One of the all-time greats, Jon Jones, will look to defend his crown once more against power puncher, Dominick Reyes, this Saturday (Feb. 8, 2020) at UFC 247 inside Toyota Center in Houston, Texas.
There are two real questions heading into UFC 247, questions that seem to directly oppose one another. First, can anyone beat Jon Jones? That’s the main question, one that has ravaged the Light Heavyweight division for nearly a decade now. However, the second query is new, and the implications severe: Is Jones stagnating or, even worse, regressing?
Since his return in Dec. 2018, Jones has fought for the title three times. When he won the belt back opposite Alexander Gustafsson, there was no regression — in fact, it may have been the best Jones yet, as he methodically broke down the Swede and then finished him in a brilliant sequence. His two defenses, however, were lackluster: Jones failed to finish Anthony Smith, whose gameplan seemed to be the fetal position, and nearly lost via disqualification. Then, Thiago Santos started strong before blowing out both of his knees, and the Brazilian still nearly won a split-decision.
In this breakdown, I hope to both identify some of the changes to Jones’ game and recap the skills that have made him so great. Let’s take a closer look:
Jones has long been an all-the-way-in or all-the-way-out fighter. The champion wants to work from the end of his kicking and jabbing range or in the clinch, two areas where his tremendous physical assets are at their most effective.
Almost all of Jones’ attacks capitalize on his significant height and reach advantage. Jones most often 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 pounds.
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 than to continue getting your knees or liver stomped.
There are numerous examples, but the most recent came in Jones’ bout opposite Anthony Smith. Smith is known for his aggression and powerful combinations — didn’t matter. Each time Smith attempted to step forward or switch stances, Jones would slam a kick into his mid-section or leg. Like many others, Smith was quickly made exhausted and demoralized, retreating into something of a defensive shell.
It’s not a matter of toughness; Smith is very tough. Jones simply forces opponents to shut down.
In his second 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).
Jones may occasionally stick his opponent with a long 1-2, but he’s never been all that comfortable boxing with an opponent who is still trying to hit him back. His bout with Thiago Santos was a really extreme example: Jones barely threw any punches at all, and Santos was clearly hampered in his movements. Rather than really take advantage, Jones hung back and kicked with the kicker, which resulted in the close decision win.
It was strange decision-making from a man who’s a genuine genius in the cage.
Once Jones can get a hand on his opponent, his remarkable confidence and skill returns. 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.
In the clinch, Jones has mastered 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 Jones’ second bout with Gustafsson. he really looked a master of distance management, absolutely refusing Gustafsson the opportunity to box. Jones did his best work as a Southpaw, which opened up a quadruple threat of offense against Gustafsson, who was trying to pressure inside from the Orthodox stance. Jones’ straight kick to the knee, round kick to leg/body/head, snap kick to the stomach, and spearing left straight were all damaging strikes that came from Jones’ power side, making it especially difficult for Gustafsson to distinguish between them.
Perhaps more impressive was Jones’ defense. Whenever Gustafsson did manage to inch forward into a distance closer to the pocket, Jones’ hands would extend from his chin and reach toward Gustafsson. Jones’ attempts to hand fight thoroughly flustered Gustafsson’s usual offense and combinations, as well as opening up Jones’ counter elbows.
The biggest argument in Jones’ decline is likely related to his wrestling, which he doesn’t seem to rely on nearly as often. As a young prospect, fresh off his high school and collegiate wrestling days, Jones was much more active in pursuing the takedown, often from the clinch (GIF). Nowadays, Jones is still willing to wrestle, but he usually shoots along the fence and does so less frequently.
It was strange to see Jones refuse to shoot on Santos, a man known for his troubles when put on his back. Furthermore, it’s been quite a few years since we’ve seen Jones attempt a lateral drop or similar Greco-Roman throw.
While 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).
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.
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, 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’ waists to avoid armbars — it allows him to deliver painful strikes that are difficult to block (GIF).
It’s been seven years since Jones last submitted an opponent, but there’s no doubt he’s an extremely dangerous grappler from top position. On the whole, Jones is best known for his guillotine choke, which he used twice to score victories over Ryan Bader and Lyoto Machida.
Though the positioning was different (half guard vs. standing), the choke was the same. Wrapping his choking arm deeply around the neck, Jones effectively cut off both sides of the carotid artery with a single arm — similar to a rear naked choke. With his free hand, Jones pushed down and into his wrist, amplifying the pressure considerably and forcing the submission (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).
From top position, Jones commonly looks to trap an arm beneath his legs, which serves as both a setup for strikes and submissions. His crucifix and the possible consequences of landing that position opposite Jones are the subject of this week’s technique highlight.
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.
Jones’ performance opposite Reyes should go a long way in answering the questions regarding Jones’ future and whether or not he’s falling from his peak. Reyes will present Jones with considerable offense, which could force Jones to really demonstrate his greatness. If nothing else, it seems unlikely that Jones will be able to control the fight so easily against a similarly sized and athletic man with solely his kicks.
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 247 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the ESPN+/Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
For the rest of the UFC 247 fight card and line up click here.
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.