Musing on Jon Jones' greatness: The martial arts of a middle child

Rob Carr

Ben Popper examines Jon Jones' talent through the lens of a fellow middle child.

This is a guest article by Ben Popper, writer at Vox Media's The Verge.

With his win over Glover Teixeira this past weekend, Jon Jones notched himself a place in the UFC record books as one of the most dominant light heavyweights to date. A big part of his success can be ascribed to his athletic ability and top notch training. But as he enters the pantheon of all time greats, I’ve started to wonder about the intangibles that might have helped form Jones into one of the best mixed martial artists of this generation.

Two things stood out about Jones performance against Teixeira: his ability to improvise in the cage and his determination to best the challenger at his own game; to fight in close with the hard hitting Brazilian and prove that not only could he absorb his shots, but best him punch for punch.

After the fight ESPN’s Todd Grisham interviewed Jones’ brothers, Arthur and Chandler, NFL players and gifted athletes in their own right, and asked what they thought of the fight. The difference between the two was striking. Arthur, the older brother, said he lost his voice cheering, but was happy to be sitting close so he could help coach. Chandler, the younger brother, described the fight as nerve racking. Grisham then asked who would win in a fight. Arthur said he’d never lost a fight with Jon. Chandler on the other hand, said that "from a little brother’s perspective, he’d probably beat me up."

Like all siblings the Jones boys no doubt rough-housed constantly, jockeying for position and respect against one another. And while the fully trained Jon Bones Jones of today might beat both brothers handily, the psychological dynamics established then still hold: Arthur believes he can beat up Jon, Chandler that Jon would whup him handily.

I went back and watched the Jones-Teixeira fight on Sunday and began to see it through the lens of this brotherly hierarchy. As the younger brother of Arthur, Jones no doubt took his share of beatings. But that’s what breeds a certain stubborn toughness, a desire to prove yourself. That’s the Jones who pushes a knockout artist like Teixeira against the cage and willingly exchanges with him.

As the older brother of Chandler, Jones had the physical advantage. That’s when a fight can be more like a game. Against a weaker opponent, Jones learned to be creative, even playful during combat. That’s the Jones who throws on a sudden shoulder lock in the first round, who bows from the waist then delivers a punch, who spins from every direction to deliver elbows.

As a jiu jitsu practitioner, I wind up rolling with all kinds of people at the gym. Some outweigh me by a hundred pounds, while others are half my size. As a blue belt I spar with people who have less technique, and plenty who have years of experience on me. I’ve come to realize that I learn a completely different skill set depending on the contest. A stronger more skilled opponent teaches patience, defense, survival and technique. Smaller less skilled opponents are a good chance to experiment, to try difficult moves and get creative with new positions. Mentally a balanced diet of matchups is important: easy wins to boost your confidence, good matchups to push your limits, crushing defeats to humble you down.

Being the middle brother probably isn’t the single most determining factor in Jon Jones’ rise to the top. But, I can’t help but think it played some role. His mix of confidence and coachability, his blend of toughness and improvisation, these are the things that helped him go from a gifted athlete to a dominant champion.

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