This is part one of a two-part article. You can find part two here.
Nothing sets Jon Jones apart from his peers so much as his willingness to try new and unfamiliar techniques. Lead leg side kicks, step-in elbows, and lately the classic Hollywood shoulder crank--hardly a year goes by that Jones doesn't reveal something hitherto unseen in his arsenal.
But are these techniques really new? Or are they simply being brought to light, recalled one by one out of the murky darkness of the past?
It's been pointed out many times, by many different pundits and analysts, how the development of MMA mirrors that of boxing, which grew rapidly in popularity in the English-speaking world near the end of the 19th Century, and changed just as rapidly as new techniques and approaches were tested, proven, and ultimately folded into the metagame of the sport.
As a striker, Jones did not begin to come into his own until his bout with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, the first defense of his light heavyweight belt, but only his 15th professional fight, in just his 4th year of MMA training. Prior to that bout, Jones was essentially formless on his feet--a raw striker whose eccentricities in the standup were enabled by his fearsome wrestling. It was wrestling, both directly and indirectly, that clinched Jones his shot at the belt, and wrestling that won it; even if Jones' performance against then-champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua hinted at the striker he would soon become.
That bout with Jackson was the first time that Jones had successfully employed a gameplan based on controlling the distance rather than closing it. After initially clinching with the hard-hitting challenger, Jones ended up resorting to out-fighting, with which he kept the smaller man at bay and picked him apart until the finish eventually revealed itself.
This was the goal of almost all fighters in the early days of boxing. Boxers like "Gentleman" Jim Corbett fenced with their foes, dancing around at long range only to lunge into single, straight blows.
As fighters learned to avoid these long-range sharpshooters, in-fighting became more and more common. Though looked down on by the most respectable boxers of the time, rough and tumble in-fighting proved the best way to beat a fencing master. Corbett himself was de-fanged by Bob Fitzsimmons, who used vicious close-range punching to wear the champion down, ultimately leaving him open to a knockout in the 14th round.
But Fitzsimmons' in-fighting was crude stuff, and the boxers of the next thirty years would make dramatic improvements to this new aspect of the art. One such man was Frank Klaus.
A little-celebrated boxer, Klaus was a splendid technician whose contemporaries generally chalked his success up to toughness rather than skill. This is because Klaus was among the first to truly specialize in in-fighting. In 1913, Klaus defeated the great Georges Carpentier, battering the young Frenchman for 19 rounds before his opponent's cornermen were finally compelled to enter the ring to save their charge from further punishment, making Klaus the middleweight world champion via disqualification.
Later that same year, Klaus penned a book extolling the virtues of in-fighting, aptly titled The Art of In-Fighting. It would prove to be well ahead of its time, and in ten years boxers around the world were incorporating his same techniques into every bout. Klaus didn't invent these techniques, nor the concept of in-fighting, but he was an early pioneer of what he rightly called "a too-neglected art."
Leafing through The Art of In-Fighting's 27 photographs, the modern fight fan would not only be amazed by how much the featured techniques resemble those of Mixed Martial Arts, but specifically those of the current light heavyweight champ and pound-for-pound number one, Jon Jones.
In the early days of boxing, professors of the art frowned on just about all circular punches, which they saw as crude and artless. "The natural tendency is to hit round," wrote Lord Rowland Allanson-Winn in 1889. "Put any two men together, who have never heard of correct principles, and tell them to . . . "go for" one another. The chances are that very few of their blows will reach home and that they will damage the surroundings more than each other. . . . A straight line is the shortest distance between any two points and if you never lose sight of the fact . . . you will in time overcome the unfortunate, but very natural habit of hitting round."
Of course, round blows have their place just as much as straight ones, but the prevailing thought at the time was to attack the center-line of the opponent's body, driving straight forward and throwing the body weight into a blow aimed for the nose, eyes, or solar plexus. This was typically done by guarding an opponent's lead with one hand, and then stepping in with a straight counter as in the example below, from Richard K. Fox's Boxing and How to Train, which will likely remind you more of Karate than pugilism as we know it today.
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Though the abhorrence of round blows was misplaced, the concept of attacking down the center was a strong one. As he battled and beat the best in his weight class, Frank Klaus discovered that the means of exposing the center didn't always have to be so . . . subtle. He was no stranger to drawing and countering a lead to get inside, but in The Art of In-Fighting he recommends another, more direct method.
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Here, Klaus steps forward and, in his own words, "makes an opening by breaking the opponent's arms apart," creating that coveted path down the center and exposing the whole of the other man's body to attack. From here Klaus recommends closing the distance with a short punch before lowering the head and driving into the opponent.
Now here's another image, this one taken over a hundred years after that of Frank Klaus. The subject of this one is UFC champion Jon Jones, locked in combat with top contender Daniel Cormier.
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The similarities are, no pun intended, striking. Jones employs a left-arm overhook rather than the simple parry of Klaus, and he controls Cormier's left arm at the elbow rather than at the wrist, but the principle is exactly the same. Leaning on his wrestling background for clues, Jones drives his forehead into Cormier's temple, giving him the superior leverage, and uses his own hands to separate those of Cormier, exposing him to attack, just as Klaus himself recommended.
Let's take a look at the sequence that this position initiated to better understand the purpose behind this approach.
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1. Jones drives into Cormier, controlling both of his arms.
2. The challenger manages to free his left arm by pulling it back before Jones can grip his wrist.
3. He then reaches forward for a collar tie, but the champion uses the opportunity to clasp his hands together (circled).
4. Jones rips his body and both arms to the right, attempting to dislocate Cormier's shoulder, but he limp-arms free.
5. Jones immediately regains position, placing both hands inside Cormier's.
6. Cormier loads up on an uppercut . . .
7. . . . and connects.
8. But Jones seizes the opportunity--and Cormier's wrist, with his left hand (circled).
9. Once again controlling both of Cormier's arms, Jones pulls the right one downward . . .
10. . . . and fires a short left elbow through the hole onto DC's chin.
This pattern, of controlling the inside position and constantly hunting for openings, defines Jones' approach to in-fighting. While most of his contemporaries see striking as a distinctly separate entity from clinch-fighting, Jones has embraced close quarters as a place where his height and long arms can be put to unique and unexpected use. Controlling wrists and arms, he peels away his opponents' defenses and sends vicious strikes through the resultant openings.
Like Klaus, Jones' in-fighting is not without its faults. He is an early innovator--but then again, he's only rediscovering the techniques that Frank Klaus put to paper over a century before. And Klaus, too, was surely not the first to realize that if you grab a man just so or hit him just like this, you can cause him to have a very bad day. Going forward, we can expect Jones to continue to develop his inside skills. Maybe a look backward at the innovators of the past will help him on his way.
Don't miss part two of this article tomorrow, in which we'll look at even more of Jon Jones' vicious in-fighting techniques.
For more analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. Coming this week: TWO episodes. Look forward to Connor and Pat's tragically belated Best-of Awards for the year of 2014, as well as an in-depth breakdown of Jones-Cormier.