It's been about 3 years since I wrote a Killing the King, and I've just brought it back. No easing myself in though, we're going straight for Jon Jones.
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I've been staring at this for about 2 days now and my brain has turned to gravy so if you see anything that needs editing please do give me a shout!
The Killing the King series is one I have written in spurts from Bloody Elbow and Bleacher Report to Fightland and Vice Sports but it has been a few years since our last deep dive into champion film study. The point of this series is to dig into the performances and training of the absolute best fighters in the world and look for exploitable habits. The choice to not use the word "flaws" there was very deliberate. Looking for flaws in UFC champions is often a thankless task, habits are where the money can be made. There aren't too many doofuses out there tripping over their own feet or throwing their chin up in the air every time they punch but winning UFC titles in spite of it. Yet for all the talk of being formless and shapeless like water, the fighter without habits does not yet exist.
One of the reasons for the lengthy hiatus was a lack of long-reigning champions. The majority of the UFC's titles were bouncing all over the place in the last few years. The pillar of stability throughout this time has been Jon Jones--as reliable in the cage as he is disaster prone outside of it. He has been the champ, not the champ, and the sort-of-champ in that time, but he has never lost and it has not even looked close. We have already looked at Jones twice in this series--way back at Bloody Elbow and then again at Fightland but rather selfishly, Jon keeps getting better. However, the trick with focusing on habits instead of hoping for a magic weakness is that when a fighter adds new elements of his game he is also adding new habits and opportunities.
Because of the existing material we have produced on Jones, I want to take this opportunity to consider him specifically in the light of his only two rematches. In his four bouts with Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson we saw Jones genuinely tested through very different tactics and fighter types. While those will be the focus of today's analysis, it is probably worth beginning with a recap of Jones' usual style.
One of the main tenets of Killing the King has been that if you don't know where to start, work on taking away the fighter's A game. Think about how much less effective Georges St. Pierre was when Johnny Hendricks checked his lead hand and prevented him from jabbing all night, or how much Anderson Silva disliked having to lead, or how uncomfortable Ronda Rousey was the moment an opponent started circling away from her straight line charges. Take away a fighter's absolute favourite thing to do and you make him fight a less practised, less comfortable game. That is a solid foundation from which to start.
When Jon Jones burst onto the UFC scene he was a blur of spinning techniques, fancy trips, and punishing ground and pound. He won the UFC title while still mostly throwing anything he wanted out there and seeing what stuck. Once he held the UFC light heavyweight strap though, Jones quickly matured into a more methodical, tactical fighter and took on many of the looks we associate him with today. The difference between what we might call "Rising Superstar Jon" and "Championship Jones" was that the former seemed largely concerned with seeing what he could get away with in the course of winning, while the latter builds his performances around never even allowing his opponent into the fight. Even now, after a decade of dominance and with his hairline retreating to the back side of his head at a rate of knots, Jones relies on the same few staples to undo opponents of markedly different builds, styles and abilities.
At his core Jones is an attrition fighter who sets himself up to keep fighting for the full five rounds, then drives up the pace when he sees his opponent is flagging. For the most part he does this with his distance kicking game.
Jones always relied on his kicks, and particularly his low round kicks, but Jones' fights against Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson and Vitor Belfort introduced much of the MMA world to the low line side kick and oblique kick. These two linear strikes to the front of the knee or thigh were treated with disgust by Jackson and Belfort--Jackson even believed the technique to be illegal--and fight fans quickly came to the conclusion that it was both dirty and sport-breakingly unanswerable.
Jones' kicking doesn't work in isolation though, it is his management of distance that makes all the difference. Whether it is cautiously drifting around the cage or breaking into a sprint to get away from the fence, Jones knows where he needs to be at all times and even if his hands are the least impressive facet of his game, Jones demonstrates mastery of all the elements of the sweet science of boxing that aren't just throwing hands.
For the most part the low line side kick and the low line oblique kick (or chasse bas for the Francophiles) is a jamming weapon. That is why it made such easy work of Belfort and Jackson. Jackson's plan was always going to be to plod into punching range and start swinging. Belfort's style is largely based around blitzing in on a straight line. Neither can do that without putting their lead leg into range first and then, as Bruce Lee said in that one episode of Longstreet--longest weapon, nearest target.