Before UFC 172, I looked at Jon Jones' most recent title defenses and asked, "Is Jones a finished product?" The light heavyweight champion, so long lauded for his ever-improving skillset, seemed to me to be slowing in his development--even regressing in some areas. Most alarming was his boxing which, prior to fighting Alexander Gustafsson, he had apparently been working on extensively, only to have Gustafsson's pressure turn him into a novice in close exchanges.
Obviously Jones is one of the most dominant champions in UFC history, so it seems strange to question his skillset, but the fact of the matter is that many of Jones' previous opponents struggled to even get to the range where Jones might start to look unimpressive, while those that did usually found themselves quickly taken down and beaten up on the ground. It's never good to see a dominant champion remain static; the entire division's goal is to upset him and they will fight better and harder than ever before to do so. In some ways, then, it's even more important for a fighter like Jones to progress after winning the title than before.
Well, Jones answered some of those doubts and fears pretty convincingly on Saturday by thrashing a man who would very likely have been a UFC champion before the Jones era. And Jones didn't just beat Teixeira--he mauled him, taking the fight to the inside and using subtle positioning to strike his opponent while blocking and evading his counters. It was a masterful performance from Jones, aided by the durability and gameness of his opponent of course, and though nobody in the division will be able to test Jones in the same way that Gustafsson did, it's still very encouraging to see him passing tests in new and unprecedented ways.
Let's take a look at some of the champion's best work.
FIGHTING AT DIFFERENT RANGES
Jones' struggle with Gustafsson stemmed not only from defensive weaknesses on the inside, but from an inability to control the distance between in- and out-fighting. The champ seemed to lack weapons and defensive awareness in the middle range, where Gustafsson repeatedly stayed just inside and under his punches to land blows of his own.
Not so against Teixeira. Jones didn't do a lot of fighting in mid-range, but with his frame it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to anyway. Instead, Jones showed increased deftness at closing the gap, going from long-range to the inside and using the threat of his strikes to get there safely.
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1. Jones throws a pawing jab, which is slipped by Teixeira.
2. He steps in after it with a right uppercut that only skims Teixeira's jaw, but serves to close the distance.
3. Recovering from his uppercut, Jones frames against Teixeira's collarbone with his left arm to keep the space he wants.
4. The champion turns his frame into a push-off elbow that only partially lands...
5. ...but follows with a right elbow that bounces Teixeira's head off the cage behind him.
6. Jones tucks his chin and grabs a double collar tie to stifle Teixeira when he starts trying to counter.
Adjusting strikes for range is one of the marks of a fighter who understands distance. Jones uppercut to enter the clinch was not only the perfect choice given Teixeira's position (look at his ducked head in the first frame), but the perfect tool to cross mid-range unmolested. An uppercut is, compared to a straight right, a short punch. By going from jab, to uppercut, to clinch, Jones was able to quickly cross the gap between himself and the challenger, adjusting his movements and attacks accordingly for each inch of space closed.
Jones' use of the forearm frame was beautiful. Pressing his forearm into Glover's shoulder and neck, he was able to keep the Brazilian standing tall with his back to the fence, wide open for strikes and in no position to return with attacks of his own. Notice also that the frame keeps Jones at a slight angle to his opponent: he is looking at Glover's ear, while Glover is looking past his shoulder. It might seem like nothing, but in-fighting is truly a battle of inches, where a tiny adjustment in position can be a total game-changer. When Teixeira did start to counter, this subtle angle paid off, as the Brazilian was completely incapable of striking Jones effectively, and ate another elbow combo for his trouble (watch the GIF above).
HIT AND DON'T BE HIT
Done well, in-fighting is the most beautiful phase of combat. The ability to stand right in front of an opponent, hit him, and handily avoid all of his counters--it doesn't get better than that. In round 5, Jones once again had Teixeira pressed up against the cage (having entered behind a triple jab, no less!) and was looking to seal the fight with a convincing display of dominance and craft.
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1. Jones grips the right wrist of Teixeira with his left hand, and uses his head to pin the Brazilian's body to the fence.
2. Now Jones turns his body, using his head to create space, and winds up with a right uppercut to the gut...
3. ...followed by a left hook under Teixeira's elbow.
4. A few more punches from Jones partially land, and then he lands a sharp right hand just as Teixeira throws a counter uppercut. Jones' punch takes his head off-line and Glover's counter sails harmlessly by.
5. Now Jones rolls under a Teixeira left hook...
6. ...and lands a cracking left hook of his own.
Who expected this from Jones? Usually known for his rangy kickboxing, Jones decided to smother his opponent and grind him to mincemeat with elbows and short punches. His handfighting and use of head control kept Teixeira constantly uncomfortable, unable to counter, and incapable of predicting Jones' strikes.
My first thought was to compare Jones (favorably) to heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, whose work against the fence is the best in MMA, but the more I watch these sequences of Jones, the more another fighter comes to mind, another light heavyweight champion from a different sport named Bernard Hopkins.
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Hopkins is renowned in boxing for his often dirty in-fighting tactics. Punching the hip, holding and hitting, using his head and elbows to control and wear the opponent down--if a trick exists in the book of in-fighting chances are that Hopkins knows it and, at 49 years of age and still champion, he probably wrote part of the chapter on it. Hopkins hasn't always been admired for his willingness to foul the opponent, but what's foul in boxing is more than fair in MMA, and Jones used some of Hopkins' favorite tactics to break his opponent down.
The most striking similarity was Jones' posture. Head forward, chin tucked, he made it clear that his primary goal was simply to make contact with the challenger's body. This posture can make one vulnerable to uppercuts (more on that in a moment), but straight punches and hooks bounce and skid off the top of the head, which can be used to apply pressure to the opponent once the gap has been closed. In this video, Hopkins explains the lead right, one of his go-to distance covering attacks, to former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans. As part of that discussion, he touches on the concept of built-in defense. "This is my shield," he says, indicating his lead shoulder. "My helmet?" He motions to the dome of Rashad's skull, the only part of the head not covered by his shoulder. "You gonna break your hand on that."
That's perhaps the most promising part of Jones' entire fight. He used his head defensively, not trying vainly to keep Teixeira from hitting him, but making him hit where Jones wanted him to. He not only accepted that one of the hardest hitters at 205 might hit him, but was willing to be hit to land shots of his own. Yes, he strove to hit and not be hit in return, but it was enough to hit and not be hit well. That's the biggest takeaway from this fight, and the biggest sign of Jones' growth. Against Gustafsson he seemed completely caught off-guard by the Swede's punches, as if he'd expected his opponent to struggle to hit him. This time around, he didn't forego all defense, but he also didn't particularly care about getting hit, and the confidence showed.
Despite his success, Jones hasn't mastered this range of fighting yet. His dazzling offense heavily outweighed the damage done against him, but Glover Teixeira is the kind of man who is always one clean punch away from winning the fight, and Jones gave him far too many opportunities to land that shot.
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1. Jones has a grip on Teixeira's left wrist, while Teixeira puts that hand in position to shove the champion away.
2. Pushing on Jones' head, Teixeira creates a foot of space split-second of time in which to strike.
3. Reacting to Teixeira's shove, Jones falls back into the pocket...
4. ...right into Glover's right uppercut.
Jones' relative youth and inexperience explain lapses like this. In-fighting is captivating to watch because it seems so complicated. In reality, it's about ten times more complicated than that. In this fight, we saw Jones using head control, handfighting, footwork, cagecraft, and head movement to outwork his opponent in phone booth range. With so many options to weigh and consider, it's no surprise that Jones sometimes became a little too focused on one particular aspect. Above, you can see him so focused on reachieving wrist control (in frame 3) that he dives literally headfirst into Teixeira's trap. His forward posture makes sense for wrestling Teixeira against the fence, but without side-to-side head movement it's extremely dangerous to simply fall into the pocket like that, particularly against a puncher of Teixeira's quality.
As an aside, one adpatation made by Jones that I did find very intriguing was his brief flirtation with the cross-armed guard (GIF), which he used to deflect Teixeira's shots in the last minute of the fifth round. Jones admitted at the post-fight presser that he had gassed and was simply looking to nullify Teixeira in the last part of the bout, but I'd be very interested to see if the cross-armed guard, famously used by the great Archie Moore and George Foreman (throughout his comeback), will make another appearance as part of Jones' evolving in-fighting arsenal.
Teixeira was competitive in the first part of the fight, justifying his shot against the champ, but Jones adapted to his opponent, and by the third round he was controlling Glover, eating his shots, and firing back with sharp combinations of his own. Jones' performance was a reminder that he is the toughest fighter in his division, both mentally and physically, and he's not quite done evolving yet.
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.