Fighting lives in the transitions. The spaces and moments between positions and phases, distances and angles. When the opponent moves his head or his feet, or creates a wild scramble, that's when fighters like Khabib Nurmagomedov, Dominick Cruz, Frankie Edgar, and Cain Velasquez prove themselves to be truly dangerous. And elite as that group of fighters may be, Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson are even better.
At UFC 197, Jones and Johnson will face two very different opponents. For Jones, a late-notice replacement will serve as something of a tuneup for his eventual rematch with Daniel Cormier, who currently wears the belt that once fit so comfortably around his waist. For Demetrious Johnson, an Olympic gold medalist with relentless kickboxing looks to change the landscape of the flyweight division for good. And yet both men will use a remarkably similar set of skills and techniques in their pursuit of victory.
PART TWO - POSITIONS AND PHASES
In yesterday's part one, we focused on the closing of distance. But what happens when the distance has already been closed? Both Jones and Johnson are exceptional clinch fighters and powerful takedown artists.
Many believe that Jon Jones fights in the clinch despite himself, as if his height is a detriment in close quarters and he pursues that phase merely to challenge himself. On the contrary, height and length are powerful weapons in the clinch. The moment Jon Jones clinches, his knees are terrifyingly close to his opponent's chin, and mere inches below his abdomen. His long arms can entangle limbs or yank down on the back of the neck with surprising ease. And by bending his knees he can get below his opponent and generate tremendous lift merely by standing back upright.
Against Rashad Evans, Jones showed how the transitional fighter creates openings in the clinch.
1. Rashad Evans moves toward Jones with a feint.
2. As the feint turns into a 1-2, Jones slides in under the right hand.
3. And quickly establishes inside control on Rashad's right biceps.
4. As Evans works for an underhook with his opposite arm, Jones slides his hand down into wrist control.
5. Exploding upward, Jones checks Evans' chin with his shoulder.
6. Rashad drives his forehead into Jon's chest to avoid the shoulder shots, and tries to free his wrist.
7. The only way to get enough space to do this, however, is to step back at an angle.
8. Jones senses the opportunity. He gives up the wrist, shoves Evans' chest with his now free hand, and blocks his foot.
9. Evans tumbles to the canvas.
10. Transitions are everywhere; Jones pounces and lands a right hand as Rashad attempts to sit up.
Jones' elbows and uppercuts get more attention nowadays, but his shoulder shots are a sneakily effective weapon. Like the face-slaps of Demetrious Johnson, a shoulder shot is unlikely to do significant damage, but it certainly doesn't feel good. And because Jones is happy to keep using it as long as the opening is there, the technique demands a reaction from the opponent--a reaction Jones can use. And because Jones can strike with the shoulder while maintaining wrist control on the same side, his opponent has a short list of options, giving Jones a shorter and simpler list of counters from which to choose.
In this case, Evans gives Jones just enough forward pressure to open himself to the footsweep. And because Jones' arms are so unbelievably long, he has to completely compromise his foot position just to wrench his wrist free, by which point Jones is more than happy to give it up in favor of the takedown.
When some fighters take the back, they like to lock up a body triangle. It puts a tight squeeze on the opponent's abdomen, makes it more difficult for him to turn or escape, and more or less secures the position. But other fighters--fighters like Jones and Demetrious Johnson--usually avoid the body triangle. The security of the position comes at a cost: the opponent knows exactly what to watch out for. With a body triangle, there is almost no attack available other than the rear naked choke, and we've all seen plenty of fighters hang on for minutes on end, doing nothing but resisting the efforts of that forearm trying to slide under their chin and around their throat. Because they know it's coming. No transition means no surprises.
If we look at Jones' preferences in the clinch, we can see that his entire inside game is designed to make the most of his transitional skillset. Despite his wrestling background, Jones' grips are designed to give him as many options as possible, not merely wrestling ones. Rather than battle for double underhooks or the rear waist cinch, Jones looks for inside control and overhooks. An overhook can create downward pressure or lift up, but it can also be released to bring an elbow down over the top. As Glover Teixeira learned, it can also be cranked for a painful submission hold. Inside control (and wrist control) creates a path for underhooks and leg attacks, but it also opens up the lane for a variety of weapons, be they knees, elbows, or even shoulders. And when an opponent's back is to the fence, Jones likes to play with two-on-one grips in order to set up his beloved spinning elbows. Even when he does find an underhook, Jones is more likely to reach across his opponent's abdomen to control the far wrist than he is to clamp down on the shoulder and fight a purely wrestling-centric battle.
We'll see more of that in a bit.
For Demetrious Johnson, strikes are as natural a part of his wrestling game as a double leg takedown. His seamless integration of knees, punches, and elbows in the clinch and on the ground gives him a variety of contingency plans for when the opponent manages to work his way free--something that happens with frustrating regularity when both men together weigh no more than 270 pounds. Some fighters pour their energy into a single technique. To do anything else would be to plan for failure, or so they think. But Demetrious Johnson simply keeps his options open. Why fight for your first idea when you can take what you are given?
This mindset was on full display when Johnson defended his belt against Kyoji Horiguchi at UFC 186.
1. Johnson has Kyoji Horiguchi in a low leg mount.
2. Looking to break himdown, Johnson shifts his hips and slides his left knee under Horiguchi's legs, bringing his ankles together.
3. Now he slides his left leg under and attempts to table Horiguchi's legs, which would prevent him from planting his feet and escaping. But Horiguchi squirms free and gets his right foot to the mat.
4. Sensing an escape, Johnson stands, posting on Horiguchi's hips to keep him down for a moment longer.
5. As Horiguchi posts and begins to stand, Johnson drives a vicious knee into his chest.
6. And quickly grabs a headlock as Horiguchi--unsurprisingly--stays doubled over.
7. Johnson drags Horiguchi to the ground again.
8. And tries to spin to the back, but finds his wrist controlled by Horiguchi.
9. Knowing that Horiguchi has another chance to stand, Johnson does it first, using his own controlled wrist to clear the path for another knee to Kyoji's torso.
Many of Johnson's fights have this "rinse and repeat" quality to them. Perhaps that's the reason many fans don't seem interested in watching him, but it speaks to the quality of his transitions. When it becomes apparent that he is about to lose position, Johnson not only prepares himself to attack before the opponent can recover, but deliberately leaves them only one path to follow. The challenger might escape, but if he escapes in the exact way that Johnson wants him to and eats a well-placed shot on the way up, only to be dragged back down moments later, did he really have any success?
When it comes to options, few fighters can match the eclectic toolkit of Jon Jones. Renowned for his unorthodox techniques and strategies, the former light heavyweight champion strings every attack together with cold intent, and always seeks to maintain a position from which his options are open, while the opponent's are shut out.
Against Daniel Cormier, Jones slowly took over in the clinch. By the fourth round, it had become his phase, and he used it to bully the Olympic wrestler.
1. As Daniel Cormier marches forward, Jon Jones skips back.
2. And meets Cormier with a straight left to the body.
3. Unperturbed, Cormier advances.
4. Now Jones changes tack, throwing a left high kick that Cormier just manages to block.
5. Immediately, Cormier steps forward with a jab. Jones counters with typical awkwardness, stomping on Cormier's thigh as he parries the punch.
6. Meeting Cormier in the clinch, Jones immediately grabs a double collar tie, elbows low to prevent Cormier from pummeling.
7. Jones lands a short left elbow.
8. Cormier attempts to counter with a right uppercut, but Jones is ready, and grabs his wrist (circled, partially obscured).
9. And pulls Cormier into a knee.
10. Jones gets low now, driving his forehead into Cormier's jaw.
11. From there, he walks Cormier back into the fence.
12. And with both hands inside, he easily gets in on Cormier's legs.
13. And takes him for a ride.
No matter how eclectic his striking, Jones is always ready to slide into the clinch. Once there, note the positions he chooses. For "Bones," inside position is everything. As noted above, he eschews the battle for underhooks in favor of a loose collar tie, which places both of Jones' arms inside both of Cormiers', exposing the center of Cormier's body to all manner of attacks. And knowing that Cormier will move and fight his way out of this position, Jones is instantly ready to grab a wrist when Cormier tries to swim inside to land his favorite right uppercut.
Despite Cormier's excellent wrestling, three rounds of clinching had him playing Jones' game--or so he thought. Wrapped up in the battle for wrist control and collar ties, he left both hands committed high and allowed Jones an easy path to his hips. It would be the first of three takedowns completed by Jon Jones in the fourth round alone.
Fighting lives in the transitions. It should come as no surprise that these two masterful fighters, both kings of their divisions (whether uncrowned or not), are always ready to transition from one range to another, from one position to the next. MMA is hard, but Jones and Johnson make fighting easy on themselves. They keep their options open. And they win, win, win.
Fighting lives in the transitions, and Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson live to fight.
For more on Jones-OSP and Johnson-Cejudo, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.