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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 232’s Jon Jones

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Legendarily dominant former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight kingpin, Jon Jones, will battle with knockout artist, Alexander Gustafsson this Saturday (Dec. 29, 2018) at UFC 232 inside The Forum in Inglewood, California.

If I’m bored writing Jon Jones recap introductions, I can only imagine how boring it is to continually read them. For years now, every article about Jones must compare the contradictory nature of his excellent performances inside the cage opposite the absolute idiocy outside of the Octagon. As Jones returns from another drug test failure to fight for the title as a heavy favorite, there’s nothing new to say.

Let’s not waste time and instead analyze what makes Jones such a special fighter:

Striking

Jones packs one of the most diverse arsenals in the sport, but his game can generally be pretty easily sorted into three ranges. Jones operates as much as possible from the kicking and clinch range, only choosing to operate from the pocket when he feels in complete control or when an opponent is able to force him into that distance (rarely).

Almost all of Jones’ attacks capitalize on his significant height and reach advantage. Jones puts that edge to fantastic use by battering his opponent from the outside. Jones is a man with fantastic kicks who’s entirely unconcerned about the possibility of having his kick caught and being forced to wrestle or clinch.

In fact, he invites takedown and clinch attempts, as he thrives there.

Early on, Jones goes to work with his kicks and refuses to allow him opponent time to find their rhythm or range. It’s very difficult to defend against Jones’ offense from this range, as he simply attacks with so many different techniques. Plus, Jones’ opponent is usually too far away to effectively fight back. Many of his kicks are to the legs and body, which are effective at slowing his foe and causing him to hesitate (GIF). In addition, these kicks are often some type of linear kick, driving straight into the body or leg regardless of whether it’s preceded by a spin or stance switch or shift sideways. Linear kicks are much more difficult to catch than round kicks, as the defense to linear kicks is footwork — hardly an asset for most big men of 205 lbs.

To this day, Jones’ most devastating use of oblique kicks came against “Rampage” Jackson (GIF). Jones dismantled his power punching opponent completely. By the third round, Jackson was barely throwing with any power and could do little to stop his opponent’s takedowns.

That fight is something of an exception, as generally fighters are not completely broken apart by the kicks. More often, Jones’ kicks cause opponents to stop trying. Walking into kicks makes them hurt much more, meaning it’s easier to simply hang back and accept the loss then continue getting your knees or liver stomped. Against Ovince Saint Preux, for example, Jones never needed to do much else than kick from range to win (GIF).

On the feet, Alexander Gustafsson was the only man to ever find consistent success with Jones. While he did occasionally trade kicks with “Bones,” Gustafsson did most of his work from the boxing range, an area in which the Swede has more experience than his similarly lanky foe. While that fight showed some holes in Jones’ pure boxing skill, it’s not exactly a weak area, either. Like many Jackson-Wink fighters, Jones likes to pick his shots with short combinations rather than engage in longer exchanges. To set up his punches, Jones feints well and usually takes the initiative to close the distance himself rather than wait for his opponent to get inside (GIF).

In his most recent fight opposite Cormier, Jones fought a very smart outside game. It was many of his usual tricks — lots of kicks at range as well as plenty of Southpaw crosses — but with an additional focus on body shots. The success of those body strikes was twofold: Cormier’s early boxing success was waning as the body shots added up, and all the body work caused Cormier to reach down when a high kick soared into his jaw (GIF).

Against a shorter opponent than himself in the boxing range, Jones is much more comfortable. Often, Jones will extend his arms and hand fight with his opponent, or even literally place his palm on their forehead. While it gets him in trouble with eye pokes, it’s nonetheless an effective way for Jones to gauge his distance, maintain range, and even attack.

For example, Jones loves to reach out and grab one of his opponent’s wrists. Since he’s controlling one of his opponent’s arms, he only really has to be wary of their free hand. At any point, Jones can pull his opponent forward and fold his arm over to land a hard elbow (GIF).

Finally, Jones is a terrific clinch fighter. While that close range can be a disadvantage for some lanky athletes, Jones makes full use of his length to leverage takedowns and create offensive opportunities. From that distance, Jones makes great use of elbows. He’s frequently slicing at his opponent with short, Muay Thai elbows from the collar tie. In addition, Jones will break the clinch with a spinning back elbow, which has been a very effective weapon for him.

Besides hand fighting, one of the smaller details that Jones has mastered is head position. Against Glover Teixeira especially, Jones almost always had his forehead or the top of his head underneath his opponent’s jaw. This allowed him to pressure forward and ensure that he was the one landing damaging strikes and exhausting his foe (GIF).

In his first bout with Cormier, Jones willingly worked from the clinch for much of the fight. Though he took some shots — which is far more likely at that distance, simply because it’s harder to miss — Jones also went work with his elbows strikes and wore his opponent out from the grueling clinch battle (GIF).

Wrestling

A high school state and junior college champion, Jones has some of the best mixed martial arts (MMA) wrestling in the sport. He makes full use of his physical gifts, attacking with Greco-Roman and Judo takedowns from the clinch or shooting along the fence.

Many tall fighters have difficulty getting low enough to get in on their opponents’ hips, but Jones is usually able to get in deep on his shot. Not only does Jones’ dangerous striking thoroughly distract his opponent, his kicks often force his opponent to stand a bit straighter.

Jones has a powerful double-leg takedown that he likes to finish against the fence. In an impressive example, Jones threatened Lyoto Machida with an inside trip and turned it into a double leg when Machida defended. With his opponent pinned along the fence and his hands clasped, Jones wrenched Machida away from the fence and onto the mat with his entire body (GIF).

For the most part, Jones’ takedowns opposite Cormier came via the double leg against the fence. When a lanky and skilled wrestler like Jones gets in on the hips and locks his hands, there’s really no clear defense, Olympian or no (GIF). On the whole, Jones has been shooting against the fence a lot more recently. Since his clinch game is now more focused on striking, it makes sense that his opponents are covering up and leaving their hips open more often.

Jones will also utilize an outside single leg on occasion, and he transitions between the two takedowns well (GIF). After isolating one leg and getting his head on the outside, Jones will slide his inside arm up to his opponents head. From this position, Jones can apply extra pressure to turn his opponent while executing a dump or even a trip.

Jones’ use of leverage from the clinch is outstanding. It’s no longer his go-to strategy, but he historically has been able to manhandle opponents with Greco-Roman techniques, such as the suplex and lateral drop. Plus, he mixes in swift trips and foot sweeps (GIF). As he often does with his double leg finishes, Jones forces his opponent in one direction only to suddenly switch which way he is pressuring towards.

Once on top of his opponent, Jones is a devastating ground striker. If he’s able to posture up, Jones can dispose of his opponent quickly, even in full guard. Brandon Vera found that out the hard way, as he tried to play guard and wound up with a shattered orbital thanks to a brutal elbow (GIF).

If his opponent keeps a tighter grip on Jones -- which would be everyone who had the benefit of first seeing him destroy Vera’s face -- he likes to control one of his opponent’s arms and pin it to the mat or behind his opponent’s head. While this is risky from a submission stand point -- grapplers are taught to keep their elbows tight and avoid reaching across their opponents’ waist to avoid the arm bar-- it allows him to deliver painful strikes that are difficult to block (GIF).

Since Jones is able to ruin opponents from within guard, it should be no surprise that he’s nasty once he works into a dominant position. For example, Jones finished Vlad Matyushenko from the crucifix just seconds after securing it. Additionally, Jones’ obliterated Matt Hamill with elbows from mount, even if some of them were fairly illegal.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Jones is a brutal and opportunistic grappler. Though we’ve never seen his bottom game, Jones has pulled off some slick submissions from top position.

The best weapon in Jones’ submission arsenal is his guillotine choke. Thanks to his long arms, Jones can use a variation of the guillotine that attacks both sides neck, fully cutting off the carotid artery. Like a rear naked choke, this guillotine variation puts his opponent to sleep quickly (GIF). If Jones’ guillotine is fully sunk in, his elbow will be directly underneath his opponent’s chin. Fighters with shorter limbs will usually finish this variation of choke with a rear-naked choke grip, which works as well. However, Jones instead finishes by pushing the hand of his choking arm down and in with his other hand. This adds in extra leverage, allowing Jones to finish the choke from fairly rare positions like half guard or standing (GIF).

Another devastating technique in Jones’ arsenal is the shoulder crank. When his opponent secures an underhook in the clinch, Jones will lock his hands and wrench on their shoulder joint suddenly. Jones used this against both Teixeira and Cormier, forcing the experienced grapplers to yank away from their underhook or potentially deal with a shredded rotator cuff (GIF). That’s a pretty brutal technique, which is another common trait between the different aspects of Jones’ game. “Bones” is simply a rough and mean fighter, whether it be shoulder cranks, kicking the knee joint, or repeatedly dropping his chin — chin butting? — into Ryan Bader’s mid-section from the north-south position.

Outside of these key techniques, Jones is able to secure submissions simply by wearing his opponent out. In his bout with “Rampage” Jackson, the power puncher was already fatigued and injured by the time Jones dragged him to the mat. Once there, it was easy for Jones to overwhelm his defense with a rear naked choke. Similarly, Belfort was thoroughly battered prior to getting trapped in an americana.

Still, landing an americana on a jiu-jitsu black belt is quite an accomplishment (GIF).

Defensively, Jones does take risks with his arm placement. Whenever he reaches forward to grab his opponent’s head or pin an arm while he’s still within the guard, Jones is placing himself in a higher risk position. From there, it’s easier for the bottom man to set up triangles, secure an underhook, or -- like Vitor Belfort nearly did -- roll up on an armbar.

Conclusion

Jones’ reputation as one of the greatest — if not the greatest — of all time would be set in stone were it not for a pair of drug test failures. As such, Jones seems to have changed his goal from a legacy as the greatest to a legacy as the scariest, nastiest man in the Octagon. To that end, Jones’ brutality and roughness is already unmatched, and pummeling a seemingly tough test in Gustafsson will only add to that reputation.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.