UFC Light Heavyweight champion Jon Jones has revolutionized how a mixed martial artist can use wrestling to beat another man up.
Before Jones' reign as light heavyweight champion, wrestling's fighting utility was almost exclusively preparatory and positional (when I say wrestling in this document I refer only to the Olympic and American scholastic styles of wrestling). High level wrestlers come to the sport of MMA already battle-hardened and conditioned, grizzled by years of struggle in hostile wrestling rooms and equipped with the mentality and work ethic of a professional fighter. When it comes time to fight, these wrestlers exercise total command over where the fight takes place. If they want to take you to the ground and keep you there, they will, and if they want to fight on their feet, nothing can force them to do otherwise.
Jones enjoys the classical benefits of a wrestling background, but has found a new and unforeseen use for his wrestling skills. The young champion now stands front and center in a pioneering movement which utilizes wrestling to set up devastating strikes from the standing position.
These wrestling-based strike setups emerge from the employment of two distinct wrestling skills: hand fighting and leg attacks. In the case of hand fighting, Jones has transformed a skill only useful in grappling exchanges into a means to seriously batter an opponent with strikes.
Hand fighting is the general term used to describe the process by which to wrestlers jockey for position from the standing position(hand fighting actually takes place in mat wrestling as well, but here we are only concerned with hand fighting on the feet). When people unfamiliar with the sport first watch a wrestling match, they often remark on how little happens at first other than two guys grabbing and tugging on each other. This is hand fighting, and it might seem artless and dull to the uninitiated, but it actually features an entire universe of skill and strategy.
(Above you see a hand fighting drill during practice at Clovis West High School, an excellent program located in the wrestling hot bed of Bakersfield, California)
Wrestlers cannot rise to the elite levels of the sport without intense expertise in hand fighting. Some of the country's most successful wrestling programs place such importance on hand fighting that substantial portions of practice consist only of hand fighting and nothing else.
While hand fighting, wrestlers pummel for under hooks, club each other's' heads, yank collar ties, feint and circle. Wrestlers hand fight with the end goal of creating defensive openings wide enough to permit a successful takedown attempt.
In his UFC 172 title fight with Glover Teixeira, Jones hand fought with his opponent constantly. From the beginning of the fight until the end, he grabbed collar ties, clamped overhooks and kept Teixeira at bay with posts to the head (a hand fighting technique which is a staple in the arsenal of Jordan Burroughs, currently the world's best wrestler). At one point in the fight, Jones even attempted to secure a Russian, a two hands on one control tie with dubious MMA applications.
Most often, however, Jones would look to control Teixeira's arms with wrist ties. Time and time again, Jones would reach out and grab one or both of his adversary's wrists, and then tailor succeeding strikes on Teixeira's reactions to the ties. Wrestlers have been using wrist ties in this manner to set up takedowns during hand fighting for quite a long time.
During his freestyle wrestling days, current Bellator fighter Muhammed Lawal specialized in scoring takedowns off of wrist ties. Above, Lawal grabs his opponent's left wrist and waits for a reaction. When his opponent shoulder posts with his right hand, Lawal knows the the tied-up left hand cannot defend, do he simply v blocks the right arm, and shoots a single leg to the same side.
Jones used wrist ties to set up strikes on Teixeira much in the same way that Lawal used them to set up takedowns. A particularly fine example of this occurred with 1:17 left in the second round of their fight.
Frames 1-3: Sensing he is the appropriate distance away, Jones reaches forward with both hands and grabs both of Teixeira's wrists.
Frames 4-6: Correctly understanding the danger of sitting in Jones's kill zone with both wrists controlled, Teixeira reaches toward Jones' head with both hands, likely seeking the relative safety of a collar tie (If you watch the fight again, you will notice that Teixeira does quite a bit of collar tying).
Frames 7-9: Jones does not allow Teixeira's hands to touch his head. He pulls Teixeira's right arm down with his left hand.
While Jones pulls down with his left hand, he pronates his right hand, twisting Teixeira's left hand away from his body. Wrestlers often use this pronating twist to create openings while hand fighting. I once heard a coach describes the use of this technique in setting up takedowns as the "soda pop series", which sounds stupid, but makes sense. Jones, in essence is rotating Teixeira's wrist the same way he would rotate a Pepsi can with the purpose of dispensing its delicious contents
Frame 10: Teixeira yanks his right arm away from Jones' grasp. In a wrestling match, this would potentially set up a shot. If a hand is pulled back too sharply, it can no longer defend the leg, and an opponent can follow with a single leg attempt. This isn't a wrestling match, however, and Jones does not plan to follow with a takedown.
Frame 11 and 12: Now that Teixeira's right hand has vacated its defensive post, Jones notes the opening and throws a crushing elbow tight to the Brazilian's face. Notice that Teixeira's left hand does not factor in to the equation as Jones still has it neutralized with the wrist tie.
This just represents one of the many occasions over their five round fight where Jones innovatively used wrestling hand fighting to set up strikes on Teixeira. Time and time again, Jones used wrestling-related positioning to find openings for elbows, punches, shoulder strikes and even kicks. With his new wrestling-based striking, Jones portends a promising long term future for the dominance of skilled and athletic wrestlers in mixed martial arts.
In the short term, we can look forward to ingenious new uses of his wrestling in his his very next fight.
Join us next time as we explore how Jon Jones now uses takedown attempts to set up even more devastating strikes