Since his UFC debut in 2008, Jon Jones has never strayed far from the headlines. His electric rise to the title, crushing of legend after legend in his early title defenses, inability to stay out of legal trouble, and vitriolic rivalry with Daniel Cormier have all been well documented. But, through all that, less energy has been given to breaking down exactly why Jon Jones is so successful—with most commentators focusing on specific facets of his game in isolation.
His absurd physical proportions, his Greco Roman wrestling background, and his creativity and fight IQ are often mentioned as contributing factors, but how those elements of skill set, physicality, and psychology combine to make him the most dominant LHW in history has rarely been rigorously broken down. That analysis is what this series will seek to do.
The first part will break down Jones’s early UFC game focusing on his wrestling, the second part will discuss how his striking developed and what he does well. The third part will look at some of his deficiencies, and examine how some of the core motifs of his game manifest in other combat sports.
Rise of a Wrestler
Jones came to the UFC with a 6-0 record made up of mostly quick victories on the New England regional scene. His first opponent in the Octagon was 5-0 Andre Gusmao, a well rounded (for the time) Renzo Gracie product also making his UFC debut. Gusmao had fought mostly in the IFL, against somewhat better competition than Jones had yet seen, and was expected to be a tough test. Jones looked incredibly raw in the fight, but some glimmers of his future style were there.
Jones has a preternatural feel for his positioning in the cage and especially for his effective striking range. He has always been adept at subtly pressuring his opponents towards the fence and then staying at the end of his own huge range, all while using good lateral movement to prevent them circling out. What he does with that advantageous position has changed over the course of his career, but fans can already see him pressuring and cutting off movement against Gusmao:
Jones spent a lot of this fight at range, being very tentative in his efforts to close the distance. When he did get the clinch, however, UFC fans got their first look at the sort of spectacular technique that would comprise the highlight reel of Jones’ run to the belt:
As Mike Goldberg would remind us ad nauseum, Jones was a nationally competitive Greco-Roman wrestler—and watching him hit big moves like this you can see why. However, a lot of what Jones did in the clinch in his early fights is less representative of Greco-Roman specifically than it is of a freestyle, or American folkstyle, wrestler who simply likes to go upper body. Jones uses his feet to finish many of his throws in ways that are reminiscent of Judo and would be illegal under Greco-Roman rules. Greco-Roman positioning also generally dictates having your hips in very close. Whereas, even from his early days in the UFC, Jones preferred ties with his hips farther back—both to keep him safe from opponents changing levels to attack his legs, as well as opening up space to throw knees.
So why has Jones developed a wrestling style that relies a lot on upper body attacks? The reasons are twofold: first is his length. The ability of a competitor to connect their hands is extremely important for throwing people in wrestling, and Jones can connect his hands from almost any position because his arms are so long. This shows up in his clinching (e.g. how he can connect his hands and throw his hips back without losing control), whereas his opponents’ grips are usually broken when he creates that space and arches his back. (Viewers can also see Jones frequently connect his hands under his opponents’ hips against the cage even if they have underhooks.)
The other reason Jones prefers to go upper body might sound surprising given the standard perception of Jones as an athletic freak along the lines of his two NFL football playing brothers: he doesn’t change levels that well. Jones is actually quite slow at entering for shots, and often when he does so in the cage he ducks for his opponents’ hips rather than executing a true level change and covering the distance. The few successful shots Jones has completed in space tend to be against opponents lunging in—like in the Matyushenko fight, for example. Jones operates far more effectively with his upper body and front headlock game (the snap down complements his wickedly dangerous guillotine perfectly) than when he tries to enter in more traditional fashion on single and double legs.
No fight exemplifies the best of Jones’s early career wrestling-heavy approach than the masterclass he put on Ultimate Fighter Season 1 standout Stephen Bonnar.
It would be hard to craft an opponent more likely to show off the strengths of a young Jon Jones than the ‘American Psycho.’ While always a tough as nails brawler, Bonnar’s come forward at all costs style obviated one of Jones’s biggest weaknesses: his lack of safe offensive clinch entries. Essentially, Jones got to spend the whole fight intercepting Bonnar in the clinch as he leapt from the outside of Jones’s striking range to try and enter the pocket. Once caught in the clinch Bonnar would try to muscle the young contender around, which merely gave Jones more momentum to work with. The result was a series of spectacular throws like this:
Still, for all his wrestling dominance, Jones’s first two wins in the UFC were decisions. It wasn’t until he started adding a ground game that the highlights from his fights went from being picturesque throws to brutal finishes. As with his wrestling, and later his striking, Jones’s ground game coalesced around his length. While not often thought of as a great submission artist, ‘Bones’’s front headlock game is extremely dangerous. The theme of connecting hands is relevant here too, as Jones’s extraordinary length allows him to enter into guillotines and get his hands clasped in positions where fighters would not normally be in serious danger. For example, a knee shield half guard, as in the Bader fight.
Complementing that front headlock game is Jones’s uniquely dangerous ground and pound. Once again, length plays a role here, allowing Jones to grip wrists and fold over into lethal elbows from longer range than most opponents have ever seen. The most famous (and gruesome) example of this is his fight with Brandon Vera.
In addition to being brutal, Jones’s ground and pound is also very creative. His finish of Vladimir Matyushenko, for instance, saw Jones using some deft leg work to isolate an arm—opening The Janitor up for a heaping serving of elbows with no possibility for defense.
In the first several fights of his UFC career Jones showed tremendous wrestling, adding a dangerous mix of submission threats and ground and pound on the mat. That alone was enough to put him in serious contention, as he ran through Jake O’Brien, Matt Hamill (DQ loss notwithstanding), and finally fellow up and comer Ryan Bader.
But what about Jones’s striking? To put it bluntly, until the Bader fight he didn’t seem to have much of it. His predilection for ‘spinning shit’ was there from the beginning, and he was always a creative if unschooled kicker. His punching form was, however, atrocious—showing the same winging elbows and tendency to throw himself out of stance and off balance that continue to plague him in spots to this day. His defensive instincts were little better, mostly retreating in straight lines and ducking reflexively into clinches when an opponent did try to leap over the gap. There were bright spots in his development as well, though, mostly coming after he joined the Jackson-Winklejohn camp—following his win over O’Brien. He used more feinting and his striking form looked much improved vs Bader, but it wasn’t until his title fight with ‘Shogun’ that we started to see how dangerous a mature, well-rounded Jones was going to be.
Stay tuned for part two of Elements of Dominance: The technical game of Jon Jones, which will examine how Jones’ striking game evolved over his initial championship run—from his title claiming victory over Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua in 2011, until his 2015 defense against Daniel Cormier.