Killing the King: Jon Jones

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The Killing the King series is going to be my attempt to shed a little light and mortality on the styles and abilities of the UFC's champions and interim champions. As you can imagine, the UFC champions are the most requested fighters I receive for technical analysis. It is of course worth noting that the UFC champions didn't get to be champions by fighting nobodies, most of them have been tested by all kinds of opponents and have come out on top, but nobody is perfect and exploitable holes are there in everyone's game.

In the first edition of Killing the King I have opted to take on the hefty challenge of analysing Jon Jones' game with an eye for holes. Jon Jones' light heavyweight run has been to the average observer unstoppable, and I'm sure a great many will deride the idea of looking for weaknesses in a fighter who has never lost, on the other hand winning fights does not mean that weaknesses are not there.

Today we will talk about Jon Jones':

  • Front Foot Heavy Stance
  • Planting of the Lead Foot in All Attacks
  • Difficulty in Dealing with Low Kicks
  • Vulnerability from a High Stance

In looking for a fighter's weaknesses some fighters show obvious technical faults; such as Martin Kampmann's inability to deal with rapid flurries of hooks or Michael Bisping's circling to his left with nothing covering his chin, and some are subtle; such as BJ Penn's slow turning circle and exposed lead leg due to his side on stance. Some fighters, however, show relatively few flaws like this in their A game and can impose said on any opponent they meet. Jon Jones has shown relatively few flaws in his UFC career and even fewer that are worth attempting to build a gameplan around exploiting.

Jon Jones allowed Vladymir Mateshenko and Ryan Bader some light offense against him on the feet for instance when they surprised him as he approached them, but every attempt to rush Jones may be answered by the flying knee which he loves so much or with his excellent clinch. Furthermore Jones' love of dangling his lead hand out with his fingers open at his opponent's eye level is incredibly off putting and technically completely legal. Any opponent who attempts to rush Jones runs a great risk.

Weaknesses in Jones' game are not going to be easily found if all the men he has fought in the UFC have had less than a minute of effective offense against him in total. There is no glaring hole to exploit which doesn't run the risk of a clinch, or getting hurt running in on the taller man. What we should look at then, is what makes Jones' game so effective. By using techniques that can safely shut down Jones' A game it may be possible to force him to reassess and change to a less practiced strategy, also cutting off a great many of his standard options.

Front Foot Heavy Stance

Something which many of you may not have noticed is Jon Jones' weight distribution when he is fighting. Jones' standard stance is one with his weight loaded over his lead leg rather than in a neutral position (the standard for good boxing technique) or on the back leg (as many big hitters and counter punchers choose to). For those who do not know, weight distribution has a large amount to do with which strikes are going to be effective - just as the concept of a side on stance versus a square on stance does.

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For the sake of comparison here are two fighters who fought off of their back foot - Joe Louis (far left) and Rocky Marciano (middle left) - and two fighters who enjoy fighting with their weight over their lead foot - Jon Jones and Roy Jones Junior (no relation, obviously). Louis and Marciano fought almost directly over their back foot because all forward motion is driven off of the back foot - they were able to lunge in with far harder jabs and right hands than Roy Jones simply because they moved their weight a greater distance, with greater force from the rear leg. Roy Jones on the other hand used his forward leaning stance to drive off of his lead foot for lead hooks and uppercuts as his opponent stepped in, and to give him room to pull his weight back, leaning back over his back foot as he faded away from punches. It is important to remember that these are extremes of stance and that most boxers fight with their weight somewhere in the middle. Though Jon Jones and Roy Jones do seem to sacrifice a great deal of back foot propulsion in their jabs and are able to cover less distance.

Jon Jones opts to fight from this front foot heavy stance not for the same reasons as Roy Jones - Jon Jones rarely throws lead uppercuts or hooks - Jon Jones fights like this for his level change. A level change is the dropping of the bodyweight before a wrestling shot. While tall fighters typically have great reach advantages, the length of their legs means that their change of level for a shot is telegraphed and predictable. In order to shoot on his opponent better, Jones gets his weight over his lead leg to begin with, where he can throw hard kicks with his rear leg or jumping knees, then drops his knee to the mat as he ducks his opponent's attempts to answer. It is important to note that when Jones is fighting over his front leg his back hand and jab lack power and he will struggle to kick with his lead leg without first leaning back.

New Developments In Stance

Against an opponent whom Jones wants to wrestle, this front foot stance is a common feature. While he moved away from it against Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans due to their great wrestling ability, Jones still displayed this stance against Machida and still remains heavy on his lead leg even in his new upright stance.

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Notice that Jones' rear leg is more underneath him nowadays, allowing him a better drive off of his back leg for strikes, but he still places his weight over his lead leg. Jones' stance in it's newest incarnation - very upright and effective for use of his reach - comes with the unfortunate downside that his shoulders do not protect his head as well as they do from his crouching stance, he cannot duck punches as easily, and arms the length of Jones' are not effective for covering up or attempting to block with the guard. Take a look at Junior Dos Santos versus Stefan Struve to understand this point better - fighting tall is a different art form to ordinary fighting - covering up must be avoided and other methods must be learned to return to range (such as Jones' palm out straight / fingers-in-eyes stiff arm).

Jones' head seems to be more of a target these days in the moments where he is not using his reach, as Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida both managed to land one or two fairly clean power punches on the champion who looked stifled when both men connected. Moments where Jones is in range to be struck, however, are still few and far between.

Jones' Offensive Weapons & The Importance of Jones' Lead Leg

Almost all of Jones' most effective weapons hinge on the lead leg

  • The shot relies on him getting heavy on his front leg first so that he can drop his weight quicker when his opponent comes in.
  • Jones' rear leg kicks are much more commonplace than kicks with his lead leg. This requires the lead leg to serve as the standing leg.
  • Jones' jab is flicking and not often powered by a push off of the rear leg, and he usually steps his lead foot in to find the range, leans on his lead leg and throws a jab while leaning foward.

Jones kicks well with his lead leg but he normally does so while running in from distance. The majority of Jones' go to techniques come straight out of his stance and rely on his lead leg being planted as a pivot, a support or on the mat when he attempts to shoot. Jones' lead foot needs to be planted for all of his best techniques to be effective and therefore one way in which his opponents may work to shut down Jones' game is to attack his lead leg.

Jones himself often uses his chasse or push kick to the front of his opponent's knee to force them into a higher stance where they can lift their leg to defend their knee joint. Forcing the opponent into a higher stance allows Jones to use a wider stance, fully utilize his reach, and take the opponent down with ease as they are in no position to sprawl from their higher stance.

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Countering Jones

Jon Jones' game clearly focuses around his reach and planting his lead foot to either kick, punch or shoot, and so attacking his lead leg seems the most sensible strategy. I have commented before that many offensively minded fighters gravitate to techniques that they find difficult to defend or understand the dangers of - a classic example is Bas Rutten's affinity for heel hooks and knee bars after Ken Shamrock damaged Rutten's knee in their second bout. Jones' time spent attacking his opponent's legs may be indicative of how much he personally dislikes being low kicked.

As I have pointed out already, all of Jones' go to techniques require him to plant his foot within striking range of the opponent before attacking. His head will often be out of range - that is his strategy and it works exceptionally against opponents who exclusively head hunt such as Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans - but his legs are often in range to be struck. On the few occasions that Jones' legs have received hard kicks he has not looked as though he takes them well.

Low kicking will need to be approached with great strategy to work on Jon Jones, however, as his elite level wrestling and ground and pound are a greater threat to most fighters than his improving striking. Mauricio Rua found out first hand where attempting a kick against Jones can land you; flat on your back and eating elbow strikes.

Attempting outside low kicks against Jon Jones is positional suicide - a kick that connects on the outside of the thigh is very easy to catch. Jones simply sets his weight on his front foot (as always), points his knee outward so that the kick lands on the thicker muscle of his quadriceps, allows it to ride up, and catches it with his hand as it approaches his hip. This technique can be done by almost anyone but was most memorably used by Anderson Silva against James Irvin. (G) (G) Jones can be even more aggressive in trying to catch the leg because his opponents are unlikely to even be able to kick at his head height should he drop his hands to catch. Notice how Jones easily takes and catches the kicks of both Mauricio Rua and Quinton Jackson.

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Outside thigh kicks do nothing to stop Jones planting his foot, in fact they encourage him to do so in order to take and catch the kick. Kicks to the inside of the thigh are a great deal more intriguing though. Only Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson have used this technique against Jones in recent years and both had great immediate results then abandoned it. The beauty of the inside thigh kick is that it punishes the opponent for planting their lead foot. The more weight is placed on the lead leg, the more the opponents shin digs into a fighters' inner thigh. This kick also actively breaks a fighter's balance, notice that in the still below Rampage has kicked Jones' leg completely out of his stance.

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Notice how open Jones is to attack, and that he cannot move back because he has nothing planted in front of him to push off of. This is when Rampage should have rushed in and attacked Jones, but instead Rampage returned to stance. Every time that Rampage actually tried to rush Jones without kicking it was out in the open and Jones simply circled away. Attacking Jones' legs and forcing him to check will also prevent him from moving backwards from his opponent's rushes. Rampage is not a good kickboxer and simply kicked then went back to stance, but a fighter who knows how to combine chopping low kicks and power punches may well be able to find success by simply using the inside low kick. (G)(G)

It is incredibly difficult to catch an inside low kick as a fighter cannot force it to ride up the quad to his hand, the knee must be turned in and a large reach down is necessary. Anderson Silva managed it against Chael Sonnen's flicking kicks in their bout, but this was more due to a weak, sloppy kick (G). By using this kick and even Jones' signature push kick to the front of the knee it might be possible to repeatedly break Jones' stance, preventing him from stepping forward and using his reach and instead forcing him to fight on the back foot. Furthermore as Jones needs to change levels such a great distance to shoot a takedown (and even to clinch effectively because of his heigh), forcing him to stand upright and defend his legs may actually hinder the possibility of a takedown rather than encourage it.

Something which often rings true about lankier fighters is that they lack the fleshy padding to take body shots and low kicks. The advantages of having long levers for snapping kicks and sinking in arm triangles are often traded off for a lack of durability in the limbs and midsection.

Ultimately Jon Jones has a very unique combination of skills that offset the disadvantages that height can sometimes bring. Opponent's struggle to kick his legs because he changes stance so often and fighters don't realise that kicking the inside of the thigh is more important than kicking one leg or the other. Opponents struggle to deal with his shot because he hides it well by leaning right over his lead leg for some time before he shoots. Of course everything I have examined is entirely speculative, but all Jones' techniques rely on being able to plant the lead foot, and attacking Jones' legs seems like a logical step in shutting down his punishing attacks from range and the danger of the champion's shot.

Light heavyweight regicide seems to be most likely if a skilled wrestler learns to kick but as it is wrestlers will punch and strikers will get taken down with ease, and neither of these will negate the 84 inch circle of punishment that extends around Jones' body.

Jack Slack breaks down over 70 striking tactics employed by 20 elite strikers in his ebook, Advanced Striking.

*************

Look out for news on Jack Slack's new kindle book, Elementary Striking which will teach the basic techniques and strategies of striking in detail.

Jack can be found on Twitter, Facebook and at his blog; Fights Gone By.

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