(This is part one of a two part series. You can find part two here.)
It wasn't long ago that light heavyweight was considered one of the best divisions in Mixed Martial Arts. The revolving door of UFC titlists featured undefeated wunderkinds, battle-tested knockout artists, and a variety of fan favorites, many of them already former champions or decorated contenders from other promotions.
All of that changed in the space of two years when Jon Jones came around. A short-notice replacement for then-teammate Rashad Evans, Jones was slated to challenge arguably the most impressive man to hold the belt since Chuck Liddell. Mauricio Rua, known to his fans as "Shogun," became champ when he knocked out Lyoto Machida in a rematch of a fight that most observers thought should have earned him the belt already. Earlier in his career, Shogun had crushed most of the best light heavyweights in the world when he slashed his way through Pride FC's Grand Prix in 2005.
In many ways Jones' career was an echo of Shogun's. In 13 bouts he had suffered only one defeat to wrestler Matt Hammil. In that bout Jones slashed, smashed, and tore Hammil with an arsenal of punches and elbows, delivering a beating so thorough that, when the referee failed to stop the bout, Jones resorted to illegal tactics in his desperation to convince the ref to save the man suffering under his onslaught. Instead, Steve Mazzagatti paused the bout, asked the bloodied Hammil whether he could continue and, when the deaf man proffered no response, disqualified Jones, handing him his first defeat. To this day it stands as the only loss on his record.
Of course, that spoils the ending of the story of Jones vs Shogun, but it's no true MMA fan who doesn't know that tale already. Jones towered over Shogun, but the Brazilian would feel even smaller by night's end. It started and ended with Jones knee meeting Shogun's face, with dozens of brutal strikes and takedowns in between; it was twelve minutes of the most one-sided beating Shogun ever had, or ever would receive.
It was also the start of an era.
The Emerging Gameplan
Near the start of his reign, Jones seemed nigh unbeatable. Following the Shogun win, he went on to dismantle three former light heavyweight champions in a row, submitting both Lyoto Machida and Quinton Jackson, and taking former-teammate Rashad Evans to a humiliating unanimous decision loss. After a record seven title defenses, however, we've seen Jones against a wide enough breadth of competition to identify some very exploitable holes in his game.
Now Jones is slated to battle Daniel Cormier, a former Olympic wrestler who has yet to face defeat in fifteen professional fights, a fact made even more impressive when one considers that Cormier fought the first thirteen of those bouts against heavyweights, racking up wins over such notables as Roy Nelson, Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva, and Josh Barnett. Cormier, in addition to his excellent wrestling abilities, is a fast and explosive athlete with well-rounded striking skills and a proven ability to adjust for various types of opponent. As for the strategy he will need to take Jones' belt . . . it's easily the tallest order of Cormier's career, but certainly possible. We'll get into the specifics of each below, but here are the key points.
1. Pressure/attack in sequence
2. Lateral Movement
3. Exchange/counter kicks
The first is the most important, but the last is likely to be the first on Daniel Cormier's mind, so we'll address these points in reverse order.
(A note on the strategy contained herein: there are aspects of Jones' style that could be exploited by fighters from a wide range of stylistic backgrounds and technical aptitudes, but this article is intended to lay out the rout by which Daniel Cormier, with his particular skillset, could defeat the champion. Therefore Jones' tendency to place his hands on the mat, for example, will not be featured, as the prospect of the 5'11" Cormier pulling guard doesn't seem very likely.)
Prior to his trying bout with Alexander Gustafsson, Jones was said to be working on his boxing, in order to better contend with the vaunted hands of the Swede. As it turns out, Jones' boxing was more a liability than an asset in that fight--it would take another seven months for the champion to show tangible improvement in his boxing against Glover Teixeira. Faced with the reality of a much better boxer in front of him, Jones was forced to fall back on the backbone of his striking arsenal: his kicking game.
It took longer than usual for his usual success to materialize, however, and when it did come it was only in spots. The reason was partly mental and partly physical, and all due to one simple tactic of Gustafsson's.
1. Jones moves toward Gustafsson.
2. Faking the jab, Jones shuffles his right foot forward . . .
3. . . . and unloads with a left kick to Gustafsson's inner thigh.
4. Gustafsson, his leg kicked out of position, ends up momentarily in southpaw.
5. Taking full advantage of his new position, the challenger immediately throws a left inside leg kick of his own.
6. Now Jones advances again, eager to get back, and Gustafsson circles to his left on the fringe of punching range.
7. Jones attempts a front kick to Gustafsson's left thigh, but the Swede is already in the process of countering.
8. Fast hands beat even the fastest of kicks, and Gustafsson nearly swipes Jones' nose off his face with a left hook.
Now, no one would be foolish enough to call Gustafsson a superior kicker to Jones, nor even his equal in that department, but the Mauler nonetheless chose to exchange kicks with the champion. In fact, throughout the first three rounds Jones rarely threw a single kick without receiving a sharp counter in return, often in the form of another, similar kick. Though Jones' kicks were landing harder and more cleanly--as evidenced by the rapid deterioration of Gustafsson's condition after round two--the Swede kept him from establishing his usual rhythm. His return kicks sent Jones a very clear message: you are not the only one who can fight at this range.
Rather than conceding the kicking range to the long-legged champion, as previous challengers had done, Gustafsson fought against type in order to establish himself as a well-rounded threat. And even when he didn't find himself in position to kick, he would at the very least pursue Jones with punches as he reset his feet. The result was a hesitant and unconfident champion--one who began pulling his kicks for fear of Gustafsson's counters.
This step will be crucial for Cormier, who has proven himself to be quite the able kicker. In fact, looking back at the kickboxing clinics he put on Jeff Monson and Josh Barnett, it's likely that Cormier kicks with more power and accuracy than Gustafsson himself. In any case, Cormier doesn't need to out-kick Jones; he merely needs to kick with Jones, to keep from ceding the long range to the champion.
After that, it will be up to the challenger to execute, early and often, the next two phases of the strategy: lateral movement, and intense, constant pressure. Come Thursday, we'll see how Jones reacts to those threats, and examine the potential adjustments that the champion himself may have made in preparation for DC.