At UFC 172, Jon Jones thoroughly dominated Glover Teixeira, making the highly regarded challenger look completely outclassed. Despite his dominant showing, one of the talking points coming out of the fight is a knock against Jones - specifically, his repeated use of eye pokes. Twice early in the fight, Teixeira was poked in the eye, pausing the action. Referee Dan Miragliotta warned Jones that a point deduction would be coming, and while there were no more pokes, Jones did continue to leave his hand extended, fingers spread wide in the position that caused the foul in the first place. This is nothing new for Jones - opponents have complained about this throughout his run. So is Jones just a dirty fighter, or is there something more to this technique? In this Bloody Elbow UFC 172 Judo Chop, we'll take a look at those Jon Jones eye pokes and trace their roots back to perhaps an unlikely source - Muay Thai.
In order to understand these pokes, we need to take a look back at some Muay Thai history, and in particular, the history of the Muay Thai stance.
A sport with a deep history, Muay Thai has of course evolved over the years, and one source of evolution is the stance. Look back to traditional Muay Thai, and you will see a noticeably different stance. There are various differences, but for the purposes of this discussion, we're looking at the arms.
Note that in the traditional, older style, Muay Thai fighters kept their arms far extended, away from their heads. This was in order to facilitate the use of Muay Thai's primary arm strike - the elbow. With the arms out, a fighter can take a step in and throw a fast elbow. This is much easier to throw from this position than from a more MMA-style stance, where your elbows are close to your body and farther from your opponent.
It's very hard to find examples of this, as it's from a time when fights weren't exactly on YouTube. Here's something of an approximation from the fighter in the striped shorts:
You can also get a good sense of the stance here, from the final fight in the Van Damme film Kickboxer. And no, I don't like using a movie as my example, but again, there's not a lot of this footage out there. But note how Van Damme's opponent holds his arms out. It's a bit exagerated for the movie, but that's the idea:
Over the years, this changed. Much to the chagrin of many Muay Thai purists, western style boxing began making its influence known in the sport. The elbow became forced to share its position as the dominant arm strike with the boxing style punch. As boxing techniques came more into Muay Thai, some adjustments were needed in terms of stance. Offensively, it's very difficult to generate power in a punch with your arms extended like that, while defensively, the arms outstretched leaves your head exposed. As a result, Muay Thai fighter began to bring their arms back, tighter to the head in the style of boxing or MMA. There's still some variance, and plenty of Muay Thai fighters keep their lead arm a bit out still, but in general, the arms have come in.
Here's a good example of the modern day Muay Thai stance as employed by Yodsaenklai Fairtex. Note how his arms are in essentially the same position as an MMA fighter:
For another example, here's Shogun Rua, splitting the difference by keeping his right arm tight and his left a bit more extended in the classic style. (GIF)
Which brings us to Jon Jones.
What Jones is doing with his hand is essentially a throwback to the classic Muay Thai arms-out stance. By keeping that lead arm fully extended, Jones sacrifices his punching ability, but he makes it far easier to throw elbows, as he showed repeatedly against Teixeira. For Jones, there's no threat of a counter punch, because his reach is so much greater than his opponent's that at arm's length, no punch will reach his chin. Jones also makes a small adjustment, putting his hand straight up the middle in order to intercept his opponent's head and maintain distance.
A key difference between Jones's style and the classic Muay Thai style here is in the gloves. Muay Thai fighters wear closed finger boxing gloves, so with their extended hands, there are no fingers getting in eyes. Remove that closed glove, expose the fingers, and the same technique results in repeated eye pokes.
So is it a "dirty" technique? I'm not sure I would say that. It's definitely a foul, and should be called as such, but it's more than just a dirty move. What Jones is doing is taking an abandoned aspect of Muay Thai and adapting it to modern MMA and his particular physical gifts, using it to maximize his efficiency with elbows in lieu of punches. And then he's poking people in the eye. That shouldn't excuse those fouls, but hopefully it sheds a bit more light on why they are happening.