A technical examination of the brilliant games of Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier and how they led to the finish at UFC 214.
It is perhaps fitting that the rematch between two of mixed martial arts’ best-ever competitors would be contested on completely different terms to their original meeting. At UFC 182, Jon Jones largely outworked Daniel Cormier in a grueling 25-minute clinch battle for the ages, with each man digging far into two of the sport’s deepest bags of tricks. At UFC 214, Cormier, Olympic wrestler, not only refused to initiate prolonged clinch exchanges, but actively avoided them, breaking the clinch and circling out on several occasions against the much taller, lankier challenger.
From the opening bell, however, Jones was impeccably prepared for a ranged kickboxing match. He stormed out of the gate with purpose, displaying some of his cleanest combination work to date.
Opening with a switch-low kick from orthodox which left him in a southpaw stance, he immediately threw a right-left hook combination. As Cormier raised his hands, Jones dug a front kick into the shorter man’s body. This early work to the body and legs was pivotal to Jones’ victory in their first meeting, the sort of strikes which left Cormier the much more fatigued man down the stretch.
Cormier’s adjustments for the rematch were immediately apparent. Kicks were checked, or outright caught, but it was done with a much greater sense of certainty. Where he previously seemed almost desperate to avoid Jones’ kicking range, forcing a frantic fight and battling his way into the clinch, he now stood calmly, more prepared to deal directly with these threats than simply absorb other strikes in order to avoid kicks entirely.
One of Cormier’s greatest weapons throughout his career – and the first Jones matchup especially – has been his use of the left collar tie, from which he leverages his hand speed into blistering right uppercuts. This strategy, effective as it was in short bursts at UFC 182, resulted in extended clinch battles that Cormier, in the long term, simply could not win.
As uppercuts landed, the Olympian absorbed strikes and invited positional battles that, given enough time, Jones was able to take advantage of. Consistently banking attritive shots to the body in these positions, ‘Bones’ eventually isolated Cormier’s right wrist, controlling it with a vice grip; a tactic that paid dividends deep into the fight. As Cormier struggled to enact any significant offense, Jones would tire him further with knees and punches to the body, taking advantage of clinch breaks to land elbows.
Just fifteen seconds into their rematch, Cormier showed flashes of those exact uppercuts, but with a twist; what once formed the cornerstone of a strategy was now a situational tactic. When Jones leaned forward with a straight left, the then-champion slipped it, grabbing the collar tie and unleashing a burst of rising right punches before quickly disengaging. Though he had not abandoned his greatest weapon, it had become a tool to enable his ranged kickboxing, rather than the endgame of a clinch-centric approach.
Throughout the bout, Cormier showed that, while he may not be able to match Jones in the clinch, nor would Jones keep him in that position with any real consistency. For his part, Bones didn’t seem to care.
The pace of the striking exchanges was hellacious. Lanky legs flew out in all directions, digging into Cormier’s knee, thigh, and body, each one chosen with the craft of an unparalleled fighting mind.
Far from inactive in neutral space, Cormier was crafty with his shot selection, baiting Jones by smothering his lead hand before unexpectedly digging a low kick into the challenger’s leg. He was, in his own right, tactically superb, but he could not match his foe’s sheer volume.
In the closing minute of the first round, Cormier’s methodical pressure seemed to pay off. A right body kick along the fence forced Jones to circle left, directly into a hook from Cormier, and another from the opposite side. As Jones clinched, Cormier dug a stinging knee into his body and stepped back into range. A jab and a rhythm-breaking cross, along with some low kicks, proved fruitful for the champion as the seconds ticked down. But, Jones’ consistent volume was too much. Though the momentum was his, the round was not. All three judges scored the stanza for the challenger.
In the second round, observers saw DC further employ a tactic that he has historically eschewed: counter-striking. Never a forte of his, the dynamic of the first fight was such that he had little space for neutral counters, as he pressed ferociously forward to close the distance between himself and Jones. Though aggressive counter-striking would likely have served him well at UFC 182, it was not a skill he had really displayed before. At UFC 214, the dynamic was weighed more towards neutral exchanges, with each man more content to trade.
Cormier’s best work on the counter came in the form of lean-out uppercuts to the body, and low kicks as Jones planted his weight forward to punch. Confidence was also a factor here; rather than commit to strikes only when Jones was resetting or off-balanced, as Cormier largely had in the first fight, he was far more prepared to react to his opponent’s offense.
It was in this round that the challenger really tried to force the clinch, but Cormier did an admirable job of minimizing damage and quickly disengaging.
Pace was yet again on Jones’ side in round 2, but he absorbed the cleaner strikes throughout. Two of three ringside judges awarded the round to Cormier. Round-to-round success is but a single element in the broader scope of a fight, however. What the third, and final, round proved was that the fight had, from the beginning, been going in Jones’ favor.
Jones came out firing hooks to the body and continued his barrage of low kicks, but Cormier’s offense was clearly less pronounced than in previous rounds. The reason for this was that the opportunities from which his offense had been initiated were no longer there. When Jones kicked low, he was ready to smother both hands in preparation for the inevitable oncoming hook. The long crosses that Cormier was anticipating stopped coming as predictably as they had before. Instead, Jones was hooking without leaning in quite as heavily, prepared to slip to the outside of Cormier’s counters.
Figured out by the longer man, tiring, and with his reactive offense all but sealed, the champion was unable to create his own opportunities for attack. His output became more desperate, as he swung wide and slipped counters which never came. He continued to pressure forward, but was unable to force Jones into the fence. As this new dynamic continued, his reactions became less offensive, and more defensive. There was a marked difference between the second round, in which Cormier was reading and reacting in search of openings, and the third round, in which he found himself attempting to ward off Jones’ own offense more and more.
The most telling sequence of the bout was in its closing moments. Jones backed up behind the Octagon’s black lines in order to avoid punches from Cormier. As he circled off the cage, he easily avoided the intercepting hooks which had previously landed flush. Circling back to range, he effortlessly stepped backwards, out of the way of two more whiffed punches, again behind the black lines. And this time, he punished Cormier for his predictability.
As the champion stepped forward in pursuit, he saw Jones’ left leg sailing through the air, and braced for a body kick which, again, never came. Instead, shin crashed dizzyingly into skull as DC leaned into the ferocious blow. He stumbled helplessly across the cage, struggling valiantly to maintain consciousness, but as with many great warriors, his body failed him before his spirit.
Savage follow-up punches on the ground left the now-former champion face down, motionless, as the greatest fighter in the sport’s history raised his arms with a victorious grin.
It was a dazzling, multi-plane kickboxing battle between two of the sport’s best tacticians. But, in the war of adjustments, Jones is beyond reproach. With each passing round, as has been the case throughout his career, his ability to instantaneously make optimal decisions bolstered his offense more and more, as his opponent faded not just physically, but technically as well.
The attritive nature of Jones’ attack often leaves his opponents so tired that his success down the stretch can be mis-attributed to pace alone. Even if Cormier were perfectly fresh in that third round, his repertoire of techniques was exhausted.
Jon Jones is a man who destroys bodies, but he is also a man who destroys tactics, tendencies, and habits. The latter, more so than the former, was Daniel Cormier’s undoing.