Looking back, it seems like Jon Jones hit the MMA world out of nowhere. Just one year into his MMA career, he had already beaten eight consecutive opponents, culminating in a win over UFC veteran Stephan Bonnar. Less than two years later he was the UFC champion, rising to his throne with a brutal, dominating win over all-time great Mauricio (Shogun) Rua. Now, three years after his first title fight, he is still the UFC light heavyweight champion, and easily the best fighter to ever compete in that weight class.
But is he done improving?
A few years ago, the subject of every Jones fight was his incredible athleticism and unpredictability. Jones couldn't seem to set foot in the Octagon without unveiling a new wrinkle to his game. First it was his wrestling, then his ground and pound, then his rapidly developing kickboxing. His unorthodoxy was his calling card, and it was almost as if Jones felt compelled to try at least one flashy new technique per fight. Against Jackson, the oblique kicks. Against Machida, the spinning back kicks. Against Evans, the short standing elbows. After every fight fans would ask themselves, "What will he use to beat the next guy?"
More recently, however, the theme of Jones' fights has been the ways his opponents nearly beat him. Lyoto Machida was the first to touch Jones' chin with a powerful punch. Vitor Belfort, much maligned as a title contender, nonetheless badly hyperextended Jones' elbow with an arm bar. Chael Sonnen did nothing of note except being in the same room as Jones when the champion suffered a gruesome toe injury, but Alexander Gustafsson made Jones look more human than ever before with a combination of sharp boxing and takedown defense. Of course, Jones has defeated all of these opponents, but the pattern is clear: through their efforts, Jones' opponents are collectively creating a gameplan for beating the pound-for-pound king at last, and if the Gustafsson fight is any indication, that gameplan is almost complete.
It's never wise to train to the expected level of competition. A man who trains for a slow, timid, or stupid fighter will always be shocked when that fighter shows unprecedented speed, courage, or guile in the fight. To beat his opponents, Jones needs to not only gameplan around them, but continue to grow. Unfortunately at just 26 years of age, Jones seems to be stagnating.
THE "UNIVERSAL" DEFENSE
In yesterday's Glover Teixeira Judo Chop, I talked about Jones' habitual defense, the so-called "Thai block" or stiff-arm defense. I wrote:
Jones' stiff-arm is a flinch reaction, which means he's not sizing up the situation and reacting accordingly, he's just throwing up his block and hoping that it works. Usually it does, but that's more a testament to the striking skill of his opposition up to this point than an endorsement of the technique's effectiveness.
This block was an adaptation apparently introduced by Jones' trainers Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn; in the early days of his career Jones showed an array of defensive maneuvers. Here's a selection of the ones he used against Jake O'Brien, his last opponent before moving full-time to Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA.
1. Jones ducks his head and smothers O'Brien's punches with a clinch.
2. He ducks under a right hand and circles out.
3. He slips right outside a jab...
4. ...and left outside an uppercut.
The movements here aren't pretty--Jones habitually ducked his head, taking his eyes off of O'Brien and putting himself in danger--but there was definite variety and situational awareness to his defense. Since moving to Team Jackson-Winkeljohn, however, Jones almost always utilizes the same defense, regardless of threat.
Now covering up--an example of which this certainly is--isn't altogether a bad thing. Nearly every fighter finds it necessary to resort to a basic, universal defense sometimes, and these reactions are especially common for inexperienced fighters. If Mike Winkeljohn thought it best to "rebuild" Jones once he started training under him, it's no wonder that he relied on this block so much around the time of his fights with Shogun and Rampage.
After more than four years with the camp, however, this is still Jones' go-to defense, not just when he's hurt but virtually anytime he's pressured. He throws up the stiff-arm and backpedals. Gustafsson was the first fighter with a good enough answer to Jones' kicks to spend a good amount of time in punching range, and the holes in Jones' defense were laid bare as a result.
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1. Jones switches from orthodox to southpaw right in front of Gustafsson.
2. Gus steps forward with a jab to the body as Jones switches his feet, and the champ throws up his stiff-arm.
3. Gustafsson takes the inside angle as Jones finishes switching to southpaw, following up with a jab to the face.
4. Jones stumbles backward, losing his stance and ending up square once again as Gustafsson lands a right to the body.
5. Gustafsson finishes with a jab, and Jones sticks his hand out once again.
At his preferred range, Jones is very comfortable, and usually very dominant. As an offensive fighter, he is one of the best pot-shotters in UFC history. However, he looks downright bad when pressured. This is clearly a result of Jones never having to worry much about an opponent getting past his lead hand before, but the worrying subtext to that explanation is that his coaches haven't prepared him for a fighter who can close the gap.
Jones' reactive movements in that sequence say two things: 1) He is not comfortable being hit, and 2) he improvises when pressured. Now, the ability to improvise is a great thing. Jones has always been very adaptable round-to-round, and it was that ability to key onto openings and take away opportunities that let him pull away from Gustafsson in the later rounds of their fight. A system, however, should never force a fighter to improvise as a first line of defense. A trainer should have a premeditated answer to every technique for his/her fighter.
The Grindstone: Glover Teixeira's Pressure
Glover Teixeira will try to implement his dangerous pressure game against Jon Jones this Saturday in the main event of UFC 172. BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch breaks down the facets of his style.
For example, when Floyd Mayweather utilizes the Crab (his shoulder rolling position), he responds to jabs by either pulling his head back out of range, or catching them with his right glove. If the opponent follows with a right hand, he will either roll under it or hit the punch with a shoulder roll. Based on that response, he will defend a follow-up left hook by rolling under it again or rotating his torso to bring his right glove in front of his cheek. Floyd knows how to improvise, and he will adjust on the fly if he gets caught out of position, but there is a clear system at work in his fights. You can set your watch to it.
Jones, in comparison, throws up his stiff-arm regardless of the attack (it's all but useless against Gustafsson's jabs and body punch above), and then responds to further strikes randomly, losing his stance, leaning back past his own feet, and--worst of all--turning his head away from the punches (check out frame 3 above). All of this speaks to Jones' discomfort in an exchange, something which shouldn't be present at this point in his career as a world champion with 20 professional fights.
Prior to the Gustafsson bout, Jon Jones told the media that he had been working extensively on his boxing, even expressing his willingness to box one of the Klitschko brothers. His confidence in the improvement of his hands was supreme. The fight itself, however, showed much the same boxing that we've seen from Jones since the start of his championship reign.
One of the biggest problems plaguing Jones is his lack of combinations. I've seen him throwing combinations on the pads, but doing something on pads and doing it in front of another person, particularly one who wants to hit you, are very different things. This indicates that Jones' sparring partners are, like most of his opponents up until Gustafsson, largely incapable of getting past his reach. There's a time for sparring that boosts one's confidence, but training, both sparring and drills, should mimic the potential realities of a fight. By this point in his career Jones should have been somewhat prepared for the attack of Gustafsson (he wasn't), and should be showing tangible improvements to his striking (he's not).
One of the reasons for this is the way that Jones throws his strikes. He commits so heavily to certain punches that even when they land he simply cannot follow them up. The most jarring example of such a strike is Jones' overhand right, a fixture of his striking game.
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1. Jones steps toward Lyoto Machida.
2. He throws himself onto his left foot, swinging his arm in a wide overhand arc.
3. Jones' right foot drags forward, leaving him square to Machida, and he feels the sudden need to cover up.
This punch really has no place in Jones' repertoire. From such a long range, he has the luxury of throwing long, straight punches that will hit his opponent without his opponent being able to hit him back. In addition, as the taller fighter (at least against every opponent but Gustafsson) Jones can strike downward whenever he wants--there's no need to fall headfirst into a potential counter, right into the opponent's range, just to achieve a downward trajectory on a strike.
Strikes like this are the reason that Jones can't usually throw combinations. His weight is so committed to this punch that he loses control of his body, and must wait to recover his balance before he can punch again. Compare this to Glover Teixeira's overhand right, which is much tighter and more compact, and which flows perfectly into his left hook. Even when Jones does throw combinations, they are almost never more than two punches, because the first punch is noncommitted, and the second punch is overcommitted.
In some ways (straight kicks, deceptive elbows) Jones is excellent at using his reach, but in others he is not. By falling into punches like this, with no ability to follow-up, Jones puts himself right into a smaller opponent's wheelhouse.
The one advantage of this punch used to be the fact that Jones could transition from it to takedowns, but that seems to have disappeared from his game. This is actually the most troubling thing about Jones' recent development: in many ways he does seem to be stagnating, while in others he actually seems to be regressing. Jones' highlight reel moments against Shogun Rua were all on the feet, but that fight was won on the ground, where his devastating elbows and long, postured-up punches sapped every bit of the former champion's energy. Early in the fight, Jones traded overhands with Shogun, and while both fighters missed, it was Jones who capitalized on the opportunity, transitioning smoothly into a takedown (GIF).
Now, however, Jones seems to have lost his excellent transitional game. Gustafsson certainly had improved takedown defense, but not one of Jones' entries were set up with strikes, aside from a half-hearted side kick feint to set up his very first attempt at a double.
At this point (if you made it this far) you're likely dismissing me as a mere hater, but hear me out. I've said very few positive things about the style of Jon Jones in this article, it's true, but I make my criticisms with a point. As fans, we often fall into the trap of thinking that something that works needs no improving. Fighting is such a specialized and personal practice that flaws are unavoidable, and there are so many intangibles at play that fighters can often get away with substandard technique for a long time. "He already hits hard, so why should he keep his elbows down?" or "He's never been knocked out, so why should he fix his posture?"
There is always a turning point. Given enough fights every iron-chinned brawler gets knocked out, and every natural puncher gets outboxed. Against Alexander Gustafsson, Jon Jones came perilously close to that turning point, but managed to overcome adversity. He has the mentality of a champion, but hopefully that bout has been taken as an opportunity to learn, and to grow. Glover Teixeira isn't very similar to Gustafsson, but he will test Jones with his grit and his multi-dimensional game.
This Saturday we'll find out if Jones can continue his astounding growth, or if he is a finished product after all.
For more analysis, as well as fighter and trainer interviews, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face punching. On this week's new episode, Connor answers listener questions with boxing trainer Luis Monda.