While Conor McGregor makes headlines talking retirement, two of MMA's best are prepared to step into the cage at UFC 197. In fact, scratch that; Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson are not two of MMA's best, but the two best. Who deserves the number one spot is a matter for debate, but few disagree that, when it comes to the totality of MMA skill, and the ability to dominate elite opposition, "Bones" and "Mighty Mouse" are unparalleled.
This becomes interesting when you start to wonder, "What really makes a mixed martial artist great?" Mentally, Jones and Johnson share a particular poise. Both men possess a cool, condescending, almost regal air that quickly evaporates into joviality and playfulness the moment the belt is no longer on the line. Jones is more brash--the "suck it" gesture he gave to Daniel Cormier after their fight was rivaled only by the way that he effortlessly held the Olympic wrestler down with a palm on the forehead five minutes prior; but Johnson has a bit of that same swagger to him. Savvy fans might detect it more often nowadays when Johnson addresses the topic of his own unpopularity. He knows he deserves more praise, and he resents those who refuse to give it. All the same, both Johnson and Jones are committed to putting on peak performance after peak performance. Insanely, both seem to improve with every fight.
In this two-part exploration of these all-time greats, we will examine the physical aspects of Jones and Johnson's MMA mastery. Somehow both men are vastly superior to the sum of their parts. There are better kickboxers in this sport, and better wrestlers, and better submission grapplers. But when it comes to blending those arts together so thoroughly that the seams can neither be seen nor felt, these two men stand apart. MMA lives in the transitions, and that happens to be where Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson thrive.
PART ONE - LONG AND SHORT, SHORT AND TALL
Some of the most important transitions in combat are those between ranges. How does a fighter move from long range, to mid-range, to the clinch? How does he create space in tight? Jon Jones, with his 84 inch wingspan, is particularly good at bridging the gap from long range to close quarters. He has even--some might say despite his reach--become known as something of a clinch specialist in recent years, a reputation he shares with Demetrious Johnson. But the first time Jones' distance-closing techniques really caught the eye was during his fight with rival Rashad Evans at UFC 145.
1. Cutting off the cage, Jones handfights with Rashad Evans, pushing against his palm.
2. Rashad responds to the pressure by pushing back, extending both arms in the process.
3. Evans attempts an awkward teep but, unbalanced and possibly still hurt from an elbow just moments before, he misses the mark.
4. Desperate for breathing room, Evans circles, but Jones stays right in front of him, once again reaching his hand toward Evans'.
5. But when Evans reaches out to intercept Jones' hand, he quickly retracts it while stepping forward.
6. And snaps a short, concussive elbow home over Evans' outstretched arm, knocking him down.
Take a few moments to watch this GIF and appreciate the perfect confluence of timing, distance, and set-up that goes into this one beautiful elbow strike. Note how Jones steps forward as he paws at Evans' hand, withdraws his hand, and quickly takes a second, much longer step into the pocket just as Rashad attempts to handfight. Visually, it's as if Jones creates a sudden vacuum that forces his elbow and his opponent's chin to collide.
Jones' elbows are a uniquely valuable tool for bridging the gap between long range and the clinch. Many have already noted the fact that Jones' build allows him to land elbows from farther away than most fighters, but the very strike lends itself to transitions. The arc of an elbow is shorter and more linear than that of a circular punch. Thus the strike is faster and more difficult to see coming. An elbow can also be thrown almost immediately after a punch, or while the hand remains extended. If you take a careful look at Rashad's eyes in the above GIFs, you'll notice that he stays focused on Jones' probing hands even as the elbow whistles toward his jaw.
There are disadvantages too, of course--the elbow is more easily blocked than a hook for example, and nearly incapable of sneaking around the side of a solid guard--but Jones very cleverly removes his opponent's defenses to negate this issue. Adding to the brilliance of this tactic, Jones' reliance on left elbows did eventually convince Evans to keep his right hand tucked to his chin, but from there it could do no damage. And even fans of Rashad can acknowledge that, without his right hand, he is not a great threat on the feet. So even when the opening for the elbow disappeared, it merely removed Evans' biggest threat, and freed Jones to experiment with other offense.
80 pounds lighter and much quicker on his feet, Demetrious Johnson likes to switch stance to create angles, string together strikes, and cover space with alarming speed. We call these tactical steps "shifts," and Johnson does them better than just about everyone else in the sport.
1. Johnson subtly circles to Chris Cariaso's right, lining up his own right hand.
2. Suspecting a kick, Cariaso raises his right leg to check.
3. Realizing that Cariaso cannot move while he stands on one leg, Johnson drives forward, taking a deep penetration step with his left foot.
4. Cariaso thinks about a defensive teep, but not before Johnson's right hand collides with his chin.
5. As Cariaso stumbles backward, Johnson stays connected to him, shifting to cover the distance just as quickly as his falling opponent.
6. Now in southpaw, Johnson taps Cariaso's head with his right jab to measure the distance.
7. Finding Cariaso very close and very low, he takes a final step forward . . .
8. . . . and puts his left knee through Cariaso's chin.
The comfort with which Demetrious Johnson floats from one stance to the other is an obvious element to this tactic, and that level of balance and coordination is something other fighters could struggle for years to achieve without reaching "Mighty Mouse's" level. But the way I see it, measuring distance is the key ingredient.
In our first example, Jones stayed connected to Rashad Evans by touching his hands. Like a pair of sensors, Jones' hands could constantly feed him information, keeping him aware at any given moment of the space between himself and his potential targets (presumably he could also parallel park himself, though I hear he has a guy for that now). In the same way, Johnson's tapping, probing right hand is essential to the accuracy with which he lands his knee. It is impossible to touch the opponent at all times, of course, and Johnson lands his first strike "free hand," so to speak. But a punch is much quicker and easier to adjust, and flows readily into a follow-up attack; a knee is a beast of a different kind, and Johnson is sure to feel the position of Cariaso's head before he attempts it.
You'll find this tactic common among nearly all great strikers. TJ Dillashaw and Robbie Lawler come to mind, as do Rafael Dos Anjos, Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz, and many more. Fighters who excel in transitions often appear to be special (and they are), but it's not magic that allows them to "predict" the movements of their opponents. They simply stay in contact, and give themselves as much information as possible, as frequently as possible. In a way, great fighters are like supercomputers, processing data constantly and finding creative ways to apply the results.
Movements don't only happen in the horizontal plane, however. Fighters may create distance, or pivot side to side, but they can also create angles by moving up and down. Changing levels opens up different lanes of attack--for both fighters. While his opponents seek to evade his strikes, or look for takedowns, Jon Jones continues to flow, not only changing distances on the fly, but heights too.
1. Jones advances on Glover Teixeira, measuring with his right hand.
2. Jones hits a quick level change.
3. But it's a feint. As Teixeira bends down, Jones lifts a high kick up to meet him--blocked, but painful.
4. Falling back into his stance, Jones stays connected to his unbalanced opponent with the measuring right . . .
5. . . . and slides forward to follow it with a smashing left.
6. Now completely inside, Jones frames and attains head control, mashing Teixeira up against the wall.
7. Jones manages to control both of Teixeira's wrists.
8. But he simply steps back and lets go. Teixeira covers high, having just seen the same position followed by Jones' crushing elbows.
9. Instead Jones hits Teixeira's open body with a right uppercut.
10. And brings the same punch up again to the chin as Glover bends down.
Again, note how Jones measures before each transition. At long range, he tests his distance. Because he can just touch Teixeira's hand with his own, he knows he can launch a kick. Moving forward after, he finds himself one stiff-arm away from Teixeira's chin, so he takes a step forward as he fires the left cross. And handfighting in the clinch, Jones is constantly aware of not only the distance between himself and Teixeira, but the position of Teixeira's hands and arms. Here he can control threats, or strip away defenses.
Information is not only valuable in the split second after it is collected, however. Our previous two examples have seen Jones and Johnson gathering data and then immediately exploiting it to land punishing strikes. The mere fact that those strikes land, however, is valuable for future exchanges, In this case, Jones has just recently attacked Teixeira with elbows, holding his wrists in a "soda pop" grip and then elbowing his jaw before he could recover his guard. This time, Jones lets Teixeira's hands go knowing in advance that he will block high to stop those vicious elbows, exposing his body to attack. And then the rapid adaptation resumes, as Jones follows his body shot with a blow to the chin as Teixeira reacts to this new threat.
Whether it's a matter of true intelligence or merely feel (or a combination of the two), Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson aren't merely athletically gifted. They understand fighting on the essential level. All the techniques and tics that make up a fighter are open to the manipulation of these two pound-for-pound greats, and they know just which strings to pull.
Tomorrow we'll take a look at the phase-shifting of Jones and Johnson. From striking to wrestling to grappling and back again, these two men are among the most complete and complex fighters in mixed martial arts.
For more analysis of Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson ahead of UFC 197, check out episode 100 of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.