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UFC 239 Breakdown: Jon Jones and the fallacy of invulnerability

UFC 239 Breakdown: Jon Jones and the fallacy of invulnerability

Daniel Cormier (L) fights Jon Jones in the Light Heavyweight title bout during UFC 214

The tendency for society to view its most prominent members as infallible creations is not a new phenomenon; whether it is with regards to athletes, politicians, or performers, those of us who live a typical existence are inclined to view those with high name recognition as if they are incapable of making mistakes or possessing flaws.

Nowhere is this truer than in the world of mixed martial arts, where certain fighters are discussed as if they are the manifestation of a perfect combatant; as if the fabled warrior Achilles has come to life to replicate in the Octagon what legend tells us he did on the battlefields of ancient Greece.

Although it is more than fair to argue Jon Jones is worthy of the contentious greatest-of-all-time monicker, neither he nor any other pugilist should be awarded the image of perfection in the art of combat. At its core, fighting is about presenting your opponent with problems that they can’t solve while you attempt to solve those presented to you.

Jones has been able to achieve his unparalleled career by creating problems with high penalties for failure that are immensely difficult for his opponents to solve. Just as they begin to find the answer to one, he provides another, then another, and so on and so forth until his foe has been twisted, strangled, or straight bludgeoned into defeat. But while the solutions to these problems may be elusive, they do exist.

When Thiago Santos steps into the Octagon against Jon Jones at UFC 239 on July 6, he should not view his opponent the way he is frequently portrayed, as a peer of the legendary warrior Achilles – only defeat will result from this. Instead, he should see that Jones is simply a man who has been able to present his opponent’s questions they haven’t been able to answer. If Santos has been viewing Jones in this manner – like a problem with elusive yet existent solutions – he has a chance to be the first to best Jon Jones and shattered the illusion of infallibility that has been falsely bestowed upon him.

“If A Man Can’t Stand…”

At the onset of his UFC career, Jon Jones was identified as a wrestler with a particularly apt skillset of Greco-Roman style takedowns. What led to Jones’s rampant accession up the UFC rankings was the immediate expansion of his skill set, leading him to be above average in all facets of fighting. One such area was his kicks, a weapon seldom associated with wrestlers.

The investments in developing a proficient arsenal of kicks have been nothing but fruitful for Jones, as the employment of oblique kicks, front kicks, and the occasional round kick have allowed him to figuratively and literally tear his opponents apart.

The Problem:

“A man can’t stand, he can’t fight” – Rule #1 of the QuickSilver Method of Karate 

While the QuickSilver Method of Karate developed by the antagonist of “The Karate Kid III” is far from the most effective style of combat, Jon Jones’s use of lower body strikes does give credence to its principal rule.

Throughout his career, Jones has employed various kicking methods, but none have been as effective as the oblique kick. Pioneered by Jon Jones (and quickly adopted by other fighters from Jackson Wink MMA), the oblique kick is an immensely formidable weapon, as it can tear apart the knee ligaments with relative ease. Its sheer destructive power has led to many calls to have the move banned, a silly proposal.

The constant fear of having their MCLs ripped to shreds by Jones has proven to deter fighters from attempting to close distance on Jones. Unwilling to risk the potential for total knee-destruction, the threat of the oblique kick allows Jones to keep otherwise-aggressive opponents at bay so he can take his time in setting up the rest of his attacks, such as powerful front kicks, and traditional leg kicks.

Because “reach” is measured as a fighter’s arm length, we often forget that a reach advantage is compounded if a fighter is able to employ kicks effectively. Since Jones is, the threat of oblique kicks allows him to keep his opponents at a range advantageous only to him, where they are sitting ducks for the rest of his kick attacks.

The Solution:

So how should Thiago Santos (and Jones’s future opponents) go about solving the dilemma of Jones’s kicks? If they attempt to close the distance they will have their knee torn apart by the oblique kicks, and if they stay at the range to avoid the damage then he will just land kicks from there – right?

This problem seems unsolvable unless we acknowledge the obvious: Jones can only use his legs to strike if they aren’t being used for something else. So make him use them for something else.

Alexander Gustafsson was able to deprive Jones of his kicking ability for the majority of their first bout, and briefly during the second round of their second bout by forcing Jones to keep moving. By keeping Jones in motion either by circling-out or forcing him backward, Gustafson deprived the champion of his ability to set his feet, which meant he couldn’t use his legs to strike. Notice here when Gustaffson is able to keep Jones in motion, he is unable to set his feet to kick. Only when does he eases off the pressure is Jones able to set his feet, which allows him to throw a kick.

Now compare the above with this clip of Anthony Smith, who is not forcing Jones to move; Jones has all the time in the world to set his feet and land a powerful leg kick.

This is a painstakingly obvious notion, but its ramifications are self-evident. By forcing the champion into movement, Gus was able to resolve the dilemma the rest of Jones’s opponents could not, proving that the choice of staying at range and eating powerful kicks or attempting to close the distance and having your knee torn apart by the oblique kick is a false dichotomy.

All The Way In, or All The Way Out

The Problem:

As discussed above, Jones’s substantial reach advantage provides him the luxury of being able to strike his opponents from a position in which they can’t hit him back. As seen here, he takes advantage of this through the utilization of kicks, long jabs, and crosses, with his opponents unable to respond effectively.

Jon Jones is an absolutely vicious striker from such a range: his opponents are left battered and bloodied if they are unable to find a suitable counter to his reach – which few have. Here we see Jones lands a vicious elbow on Gustafsson from an extended range; as the vast majority of fighters can’t land an elbow from such a distance, the strike catches Gus off-guard and clearly stuns him.

If they are able to close the distance (and willing to take the risk of the oblique kick), Jones will attempt to grab his opponent tie them up in a clinch, where he can use superb clinch fighting skills to land elbows, shoulder strikes, knees, or work towards a takedown.

Again, it appears that Jones has presented his opponent an unsolvable option: either stay at range and eat vicious strikes with no capability to respond or charge in and get tied up in the clinch. And yet again, while the solution is vastly easier for your writer to identify than it will be for Thiago Santos to manifest, there is a solution.

The Solution:

One of the core concepts of Gracie Family’s system of Jiu-Jitsu was that when engaging in combat, one should place themselves either outside of their opponent’s reach or wrap them up in a clinch, depriving them of the space necessary in order to generate power in their strikes. While modern MMA has developed lightyears beyond what the Gracies could have envisioned, this concept, known as “all-the-way-in, or all-the-way-out” is still a universal truth; in fact, it is the core of Jones’s expert control of distance.

As noted, by keeping his opponent at an extended range Jones creates a scenario where he can hit free from fear of reciprocation. If they attempt to close and wrap him up to stop the onslaught, he forces them into his clinch where he can land vicious elbows and knees. But it is in the middle ground, the area just outside of clinching range where the potential to hurt Jones lies. If an opponent is able to get into “boxing range” (the space where both fighters have the ability to punch each other), Jones’s reach advantage is mitigated as his lanky limbs become cumbersome in close quarters, stifling his ability to throw straight punches and kicks. Not only are his primary weapons and reach advantage reduced in effectiveness, but he is now able to be hit by his opponent. Gustaffson was able to employ this strategy very well against Jones, which allowed him to land punches and accumulate damage in a way we have yet to see replicated.

Never one to throw the traditional response of hooks and uppercuts when stifled, Jones will typically respond to such pressure by attempting to force the clinch. The problem with this tactic is that his opponent isn’t necessarily close enough to grab, leading Jones to have to reach and overextend in order to do so. These periods of overextension are fleeting, but they do exist.

If Thiago Santos wants to be the first to knock out the light heavyweight champion, he would be wise to force a boxing range where he can land punches on Jones. Being a human being with a brain that functions just like the rest of ours, Jon Jones will likely attempt to stop the assault on his neurological capability by reaching out to clinch his assailant, leading to an overextension where he is susceptible to being substantially hurt and finished.

Easier said than done

It needn’t be stated that it has been infinitely easier to identify and write about the solutions to Jones’s tactics than it will be for Thiago Santos to implement them. We have only identified two of Jon Jones’s shockingly extensive skillset: we haven’t the time nor bandwidth to discuss his hand trapping, snatch single leg takedowns, arm cranks, ground and pound, top control, or any of the other thousand techniques he has employed throughout his career. Instead, we have discussed two of his strongest assets, focussing on how they can be overcome by Thiago Santos or other future opponents.

Jon Jones should not be viewed as an immortal combatant sent from the heavens who is impervious to the methods of hand-to-hand combats we mere humans have developed; instead, it would be wise to view his performances in the Octagon as an aggregate of different skills and tactics that has yet to be solved. And while the solutions may be difficult to find and even more challenging to implement, one exists for each and every one of Jones’s tactics.

Achilles had his heel, and as neither Jon Jones nor any other man is worthy of comparison to the fabled warrior, all of us, including the UFC’s Light Heavyweight Champion, have substantial vulnerabilities that render us mortal. Jones’s Achilles Heels are just vastly more elusive than the rest of ours.

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