Making Waves: Before They Were UFC Champions
Greg Jackson is no stranger to criticism. Regardless of how many "Fight of the Night," "Knockout of the Night," or "Submission of the Night" bonuses his fighters rack up, his training facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is constantly lambasted for its "conservative" gameplans and "low risk" strategies. The validity of those claims is arguable, but the gym’s success is not. Champions, contenders, and "Ultimate Fighters" are bred in Albuquerque.
In this issue "Making Waves," we will review the pre-championship careers of two of Jackson’s most high-profile fighters: Georges St. Pierre and Jon Jones. St. Pierre and Jones have already established themselves as dominant, marketable champions, but there was a time when they were relatively unknown commodities, simply trying to make waves in the shark tank that is the UFC.
UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre
Georges St. Pierre’s MMA career is one of growth. His physical growth is apparent, as the French Canadian has noticeably filled out his frame over the years, but it is his growth as a tactician that has made him into one of the greatest champions in MMA. Listening to St. Pierre break down his strategy against BJ Penn at UFC 94, which involved wearing Penn’s shoulders down early to decrease his hand speed, is proof of his talents as a strategist.
That kind of growth doesn’t just happen on it’s own. The greatest leaps St. Pierre has made in his mental game have come after his two losses, one to Matt Hughes at UFC 50 and one to Matt Serra at UFC 69. After the devastating knockout loss to Serra, St. Pierre improved his focus, and learned that underestimating any opponent, underdog or not, can be a fatal mistake.
His first loss, though, was a tapout to Matt Hughes at UFC 50. "Rush" was forced to grow up mentally after the bout, and he exercised more composure in the ring under Greg Jackson’s coaching. His wanted to show his improvements after the title bout loss and did so when he met Jason Miller at UFC 52 in 2005.
Georges St. Pierre dominated "Mayhem" at UFC 52. Photo via Sherdog.com
St. Pierre maintained the consistent aggression that got him to the top of the division against Miller, but without the recklessness that caused him to over-extend on a kimura attempt on Hughes, who countered brilliantly with an armbar. "Rush" used accurate, powerful striking, combined with the well-timed takedowns for which he is now known, to rout Miller over three rounds in a vintage GSP performance. He took no significant damage in the fight, using a perfectly executed strategy to control the jiu jitsu specialist with ease. The physical tools had always been there for the Québécois superstar, but now his mental game had caught up with it. A dangerous combination.
After defeating Miller, St. Pierre went on a tear, beating Frank Trigg, Sean Sherk, BJ Penn, and Matt Hughes in the rematch for the title. He stumbled again against Serra, but again refocused and came back with a new approach he has used to dominate the division with since. They say that you can recognize a true champion by how he comes back from a loss, and Georges St. Pierre is a true champion.
UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones
When Jon Jones wins, it’s typically decisive. Whether it’s outclassing and submitting Quinton Jackson (the first to do so since 2001), battering muay Thai specialist Mauricio Rua with his own weapons, or dropping Lyoto Machida’s unconscious body to the mat like a wet blanket, the champion’s victories don’t usually come with question marks.
That wasn’t always the case, though, and Jones’ first eye-opening victory was, oddly enough, a loss.
Jon Jones was disqualified against Matt Hamill
That loss comes with a caveat, though, because it wasn’t a loss in the conventional sense. When Jones met Matt Hamill at The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights Finale in December 2009, he was disqualified late in the first round for using "12-6" downward elbow strikes on his grounded opponent. After initially taking a point away from Jones, the referee called the bout when Hamill could not continue fighting; "The Hammer" had dislocated his shoulder when Jones tossed him to the mat.
As one would expect, the fight’s aftermath was filled with controversy over the disqualification, as it was the legal throw that rendered Hamill unable to continue. The biggest point of post-fight discussion, though, was how Jones had absolutely dominated Hamill up until the bout’s unfortunate end; nobody had thrown Hamill around like that before. Jones had surprised people in previous fights, but it was after he dismantled the Ohio native that people really started paying attention.
His dominating performance, technical loss notwithstanding, struck such a chord with people that fans began to question why Jones wasn’t getting top-five opponents in his next matches. Credible, dangerous fighters like Brandon Vera and Vladimir Matyushenko were written off as stepping stones to Jon Jones’ run at the title, and "Bones" did not disappoint, destroying both veterans in the first round. At this point, he had been fighting professionally for less than three years.
Jon Jones is a wrecking machine. Under the tutelage of Jackson, he had a record-breaking 2011, running through a hyped-up contender in Ryan Bader and finishing three former champions in a row. He continued his success in 2012, defeating Rashad Evans and Vitor Belfort back to back while only being in serious danger once. This year, he looks to build off a flawless victory over Chael Sonnen in April when he faces Alexander Gustaffson at UFC 165.
Jones is the youngest champion in UFC history, and he has nearly cleaned out the light-heavyweight division, historically one of MMA’s most competitive, after competing for just five years. And as he continues to improve at a terrifying rate, people will eventually stop asking, "Who can beat Jon Jones?" and simply ask, "Who’s next?"