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Defeating the G.O.A.T: How to beat Jon Jones pt. 1

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Combat Course: Lessons from the Cage presents part one of an in-depth guide to winning against one of MMA's most talented fighters.

Defeating the G.O.A.T: How to beat Jon Jones pt. 1

Part two available here!

Introduction

In this edition of my Combat Course: Lessons from the Cage series for Bloody Elbow, I will analyze various techniques and tactics which could be essential in beating the greatest MMA talent, and the most consistent UFC champion, of all time: Jon “Bones” Jones. My belief that he is indeed ‘the greatest’ is based on the level of competition Jon Jones has faced, his overwhelming dominance of that competition and the fact that “Bones“, at the age of 23, became the youngest champion in UFC history and is still going strong.

Fighting Jon is a scary thing. He is an intimidating opponent who is huge for the weight class, strong as a bull and vicious when he goes for the kill. He takes no prisoners. However, although Jones has great striking skills, he is not a KO artist. He is a volume striker, a clinch fighter and his go-to methods for winning are submissions and mauling opponents with elbows on the ground.

In order to beat Jon Jones fighters have to study situations where Jon Jones has been somewhat exposed. He still won those fights, which means opponents can only get small pieces of the puzzle that worked against different people with different skills. It seems like a contradiction to try to figure out how to beat a fighter by using tactics from fighters he already beat. That is why this is only part of solving the Gordian knot that is Jon Jones. To beat an unorthodox fighter fighters may need to think outside the box and use unorthodox tactics themselves.

Beating the team

Coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn with Jon Jones Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn with Jon Jones
Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

In order to beat Jon Jones opponents are going against his support system: the purest MMA specific camp in the world, Jackson/Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Greg Jackson is a tactics mastermind who studies tape and devises opponent specific gameplans to ensure victory. Mike Winkeljohn on the other hand, has a unique striking system which utilizes a variety of unorthodox strikes like the side kick to the kneecap and the oblique kick. These techniques seem to be influenced by various sources, such as Bruce Lee’s striking system and the art of Savate.

When fighting a Greg Jackson fighter opponents can be sure of one thing: the coaches have done their homework and know all there is to know about them. They might know a fighter usually run out of gas after the fourth round, how they react under pressure and that they cannot handle punches to the body. Everything is important. They will exploit every weakness and Jones, a great student, is more than prepared to follow the plan.

However, there are generally two gameplans for Jon Jones: a specialized plan, taking into consideration his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and a general plan which is the backup plan for every fight.

The general plan:

Jones has great cardio and is a five round fighter. He looks like a point fighter, but as is said in boxing, he makes the investments in the early rounds and collects the interest later. His low side kicks and oblique kicks take their toll on opponents over time and so do his body punches. Usually if the fight makes it to the last round Jones' opponents are exhausted from carrying his weight, can barely use footwork from the kicks and are hesitant to engage due to the eye pokes (unintentional or not).

In every fight Jon Jones gets busy early to:

  • Use kicks to the knees and other long range strikes in order to compromise the opponent’s mobility in later rounds from an accumulation of damage.
  • Win every round on the scorecards using high volume striking.
  • Be the fresher fighter at the beginning of the last round by controlling the pace of the fight.
  • Try to finish the fight at every given opportunity while continuing to collect points in case of a failed attempt at a finish.
  • Ensure complete and utter dominance.

The problem for his opponents is he goes from point collecting mode to fight ending mode in an unexpected fashion. An opponent may be trying to match him strike for strike, like a point fighting match, then without warning, Jon may go for a takedown and end the fight with brutal elbows.

The key round for Jon Jones is the fifth round. His opponent’s knees and thighs are usually in bad shape, making it difficult to move, they’re out of gas from strikes to the body and the sheer volume of strikes, and probably havr impaired vision from the blood running all over his face due to Jones’ brutal elbows. Jon Jones will take opponents to a dark place during the championship rounds if they let him lead the pace.

Wrestling tactics

I've noticed that during fights, when fighters get exhausted or go into desperation mode, they resort to their comfort zone: their sport of origin. Ronda Rousey, for example, would forget all about her boxing stance and go to her Judo stance with reaching arms and chin up. Cain Velasquez, when he got rocked went for a double leg takedown. The same stood for Brock Lesnar. No matter how much a fighter works on a skill, the more familiar skill, the one they have been practicing since childhood, will take over when they reach their limits.

For Jon Jones this is Greco Roman wresting and the clinch, which happens to be his best weapon. Choosing to clinch with him is a bad idea. A fighter should never, ever remove underhooks and go for a Thai plum with their back against the cage against Jon. His arms are so long he will grab opponents legs and take them down immediately. Ask Chael Sonnen. He can also land vicious elbows at this range, his most devastating strike.

On the ground is where the boogeyman reigns supreme. His elbows are lethal from top position, even from within someone’s guard. And although taking him down is very difficult, keeping him there is an almost impossible task. He is strong, long and explosive, and is soon back on his feet. I sincerely do not believe there is any fighter who can submit him unless Jon Jones moves to heavyweight and fights Fabricio Werdum. Especially since, after almost getting armbared by Vitor Belfort, Jones has been working extensively on improving his BJJ skills.

I will further examine clinching and wrestling scenarios in part two.

Damage control

Most fighters are quite dominant when the fight goes their way, but cannot turn the tide when they start losing. Vitor Belfort and B.J. Penn are examples of such fighters. Jon proved he can deal with adversity and come back. During his fight with Alexander Gustafsson he showed signs of panic, but he pulled himself back. That is one of the things that makes him a great fighter. He was able to win the fight after this:

UFC 165: Jones vs Gustafsson
UFC 165: Jones vs Gustafsson
UFC

Jones proved he has a solid chin. Alex threw everything but the kitchen sink at him. After the Gustafsson fight Jon often tries to prove that he can take a punch and go toe to toe with his opponents. Daniel Cormier landed a number of dirty boxing punches during their fight (gif) and Ovince Saint Preux landed flush with a right cross (gif). Glover Teixera connected with some great body shots. Jon Jones was able to walk right through them and show his toughness.

There are no shortcuts in beating Jon Jones. Like all fighters, his reflexes will eventually fade, injuries will make him hesitant and his ability to take a hit may diminish, but right now Jon is in his prime. Besides the Gus fight his body has not consistently been on the receiving end of significant damage.

Despite that toughness, however, Jones appears to have weak shins and does not like it when opponents check his low kicks. That is why sometimes he aims for the calves and not the thighs. Here are two examples: Gif1 Gif2

This was also noticeable after the Rampage fight.

I will focus on exploiting this weakness next time.

Eye pokes

UFC 172: Jones vs. Teixeira
UFC 172: Jones vs. Teixeira
UFC

Jon Jones is a proud fighter. I can’t imagine that he would eye poke his opponents intentionally. I presume it is a bad habit from his wrestling days. However, he does this consistently and especially during his Rampage fight he did not seem to understand how obvious it was. Check out this gif.

Jon Jones vs Quinton Rampage Jackson - UFC 135

Let me be clear about this: this is not a glove issue. This is the referee’s fault. In the gif above, the referee lets him get away with it. There should be a point deduction for the first clear eye gouge, and especially for repeat offenses. After the eye poke Jones will apologize, give opponents his hand to shake, but they will start flinching every time he extends his arm afterward. Both the UFC and the referees should step up and deal with this. A warning is not enough.

Unfortunately to beat Jon Jones opponents have to be able to deal with this problem, so in part 2, I will address dealing with his single and double extending hands.

Reach advantage

Jones is 6 ft 4 in (193 cm) tall and his reach is 84.5 in (215 cm). Much like Conor McGregor this reach advantage is a basic component of his success.

Jon Jones vs Rashad Evans UFC 145

Here is a screen cap from Jon’s fight against Rashad Evans. They both go for a jab. Look at the difference in reach. Jones’ jab is not even fully extended. Reach is a weapon and it is an important one. If it wasn’t important, fighters would not go through hell to cut weight before a fight just to gain a small advantage in reach and size.

“If reach mattered Stefan Struve would beat everyone” somebody noted in a previous post. Struve is not Jon Jones. A weapon is only as good as the fighter using it. But having an effective weapon like reach or power makes a fighter’s life so much easier.

To help readers appreciate Jon’s height and size advantage I created a group photo in Photoshop where I included his recent opponents. I scaled each fighter’s figure in proportion based on their official height. This was created before the OSP fight. Here it is:

Preparing for Jon Jones: General guidelines

  • Be prepared for a 5 round fight. In every round fighters should have the cardio to stop two takedown attempts or get up from the bottom, defend with their back against the cage and work on escaping to the center of the octagon. Being able to threaten Jones with takedowns themselves is not a bad idea.
  • To outpoint Jones, fighters need to have a gas tank able to defend approx. 50 strikes and land an average of 30 strikes per round against an evading target. Drill this by sparring in a cage with two sparring partners (a wrestler and a long kickboxer) and a coach holding mitts or Thai pads. Train with all three at the same time using alternating scenarios and mixing things up randomly. Focus on speed and stamina, not power. Keep in mind the largest number of significant strikes landed by Jon Jones is during the Teixeira fight where Jones landed 138 of 236 sig strikes. To match this output fighters will need to get busy.
  • At the end of the round prepare for him to do something reckless like pull guard.
  • At the end of the fight he may rush an opponent into a brawl and force them to swing carelessly only to get a takedown.
  • To beat Jon Jones an opponent needs to beat him mentally and physically. If they neutralize his reach, disengage from the clinch and the cage and get up from the bottom this may take away his confidence.
  • Beware of, and exploit his unorthodox techniques. The problem with unorthodox techniques, and this is why I do not recommend them, is they can just as easily be a fighter’s downfall. Especially “spinning stuff,” like King Mo would say. When a fighter spins, they take their eyes from their opponent and may get caught with something they don't expect.
  • Make Jones pay for missing. Jon is pretty accurate with his strikes but his unorthodox strikes like the spinning kick to the head, and even his spinning elbows, usually miss their target. These are not high percentage moves. Press forward and attack when he misses as he is out of balance and unable to counterattack or defend. Opponents should keep tight form, though, and use their reach, as “Bones” usually escapes from trouble by going for underhooks and getting in the clinch.
  • I suggest fighters study the Carlos Condit blueprint in his fight vs Nick Diaz: sting like a bee, float like a butterfly. Avoid having their back against the cage and keep their distance in the center of the ring. Opponents need to find ways to collect points, cause damage and reach the final two rounds with their mobility intact and gas tank relatively full. This is easier said than done, of course, as opponents are facing an unorthodox and innovative fighter.
  • If fighters are trying to counter-punch Jon Jones they are losing the fight. Do not let him lead the pace. Make him miss, use footwork and initiate attacks. Remember, whenever his foot touches an opponent’s knee, he’s landed a strike. Start fighting for points instead of going for the knock out.

In the next post I will reveal what Jon’s go-to moves from the orthodox and southpaw stances, as his patterns are more predictable than opponents may think.

Fighting Jon Jones: neutralizing his ability to fight from a distance.

In this section, I will examine how to beat Jones’ reach advantage and his first line of defense, specifically:

  • His shooting stance (both hands down).
  • His oblique kicks.His sidekicks to the knee
  • His back kick vs a retreating opponent

I will conclude next time with:

  • His eye jab/palm to the face.
  • His double arm extending guard
  • Kicking tactics

and move on with clinch, boxing and counter wrestling tips.

Countering the shooting stance (both hands down)

Jon Jones’ shooting stance

Sometimes, during the first seconds of the first round, Jones will start moving on all fours in what seems to be a wrestling shooting stance. This is a way for Jon to play games with his opponent’s mind, close the distance without his opponent charging at him and possibly get a takedown.

To deal with this fighters should keep their distance. Do not try to punch his head as he will probably be able to grab a foot. Let’s examine a successful counter by Quinton Rampage Jackson:

UFC 135: Jones vs. Rampage

Quinton tries to touch Jones’ head, but Jon grabs a foot. Rampage sprawls and underhooks Jon’s left arm. As Jones stands up Quinton controls his head and lands a barely legal knee to the belly (mostly on Jon’s arm) and quickly gets double underhooks. (gif)

When Jon is in this mode opponents should avoid engaging him near the cage and try to disengage from the clinch as soon as they get the chance. More about Jon’s clinch in part 2.

Countering the sidekick to the knee

UFC 135: Jones vs Rampage

This is an unorthodox technique, originating from the art of Savate and/or Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. It is also common in some karate and kung fu styles. It works for Jones due to his reach advantage and, because sparring partners rarely use this attack, opponents are not familiar with it. (Tip for Jon Jones: Please try this)

When attacking with this kick is very easy to miss the target, so it is surprising how successful Jones has been at using it.

Just for fun, here is a counter shown to me by a Dutch Silat specialist more than 25 years ago:

As readers can see one way for a fighter to stop this kick is to lift their knee higher than the opponent and hit him with their own sidekick stopping him in midair. This works better for the taller fighter.

Now for a Muay Thai version. Notice in the gif below how puling the front foot back can make the kicker miss. A fast Thai-boxer should be able to land a right low kick to the kicking leg as it lands on the ground. And the kicker likely won’t be able to defend a follow up left kick should their opponent decide to attack with it.


To make up for my poor form in the video above here is kickboxing legend Rob Kaman. He is countering a teep kick but the concept is the same (video mirrored for orthodox):

It’s all in the footwork.

Here is Kaman again dealing with a side kick:

Rob “The Dutchman” Kaman

And to convince readers this works for MMA here is Gus:

UFC 165: Jones vs Gustafsson

In the sequence above Alex gets hit with the kick but is able to deliver his own right low kick when Jones’ foot lands on the ground.

UFC 165: Jones vs Gustafsson

And if all these seem too complicated, a fighter can just pull their foot back, as in the sequence above. A Thai stylist would just follow up with a left middle or high kick. Alex’s stance is loaded as this is in essence a kick-like switch. Please notice that in this version Jones kicks from the southpaw stance attacking with his back foot, thus telegraphing the move. Should an opponent go for a takedown, his balance also appears temporarily compromised.

Here a is a gif of the two sequences combined.

Jones’ speed and athleticism make countering him a difficult task. However Jones goes for this kick mostly from orthodox stance so opponents can anticipate it there.

Countering the oblique kick

UFC 135: Jones vs Rampage
The oblique kick

The oblique kick also targets an opponent’s knee and was made famous by Bruce Lee in his movie fight against Chuck Norris. It’s a good technique against a boxer but a powerful wrestler should be able to grab the foot and start driving for a takedown. Frankie Edgar would likely grab the foot and start running. From a Muay Thai perspective fighters can punish someone using this kick by kicking the supporting leg or the kicking leg or both. Again a pullback/switch of the front foot is important. Here is an example:

If an opponent goes lower and harder this can also happen:

Here is Gus using this same counter (gif):

UFC 165: Jones vs Gustafsson

The best counter though is for a fighter to attack the supporting leg with their right foot:

The problem with the oblique kick is that the supporting foot is in no position to absorb the low kick or block it. Unlike in the sequence above, if a fighter can time the oblique kick and hit the supporting leg at the same time they could potentially injure their opponent’s knee.

Let’s examine how Jones’ opponents dealt with this kick:

Gus again, this time with a right cross and a jab/hook hybrid (gif).

UFC 165: Jones vs Gustafsson

In the sequence below readers can see DC attacking with a jab, using it to close the distance and get the clinch. (gif)

UFC 182: Jones vs Cormier

Finally here is a counter to a similar kick by Rose "Thug" Namajunas:

Rose "Thug" Namajunas

In her fight against Michelle Waterson, Rose was hit with sidekicks to the knee several times. As she was pressing Waterson, the ‘Karate Hottie’ tried to go for a sidekick but Rose kept pressing with a jab and a cross while staying close to her blind side (photo 5). Then Namajunas attacked with a devastating right kick to the head. (gif) This was successful because Rose kept close and pressed towards Michelle’s back. When a side kick is launched the fighter turns his side to his/her opponent and is vulnerable to roundhouse kicks and hooks.

In conclusion there are several ways to counter this kick. The main reason Jones is so successful with these kicks is due to the fact that most MMA fighters fight with 60% weight on the front foot so that they can be low enough to sprawl, get underhooks or shoot for takedowns. I plan to elaborate in a future post, but this stance makes it difficult to check kicks with the front foot, limits the mobility of the jab, affects the power or the right cross and opens up the snatch single leg takedown.

Countering Jones’ back kick against a retreating opponent

If an opponent is running backwards towards his right side, with their back against the cage and Jones is in a southpaw stance they can be sure he will attack with a left foot spinning back kick. This is a predictable pattern. In photos 1-3 it happened vs Gus, in photos 3-6 it’s Gus again and in 7-12 Rashad made him miss and went for an unsuccessful takedown. There are so many clips of this happening again and again that I am pretty sure someone will be able to exploit this in the following fashion:

Start moving backwards. The moment an opponent notices that Jones is about to start spinning, start moving the other direction. Try to low kick the supporting leg or land a left hook to his face starting the trajectory of the punch low, behind his shoulder so Jon does not see it coming. Beware of spinning elbows though. Takedowns are also an option but Jones is exceptionally hard to take down. The right kick used by Rose Namajunas against the low sidekick is also not a bad idea.

Take a look at OSP’s counter (gif) and Rashad’s counter (gif)

Predictable patterns like these need to be exploited consistently in order for a fighter to have a chance of defeating Jon Jones.

End of part one.

Thank you for your time. Trying to dissect the game of the most complex fighter in the world is no easy task. I have to admit all of these suggested techniques are easier said than applied, especially when elbows land in your face. Come back part two as I will focus on countering Jones’ low kicks, his clinch game and his boxing style.

Additional articles: Part two available here!

More on MMA Specific Techniques

About the Author: Kostas Fantaousakis is a researcher of fighting concepts, tactics, and techniques, and a state certified MMA, grappling, and wrestling coach in Greece. He teaches his unique Speedforce MMA mittwork system which combines strikes, takedowns, knees, and elbows applied in the continuous feedback mittwork system of the Mayweather family. Kostas is a brown belt in BJJ under MMA veteran and BJJ world champion Wander Braga (the teacher of Gabriel Napao Gonzaga).

Follow Kostas on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kostasfant and search for #fantmoves

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