This weekend (Sat., March 4, 2023), long-time Light Heavyweight kingpin, Jon Jones, will finally make his move to Heavyweight opposite former interim champion, Ciryl Gane, in the main event of UFC 285 from inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
A member of UFC’s roster since 2008, Jones has stepped into the Octagon 22 times. And he achieved youngest champion in modern UFC history status just three years later, demolishing his opposition. He continued to do so for years and years, and Jones has been plagued far more by outside controversy more than any opponent.
Still, it’s been three years since Jones last competed, and that title defense was easily the shakiest of his entire career. In a slightly different format than the typical “Fighter on Fighter” piece, this article aims to analyze Jones’ technical development and rise from absurdly talented wunderkind to highly skilled strategist to a fighter struggling to hold onto his best form.
We cannot know what Jones will show up on Saturday, but Jones’ career is worth taking a look back. Let’s dig in:
2008-2010: The Developing Wrestler
Wins: Andre Gusmao, Stephan Bonnar, Jake O’Brien, Brandon Vera, Vladimir Matyushenko
Strategy, Technique, and Development: When Jones first burst onto the scene, he did so as a very incomplete product. The reason? Jones debuted against Gusmao JUST FIVE MONTHS into his professional career, even if he did rack up an absurd six wins in that span.
Jones’ first two fights showed both his inexperience and potential. Fresh off his junior college wrestling career, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Jones was still primarily hunting for takedowns. What did surprise everyone — fans, media, his opponents — was the technique on display. More than at any point in his career, Jones was prioritizing foot sweeps and lateral drops from the clinch, occasionally just flipping his opponents through the air without even the slightest bit of effort.
Those throws are the standout techniques, but the roots of other major weapons were on display. Jones was looking for the spinning elbow constantly, a strike that would later save his title reign opposite Alexander Gustafsson. Interestingly, Jones’ kicking game hadn’t really arrived yet, forcing Jones to do more work from the clinch with knees.
Jones’ three-fight series against Hamill, Vera, and Matyushenko demonstrated a new wrinkle to his game compared to those earliest fights: devastating ground strikes. His kickboxing was certainly coming along, but Jones was still wrestling, either in the clinch or in the open. Once on top, Jones had learned how to use his elbows to create devastating connections and force fast finishes.
Disqualification loss aside, Jones entered 2011 riding a serious wave of momentum.
2011-2012: Legend Killer
Wins: Ryan Bader, Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort
Strategy, Technique, and Development: The effortlessness manner in which Jon Jones dispatched Ryan Bader stands out.
By this point, Jones was no longer relying on wrestling and athleticism alone to crush foes. Credit to the Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA team because it granted “Bones” lots of different weapons and the confidence to use them. Against Bader, Jones’ kicks brutalized his opponent for the first time. There were still mostly simple round kicks, but the power left kick and chopping right low kick were knocking Bader around the cage. The result was lots of takedown attempts from Bader, which Jones’ sprawled on repeatedly to gain top position.
Can Jones defend a takedown from an All-American wrestler? This bout answered that question a definitive, “Yes.”
From top position, two key Jones’ assets were on display: creativity and ruthlessness. This is the fight where Jones managed to back step his way behind a Bader shot and take the back, something only seen on wrestling mats typically. This is also the fight in which Jones secured north-south and pointlessly, illegally chin-butted Bader in the mid-section. Why throw an illegal strike that does very little besides annoy the opponent? Because Jones is a bastard inside the cage, and his savage streak would later continue in the form of shoulder cranks against Glover Teixeira, dropping “Rampage” and Machida after the bell, eye pokes against everyone, punching Daniel Cormer mid-celebration — there are countless examples of Jones being an absolute dick in the cage, because it’s a goddamn fist fight, so why not?
Jones finished the fight with the Cody McKenzie-style guillotine (GIF). Later in the year, he would put Machida to sleep with the same technique, a devastating combination of long arms and masterful pressure.
Before he faced “The Dragon,” Jones would first annihilate “Shogun” in the single best contender-turned-champion performance in MMA history. This was Jones’ inauguration to greatness and championship alike, as he effortlessly beat Rua into dust. Nothing could go wrong for Jones: he landed an insane flying knee in the opening seconds of the fight, took him down easily, and just pummeled him severely in the clinch and on the canvas.
I’m not sure anything particularly new was on display, but it’s a must-mention performance.
Believe it or not, there was reason to believe in Quinton Jackson ahead of his fight with Jones. Historically difficult to take down and brutal on the counter, Jackson seemingly had a style to compete with Jones. This fight marked a shift for Jones, as he previously forced such a chaotic pace on the feet that takedowns and clinches happened organically.
Jones didn’t do that against Jackson. He hung back and kicked much more, really implementing his oblique and linear kicks to the lead knee. People hate those kicks, and “Rampage” can be included in that number — his knees were trashed by the end of the fight. Any time Jackson got too aggressive with his swings, the more composed Jones would switch to his wrestling, a combination that proved exhausting and impossible to answer for the PRIDE legend.
Jones brought that patience into his 2013 fight with Evans.
Against another quality wrestler with power in his hands, Jones fully settled into his more composed striking style of kicks and clinch work. In this bout, the standout technique was folding elbows. Evans is guilty of playing into the hand-fighting game too much, but Jones made him pay for it by controlling the wrist then pulling his hand into elbow strikes (GIF).
Lastly, the biggest thing learned from the Vitor Belfort title defense came in the first couple minutes. Lots of natural talents are frontrunners, unaccustomed to adversity. It’s a common trait, especially in bigger athletes. Jones proved definitively that this was not the case by gutting out a nasty arm bar that offered an easy out, demonstrating his toughness before demolishing “The Phenom” on the floor.
All told, this is the era of Jones that proved him the most gifted fighter in MMA history.
2013-2016: Troubled Champion
Wins: Chael Sonnen, Alexander Gustafsson, Glover Teixeira, Daniel Cormier, Ovince Saint Preux
Strategy, Technique and Development: A lot happened outside of the cage here. Jones claims he barely trained for Gustafsson and partied too much — that’s probably more fact than excuse. A fight later, Jones masterfully executed a surprising and extremely effective strategy against Teixiera. Then came the drug test issues, which saw Jones stripped of his title twice in this era.
At any rate, the first Gustafsson fight was the first true test of Jones’ title reign, regardless of alleged preparation (watch it). Jones’ height and reach advantage is key to his success, and he’s looked more limited against fighters who can match those attributes. Such was the case against Gustafsson, whose more effective jab and superior boxing — remember, Jones has largely abandoned boxing by this stage of his career in favor of kicking and clinching — saw him win the first half of the fight.
Right until that perfect spinning elbow changed everything. Show the body jab, then instead spin over the top with a back elbow. A simple case of championship level brilliance. Also on display: elite toughness, conditioning, and drive to come on strong in the latter half of the fight.
Teixeira and Cormier are very different fighters. They have entirely different backgrounds, strengths, and weaknesses. Yet, Jones approached them in a very similar manner, and he was able to do so because, by this stage, Jones was the best in-fighter in the sport.
As mentioned repeatedly, Jones is a kicks and clinch fighter by this stage of the game. He hasn’t stood in the pocket consistently since early 2011 at the latest. Reasonably, most expected that when paired with a brawler (Teixeira) and wrestler (Cormier) that Jones would opt to keep his distance and implement his range advantage/diverse array of kicks.
Certainly, Jones did land plenty of kicks, because he’s a high-volume striker, but Jones also met both men head on in the clinch. He’d occasionally try for foot sweeps, but by this point, lateral drops and truly aggressive Greco-Roman techniques were also a thing of the past. Instead, Jones would ruthlessly win the head position battle and strike. He’d grind his forehead into the jawline then replace his head pressure with a brutal elbow, or he’d sag down on them with the collar-tie and score knees. Jones’ trademark nastiness was on display in these fights, as he landed hard shoulder strikes and tried to wrench off the shoulders of both men (GIF).
One last note on Jones vs. Cormier 1: “DC” couldn’t land a single takedown despite his best efforts.
Finally, Jones’ fight with Ovince Saint Preux was a sign of things to come. Jones put on too much muscle while suspended — his coaches admitted it — and looked a bit slower. His wrestling was less dynamic than usual, forcing him to rely much more on his distance kicking. It was a clear-cut win without any major issues, but it’s a far cry from how easily 2011 Jones would have finished “OSP.”
Wins: Daniel Cormier, Alexander Gustafsson
Strategy, Technique, and Development: Something lit a fire under Jones after the “OSP” fight. Maybe it was his own pedestrian performance, the personal rivalries with his opponents, or all the outside controversy fueling his flame. Whatever the case, Jones absolutely destroyed two of the toughest challenges to his Light Heavyweight throne.
The key trait linking these two fights in my eyes is composure and strategy. Jones brought different ideas to his rematches, and his opposition wasn’t ready for it. He changed two results from competitive decisions to vicious stoppages, and he did so via incredible fight IQ.
Jones’ rematch with Cormier was a master class. True to his own greatness, Cormier brought different tools to the table as well, chopping the lead leg of Jones and attacking with aggressive combinations rather than trying to force the wrestling. He landed well, and in my book, took the first two rounds.
This time around, Jones wasn’t much interested in wrestling, nor did he seem bothered by Cormier’s early output. He focused so much on interrupting Cormier’s forward pressure with strikes, forcing him to walk through fire. Jones landed so many stiff body shots, both with the jab and Southpaw cross. He let Cormier walk into elbows and knees. He broke “DC” down, letting Cormier’s aggression lead to his own demise. It all culminated in the perfect left high kick, the nastiest knockout win of Jones’ UFC career and proof of his excellent strategizing.
The win would later be overturned because of yet another drug test failure.
To regain his title, Jones never allowed Gustafsson to box in the rematch. Right away, Jones set the tone with an extended wrestling exchange. Then, he used his hand-fighting to tie up Gustafsson’s jab and start landing elbows, which shook the Swedish talent. Between elbows, he would circle off and constantly poke Gustafsson’s legs and body with thudding round kicks and snappy toe stabs. Gustafsson couldn’t land much, eventually did give up the takedown, and was elbowed into dust shortly afterward.
2019-2020: The Plateau
Wins: Anthony Smith, Thiago Santos, Dominick Reyes
Strategy, Technique, and Development: Let’s be brutally honest here for a moment: none of these names compare all that favorably with any of the names mentioned in any other section. Two are career Middleweights who capitalized on an empty division — credit to Jones for helping create that scenario — and Reyes’ sole claim to greatness is, in fact, his losing performance against “Bones.”
The Anthony Smith fight was abysmal on all accounts. Jones felt thoroughly unthreatened, that much was clear. He largely toyed with Smith, kicking him whenever he wanted to and landing easy takedowns since Smith was basically pulling guard half the time. Smith was in full survival mode, and Jones did not show any sort of urgency to get him out of the cage ... 2011 was an awful long time ago by this point.
He still almost lost his title via disqualification due to a pointless illegal knee.
Jones’ approach to the Santos fight was baffling. For the first time, Jones met an opponent who could really keep up with him at the kicking range. True, Santos doesn’t have Jones’ deep arsenal of funky kicks, but he doesn’t have to when his left kick can stop a mule! The obvious solution to this issue given Jones’ set of skills and Santos’ set of weaknesses was to clinch up and wrestle.
The problem is that Jones hasn’t consistently wrestled well offensively since the Gustafsson rematch. Santos’ combination of powerful kicks, heavy counters, and massive charges was working up until he blew out both of his knees. Even afterward, Jones couldn’t implement his wrestling in any meaningful way.
“Marreta” scored the win on one of three of the judges’ scorecards.
Finally, Reyes deserved to be the man to dethrone Jones. Once again, Reyes demonstrated that Jones doesn’t do as well versus opponents who can match his size. Reyes landed heavier punches, stuffed takedowns, and really became the first man to consistently stun “Bones” with strikes.
Jones didn’t find any real success until the fourth with his wrestling, a round he started by getting badly stunned. Even then, he struggled to really control or damage Reyes, and he mostly found success in those later rounds because Reyes was the more fatigued fighter. Aside from grit and conditioning, none of the elements that made Jones so great for so long were on display that night.
It’s been three years since Jones underwhelmed against “The Devastator.” At different stages of his career, he’s returned from layoffs in the best form of his career and in subpar (by Jones standards) fashion. Against Ciryl Gane, anything less than his best will cost him his first official defeat in a decade.
We’ll just have to wait and see which Jones walks to the cage.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 285 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:15 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard on ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
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