Analyzing the progression of the greatest of all time from top position specialist, to clinch specialist, to kickboxer
The tale of Jon Jones is as tragic as it is enrapturing. Unrivalled talent and an inescapable capacity for self-sabotage, inseparably merged into the vessel of perhaps the greatest martial artist ever to step into an Octagon. Wherever Jones goes, whatever he does, he cannot help but raise questions. The only area in which he was ever undeniable was within the confines of steel. There, he was completely without parallel, and may remain so indefinitely.
It may take many years before the final chapter is written on Jon Jones, the man. But Jon Jones, the fighter is, and has always been, unthinkably great. Through every stage of his progression, he has exceeded expectations to incredible degrees. Setting aside his life outside of the Octagon, which may, admittedly, come to be intrinsically linked to his successes, here are three performances that showcase the development of the frustrating, but brilliant, ‘Jonny Bones.’
Jon Jones vs. Mauricio Rua, UFC 128 – March 19, 2011
When Jones first challenged for the UFC light heavyweight championship, he was 23 years old, and less than three years into his professional MMA career. In a way, it was senseless. Jones was incredibly gifted, but nowhere close to his technical peak. No fighter ever could be at such a point in their career, especially when accepting a world championship fight just six weeks after their previous bout. Still, few counted him out, his talent was simply that great. As it so happened, he was more than prepared.
As the bout began, a knee immediately crashed into Rua’s chin. The Brazilian initiated a clinch, but it was quickly broken. A highkick came, and Shogun went on the offensive, but his right hook was caught and he was flung effortlessly to the ground.
In Jones’ early days he did his best work from top position. He possessed an innate sense for leverage that allowed him to easily control opponents. Even more impressive was his sense for finding openings for strikes. Punches and, especially, elbows rained down on opponents unfortunate enough to end up underneath him. Shogun was no exception.
Rua fought to his feet, but rather than consolidate top position, Jones bombarded him with knees as he stood. A left hook wobbled him, and Jones backed off under the threat of return fire. The challenger was by no means a confident striker. At least, not yet.
Early in the second round, Rua was clinched against the fence. A back elbow spun and smashed into his face. They reset, and Jones probed with low kicks and body punches. The future champion achieved very little from range throughout this bout, but he didn’t need to. Exhaustion was already beginning to set in on the face of Shogun, from both the severe damage sustained and the brutal body attack. Even if he were fresh, range and pace were more than enough to give Jones the advantage standing. Even though he was not a particularly skilled striker, as would be expected of a man with such little experience in the art, he was certainly an intelligent one.
Halfway through the round, a caught leg kick found Shogun on bottom again. Elbows and a suffocating forearm frame seemed to sap the then-champion of his will to fight.
An ill-advised leg lock attempt in the third, and Rua was underneath Jones one more time. The last time. A right elbow, then several lefts, signaled the beginning of the end. A left hook to the body and one final knee later, Jon Jones was the youngest champion in UFC history. And it was never even a challenge.
Jon Jones vs. Glover Teixeira, UFC 172 – April 26th, 2014
Jones, especially present-day, is an excellent fighter in all phases. But, where he truly excels is the in-fight. There, he is the greatest clinch fighter of all time, almost inarguably. There are many fights within Jones’ first title reign which could serve as proof of this, but his 2014 showdown with Glover Teixeira was his most vicious display of in-fighting, and the first to show the terror of his abilities in this phase.
Early, Teixeira landed a sharp right hand as Jones threw a body kick. The challenger walked the champion down, swinging leather all the while. Texeira was – and is – a dangerous power puncher, and this skill set was the only one that really offered much of a threat to Jones.
The greatest fighting minds use tactical adjustments to deny opponents their most dangerous weapons. This can be accomplished in many ways. Using footwork to avoid angles for attack, or circling out of the path of a power striker’s dominant side are standard examples, and generally these adjustments are defensive. Jones, the greatest fighting mind of them all, looked to deny Teixeira’s most dangerous weapons in a much more direct way.
Around a minute into the fight, Teixeira caught a kick, and pushed Jones to the fence, where the champion immediately clutched a right overhook. A moment later, he locked his hands and torqued upwards against the Brazilian’s right elbow. The Brazilian’s entire body jolted – perhaps in pain or perhaps out of surprise – as Jones torqued it one more time before Teixeira quickly freed his arm. It was an unusual technique, but the intent was obvious, and as barbaric as it was beautiful. Mangle the arm, and you remove its threat entirely.
Teixeira landed several more right hands from range early in the fight, but offense always serves as information. Give the champion enough looks at a technique and it will stop working against him. This early assessment stage was crucial, for it would allow Jones to enter the range in which Teixeira is most dangerous, and completely dismantle him there.
Teixeira had some feints in his arsenal, but he threw punches exclusively at one speed. By the midway point of the second round, Jones was confidently stepping into the pocket with elbows, rarely absorbing return fire. By the end of the round, he was backing the challenger into the fence, throwing shoulder strikes while controlling the right wrist and again attempting to torque the elbow. In between rounds, Teixeira asked his corner to ice his right arm.
In the third, Bones shot for a double leg, and used it to push Teixeira into the fence. This time, he ate several hard right uppercuts, Teixeira’s most significant strikes of the fight, and he quickly disengaged.
Soon after, the Brazilian’s back was against the fence once again, and he was throwing more uppercuts. But, this time they were missing the mark. Jones leaned in tight to close the space necessary for Teixeira to land those punches and – as he leaned out to attack – Jones would overhook Teixeira’s right arm, or control the wrist. This included a subtle adjustment where, instead of controlling the right wrist down by his opponent’s waist, he’d grip the wrist and hold it at chest-level. This allowed him to more quickly throw left elbows over the top, of which he landed several. This also gave him a clearer path for knees to the thigh, and allowed him to lean into his right side as Glover’s weight was more compressed.
On the break, a left hook collided with the challenger’s head, as Jones sailed effortlessly out of the path of another uppercut. With seconds left in the round, Jones landed several uppercuts of his own, snapping his foe’s head back and battering his body. Everything was starting to come together. And in the opposing corner, everything was starting to fall apart.
In the final two rounds, Teixeira was barely capable of landing clean strikes. Jones ducked and dodged as hooks and uppercuts flew by. His elbows slashed, his knees thudded, and his fists crashed against the body of the challenger as he exerted his dominance.
In between the fourth and fifth rounds, Teixeira solemnly muttered “I’m sorry” to his corner. He had absolutely nothing to apologize for, but the sentiment was understandable.
Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier II, UFC 214 – July 29th, 2017
In their first fight, Jones completely shut down Daniel Cormier, two-time Olympic wrestler, in the clinch. In their second fight, he showcased the latest developments in a striking arsenal that functioned not just as a cohesive part of a broader skill set, but one that was terrifying all on its own. Cormier was intimately prepared for a kickboxing match, but his striking game was shut down in much the same way his clinch game had been: through information gathering, tactical adjustments, and patience. Simply put, he was figured out. Again.
Previously, Jones had preferred to be either all the way in or all the way out. With his gargantuan wingspan and ingenious strike selection, his punching game was geared towards keeping opponents on the outside, but it was secondary in this capacity to his kicking game. While never the most fluid or technical of punchers, he had always been an incredibly swift kicker, relying primarily on whipping straight kicks to force opponents back.
His success on the feet could historically be attributed more to his impeccable shot selection and broader game-planning than any technical wizardry. In his early career, he preferred to disengage entirely when an opponent entered his punching range – such as against Shogun. However, at UFC 214, Jon Jones proved that he can box.
In his second fight with Cormier, his comfort in punching range allowed him to strike confidently, before narrowly slipping out of the way of return fire. The ability of a fighter to utilize their reach is a difficult skill to master, carrying many risks. Middleweight great Anderson Silva was frequently able to land strikes from the outside with even a marginal reach advantage, confident that his opponent’s strikes would fall just short.
Jones, by comparison, had in the past preferred to keep his opponents well outside of striking distance. Now, by utilizing head and trunk movement to negate offense while initiating his own attack, he could better exploit offensive openings.
From the opening bell, salvos of hooks and straight punches blasted toward Cormier. Spending more time than usual in orthodox stance, left hooks crashed into Cormier’s liver, and lead right hands went repeatedly unpunished, indicating a tight grasp of his opponent’s timing.
But, towards the end of the first round, Jones made his first major blunder. As Cormier threw a right hook to the body, Jones deftly stepped out of the way at an angle, placing his back perilously close to the fence. He was uncharacteristically slow to reset, and Cormier capitalized.
Stepping diagonally, Cormier positioned himself in front of Jones and backed him up with a right round kick and a pawing right hand, which sent the challenger circling into a left hook. Before he could readjust, a right hook came over the top and landed flush.
Jones clinched and circled out, breaking Cormier’s underhooks before resetting, but these minor errors showed the depth of the striking match at hand; both men were fighting with composure and purpose, while each strike thrown served as another piece of information to be assimilated.
The round was clearly Jones’, but a jab and delayed right hand closed the round strong for DC. In the second, he continued to mount momentum.
A straight battle of low kicks with Jon Jones is an ill-advised tactic, but Cormier made it work by using his low kicks to set up combinations with more consistency than his opponent. Jones’ straight, snappy kicks are more difficult to chain together than Cormier’s round kicks, and it was the moments after kicks were exchanged when the champion seemed to have the advantage.
Cormier’s best adjustment in round two came in his responses to Jones’ hand-fighting. He had been somewhat lackadaisical when Jones smothered his hands – as Jones often does against opponents – allowing Jones ample opportunities to time step-in elbows and swaying hooks. This time, however, Cormier was quicker to initiate the attack himself. As was a recurring theme in the fight, his ability to follow strikes with combinations before Jones could reset was a huge part of his success. This success was likely enough to secure the second round, but his momentum would quickly disperse.
From the start of the third round onward, the openings that Cormier exploited – and created – simply were no longer there. Jones smothered both of his hands, fully expecting Cormier to initiate offense quickly, and slipped backwards out of the way of a left hook, before returning fire with a jab-cross. He threw more round kicks to the legs and body to compliment his snap kicks, and began following kicks with jabs and left hooks more often.
Less than one minute into the round, Cormier was wading forward, eating strikes simply to close the distance. It was not sustainable, but he was out of options.
He attempted to punish Jones’ left hooks to the body with overhand rights, finding nothing but air. He tried to kick low to set up punches, but was checked or evaded. Towards the halfway mark of the round, the champion was covering up every time his foe stepped in, and was landing little of anything. Realizing that initiative was fundamentally necessary for victory, he began charging forward even more aggressively. Not long after, he braced to block a body kick as Jones’ shin instead collided with his skull.
A series of brutal punches left Cormier motionless and Jones was, briefly, the light heavyweight champion once again.
Lambasted as he may rightfully be for his decisions outside of the cage, Jon Jones’ performances in the Octagon are those of a virtuoso; an unrivalled fighting mind, a genius of the sort we have never before seen, and may never see again.