and wound up fighting through 2006 on small shows.
More recently, Eloy Perez tested positive for cocaine in 2012, after his one-sided loss to Adrien Broner in St. Louis. The once-beaten fighter has not fought since then, though he just turned 28 in October.
Of course, recreational drugs like cocaine are generally not the main issue in combat sports, or any sport, though marijuana is a frequent issue in drug tests, with the likes of boxing's Julio Cesar Chavez Jr and UFC's Nick Diaz testing positive for the drug in recent years, as a pair of notable examples. Performance enhancing drugs are more often the cause of failed tests. Roy Jones Jr, Fernando Vargas, and James Toney, among many others, have failed drug tests for steroid usage. Shane Mosley didn't fail a drug test, but did later admit to using EPO and BALCO products like "the cream" and "the clear," the sort of stuff that Barry Bonds was using in Major League Baseball as he broke a bunch of home run records.
The good news for fans of Jones is that he is admitting to a problem and looking to deal with it immediately. This is an athlete with the ability and marketability to transcend his sport. He is not the first name fighter to test positive for cocaine, he is not the first to enter rehab for it, and if he has a lot of great nights ahead of him in his career, he won't be the first to come back strong after that, either.
Johnny Tapia led an extremely hard life, and the end result is not something anyone would want to pattern themselves after by any means. But he was a fighter in and out of the ring, and he took a major setback and a problem in his life, and he did come back very strong from that. Tapia's best years were still ahead of him when he lost his license in 1991. He could have lost his career for good, but he didn't. If Jon Jones can get himself squared away, there's no reason to believe that he won't be able to follow at least that portion of Tapia's example, and come back to maintain his spot as the best fighter in mixed martial arts.