The first part of this series examined Jones’s early career, wrestling-heavy, approach and started to touch on how his length affected the development of his style. This second portion will delve deep into how Jones built a game around his characteristic reach advantage, and assumption of clinch superiority. As well as looking at the creativity of his kicking game and ability to use all these things to suffocate his opponents’ offense.
There are many words that could reasonably be used to describe Jon Jones’ striking: ‘dangerous,’ ‘disjointed,’ ‘unconventional,’ or ‘creative’ all come quickly to mind. But, the word that best describes what Jones does in the cage is ‘effective.’ The Jackson-Wink talent is a singularly inventive striker. But, as is often the case with those who build their styles as an amalgamation of techniques – rather than concentrating on mastering a single discipline like boxing or Muay Thai – there are significant holes in Bones’s game.
Whereas most accomplished strikers have well defined games in every range (kicking, boxing, clinch), Jones has instead built his game around excellence in kicking and clinching ranges. He then uses his unique physical gifts and technical repertoire to all-but-eliminate time spent in boxing range. This is not to say Jones doesn’t punch, but he has essentially no functional boxing game to speak of. Part three of this series will expand on what that means, however, for now let’s concentrate on the things Jones does very well—and how he masks the flaws in his game to be as effective as he has been over his long title reign.
Jones didn’t show a lot of development in his striking game prior to his fight with Ryan Bader. That’s at least partially a result of the fact that he beat several of his prior opponents (Vera and Matyushenko) very quickly and brutally on the ground. In his fight against ‘Darth,’ ‘Bones’ started to reveal some of what he’d been honing at Jackson-Wink. Namely, he showed more diversity in his kicking arsenal. And, while he didn’t often throw in combination, he threw a lot more punches. In this fight, Jones seemed more aware of his insane range advantage, and stayed at the end of that range—forcing Bader to take risks to close the gap.
It was in his title fight with Shogun, however, where fans first got to see the future all-time great working on the feet for an extended period of time, against an accomplished MMA striker. What Jones showed in that fight was a strange-but-cohesive game designed around a few key elements: a great deal of feinting and pot-shotting using relatively safe, non-committal moves from outside his opponent’s range; unconventional strike selection (oblique kicks, spinning elbows) to keep his opponent guessing; footwork designed not to take angles, but instead to maintain long distance at all times, even when pressuring; and the ability to quickly collapse the pocket and enter the clinch when his frustrated opponents finally mustered up the courage to jump over the distance between him and themselves.
Once in the clinch, Jones showed less proclivity to immediately hit a big move, instead preferring to land knees, elbows, and short punches racking up points and damage.
The overall effect of this strategy on Shogun was to frustrate him into inaction. Almost every time Rua was able to figure out a way around Jones’s kicks he found himself eating knees in the clinch. Eventually Shogun started pulling guard looking for leg locks, which had no effect—other than to make him easy prey for Bones’s elbows on the ground.
Jones didn’t spend the whole fight moving backwards either. On several occasions, he showed the same pressuring footwork up against the cage seen in his early career. Only now the strikes coming against his cornered opponents were much sharper. And rather than falling into a clinch automatically, Bones maintained range to continue striking.
These early title fights saw Jones mixing his wrestling in with his kickboxing very effectively. However, over the peak of his career thus far (lasting, in my estimation, from his title win against Shogun through the first Daniel Cormier fight) a shift can be seen towards more and more striking. Jones finished Rua, Belfort, Jackson, and Sonnen on the mat, while going to decision against Gustaffson, Cormier, and Texeira. Of course the opponents had a lot to do with how those fights played out, but Jones also began playing an increasingly risk averse game. He began relying on his kicking to score and win rounds, and started treating the clinch as a ‘safe zone’—emphasizing wrist control over damaging his opponents.
The hosts of the Heavy Hands podcast, Connor Ruebusch & Phil MacKenzie, have discussed on numerous occasions how long-time champions’ styles become more conservative as their mindset shifts from chasing the belt to holding onto it. That alteration is evident in Jones’s changing approach to MMA. His long relationship with coaches Greg Jackson & Mike Winklejohn likely drove his stylistic evolution as well. Listening to their corner advice between rounds is fascinating. Jackson plays the “find your waterfall” zen master, while Winklejohn focuses on the technical side of managing the fight—telling Bones repeatedly to maintain kicking range, let his opponent’s punches fall short, and then attack.
Jones is perhaps the most creative kicker and arguably the greatest clinch fighter in MMA history. He’s used those skill sets, along with his extreme reach advantage, to frustrate opponent after opponent—kicking them at ranges from which they can’t touch him, and shutting down their offense with his clinch as soon as they try to close. He’s one of the best at going to the body in the UFC, and he’s a savage finisher on the canvas.
But all that asks the question: What happens when fighters can force Jones into boxing range? If opponents are able to get past his kicks and also deny him the clinch, what other layers to his defensive game exist? The answer lies in a pair of the most celebrated title fights in MMA history: Jon Jones’s first fights with Alexander Gustaffson and Daniel Cormier.
The third installment in this series will focus on the holes in Jones’ game and the sort of opponents who might be primed to exploit those weaknesses. That, and how the champion’s style relates strategically to Muay Thai and boxing, will be the subject of this final technical article on the game of one of the UFC’s most dominating fighters.