Elbows in the UFC: Why Jon Jones Succeeded Where Shinya Aoki Failed

On a recent episode of The MMA Show, and in an article here on BloodyElbow, I predicted that Rashad Evans would not be allowed to get close enough to UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, Jon Jones, to land his noted right hand.

I asserted that Jones would use his front kicks to the knee, long punches, and brutal low kicks (made doubly effective by Rashad's side on stance) to pick Evans apart. All of these elements were present, but what I never saw coming (and neither did Rashad) was Jones' willingness to move into Rashad's punching range, in order to land short elbow strikes.

This unique strategy on Jones' part was probably the suggestion of either Greg Jackson or Mike Winkeljohn, and has seemed to defuse one of the main areas in which it was thought Jones could be beaten. It has long been assumed that, just as in boxing, if you crowd a man who owns a freakish reach advantage, he will be unable to strike effectively. By crowding a longer man in boxing, the shorter fighter can begin to work effectively in bursts between the range where his opponents punches are at their strongest and longest, and the range where his opponent can tie him up.

Why then, are elbows not used more readily in MMA? For that, we shall have to examine the hazards of attempting elbow strikes, and the ways in which successful exponents of elbow strikes have alleviated these dangers after the jump.

SBN coverage of UFC 145: Jones vs. Evans

The traditional boxing strategy has seemed to hold true through MMA's short life, Stefan Struve vs Junior Dos Santos is an excellent example of a longer man simply having nothing when a man with a shorter reach crowds him and relentlessly throws punches. Jones' success against Rashad, often by stepping in so close that he himself could not punch, has not only highlighted a new area of Jones' personal game, but also the criminal under-use of elbows in MMA as a whole.

Just a day before, however, Shinya Aoki, the Japanese grappling phenomenon whose stand up game has been steadily improving under the guidance of the elite Thai trainers at Evolve MMA, threw an incredibly ill advised lead elbow strike at Eddie Alvarez. Alvarez, a more than competent striker, moved back, allowing the short strike to miss, then jumped into range and countered through the wake of the failed elbow, dropping Aoki to his back and finishing him with a savage blitz of ground and pound.

The advantages of elbow strikes are very clear:

  • They are ungloved, and so deliver far more damage in a short area.
  • The forearm bones and point of the elbow have little meat over them, meaning that the collision is made almost entirely with bone, which is likely to open a cut.
  • They can be thrown quickly and at almost any angle; from above, below, spinning, slashing downward, 12 to 6 (though currently illegal, unless you are on your back, bizarrely), jumping, falling.

With that list of benefits, throwing elbow strikes should seem like a no brainer. Every MMA fighter and their mother should be storming out of their corner and winging elbows at their opponent. Unfortunately the dangers of throwing elbows are also manifold:

  • They are shorter than punches, substituting in for the shortest hook one can throw with power (that is, with your elbow bent at a right angle). A simple step backwards will eliminate the danger of the elbow.
  • When thrown with power, they require more commitment of the upper body than a punch does, and if missed they will leave you in an awkward position, such as Aoki found himself in the other night.
  • It is difficult to get in to elbowing range without being clinched.
Here, Shinya Aoki demonstrates the dangers of throwing an elbow when your opponent has room to back up. Notice how his over commitment to the motion also causes Aoki to be out of position when Alvarez throws his counter, and how Shinya would have been unlikely to land anyway because he did nothing about moving Alvarez's lead hand.

These dangers can all be alleviated by setting elbows up correctly. Firstly, many great elbow strikes in Muay Thai (the home of the elbow) are landed as both competitors are stepping in. One steps in with a punch or kick, and the other steps in with a counter elbow. This simple act of stepping in when one's opponent steps in is the foundation of all good offensive counter punching, and it is especially helpful in landing elbows. Anderson Silva notably used this strategy against a low kick from Chael Sonnen, countering with a beautiful over the top elbow (which is detailed in my book: Advanced Striking). The Muay Thai fighter, Nathan Corbett is also excellent at stepping in with an uppercut or over the top elbow when his opponent steps in. In fact, a Nathan Corbett highlight is a seminar in how to land hard elbow strikes.


You will notice, in this highlight, how often Corbett lands his elbow strikes. Obviously Corbett's opponents don't WANT him to hit them, but they cannot get out of the way. He assures that they cannot move away in one of three ways:

  • Throwing the elbow as a counter to the opponent's forward motion (as already discussed)
  • Assuring that the opponent is backed up against the ropes.
  • Holding the opponent in a one handed clinch while he strikes them.
All of these methods can be utilized in MMA, and work against the cage is more prolonged and tolerated than clinching against the ropes is in Muay Thai. Even the weak striker, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira found success against the much larger, healthier, Frank Mir in their second match with elbows along the fence. Chuck Liddell, too, threw his first notable elbow inside the octagon against Wanderlei Silva when he had pushed the latter up against the cage, and it was responsible for the large cut on Silva's face that helped win Chuck the decision.

A final method, which is not present in Corbett's highlight reel, is the act of hand fighting. I have talked in some detail before about hand fighting from a striking perspective (in my articles on Hand Trapping, and in my Ultimate Southpaw Guide) but Jon Jones performance the other night illustrated it to great effect. Throughout the fight Jones could be seen to be reaching one or both hands forward to cover Rashad's, which is discourage in boxing, where the hands are the only weapons, but is a major part of both Karate and Muay Thai sparring.


In this still from the Jones - Evans title fight, one can clearly see Jones' covering both of Rashad's hands as early as the second round. A strategy which he utilized throughout the fight, this eliminated Rashad's ability to throw punches at Jones, and allowed Jones the opportunity to roll his own elbows over the top of Rashad's guard. Alistair Overeem is also well known for peforming this sort of hand trap, using it almost exclusively to land his step up knee strike or "Uberknee" against Brock Lesnar.

The absence of successful elbow strikes from almost every major MMA card has more to do with a lack of understanding by many MMA fighters of the strategy involved in landing an elbow. One can stand square on to an opponent, throw combinations of punches, and do fine. But if one takes the same "throw and hope" approach with elbows, it is very easy to miss and provide holes that even semi-capable strikers can counter into.

If more fighters note the importance of ensuring the opponent is either coming in or cannot back up when they attempt an elbow, and that his hands are occupied with hand fighting, we will see a great increase in the number of successful elbow strikes in MMA. I am sure that over the next couple of months we will see mediocre strikers attempt to imitate Jones' elbows as they did Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida's front kicks. A mistimed elbow strike, unlike a front kick thrown at random, places the aggressor in a terribly precarious position, however. Just ask Shinya Aoki or Urijah Faber.

Want to learn the techniques of Junior Dos Santos, Anderson Silva and Roy Jones Jr.? These and the techniques of 17 other elite strikers, are broken down in detailed photography in Jack Slack's new ebook Advanced Striking: Tactics of Kickboxing, Boxing and MMA Masters, which is out NOW!

Jack Slack blogs at his website www.fightsgoneby.com and can be found on Twitter @JackSlackMMA, and on his new Facebook Account.

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