Welcome back to Gaps in the Armor–if you’re looking to beat UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones any time in the near future, you find yourself in the right place. This is Part Two of the gameplan to outmaneuver, outstrike, and ultimately dethrone the greatest champion the light heavyweight division has ever seen, and possibly the sport. It’s a tall order, but I’ve narrowed it down to three key points. They are:
1) Pressure/Attacking in Sequence
2) Lateral Movement
3) Exchange Kicks
In Part One we explored the last and least crucial of these, but another word needs to be said on that front before we move on to points One and Two.
The aim of this series is to not only identify strategic and technical holes in the styles of UFC champions, but to identify those weaknesses that specifically apply to the abilities of the next challenger in line. This Saturday, January 3rd, that man is Daniel Cormier. Given that Cormier is a fast and athletic man with better-than-advertised kicking ability, I made a point of recommending that he follow in the footsteps of the last man to truly trouble Jones, Alexander Gustafsson, and exchange kicks with the champion.
Exchange is the key word here, and it was my own failure in explaining this suggestion fully that led to some misunderstanding. Almost as soon as the article published there were doubts expressed as to the viability of a gameplan that encouraged Cormier, who is not only shorter-statured but shorter-limbed than the champion, to kick with a man whose striking style is largely built around the skill and diversity of his kicks.
Were Cormier to pursue a kicking battle with Jones, his cause would be lost right out of the gate. In fact, Cormier would be best served to stay constantly inside Jones’ kicking range altogether, where his shorter arms and superior wrestling give him every advantage. Jon Jones is not, however, a heavy bag, and he is liable to adjust and adapt to Cormier’s movements. The challenger will find himself at long range, and he will find himself in the path of Jones’ kicks. This is where the emphasis on exchanging kicks comes into play: it will be very important, whenever Cormier finds himself the recipient of a Jon Jones kick, to immediately answer with one of his own.
Cormier need not kick harder than Jones, nor even more accurately. But he must make clear, early and often, that he is not a sitting duck at long range. Furthermore, he will be able to make use of his speed and land his kicks while Jones is still in the process of retracting his mile-long legs which, while dangerous, can be unwieldy and difficult to re-sheathe, as Gustafsson helped make clear.
So, with that cleared up, let’s move on to Point Number Two.
As mentioned above, one way to lessen Jones’ considerable reach advantage is to challenge him at range, and therefore lessen his confidence. The other method is to close the gap immediately and deny him the chance to put his length to work. Doing so will be key to Cormier’s success, but he must be very careful not to approach Jones recklessly.
The champion is adept with straight, interruptive strikes. His jab is obviously very long and, ever since the Gustafsson fight, more accurate and more consistent than ever. The oblique and side kicks to the thigh are devastatingly effective, and he likes to mix things up by occasionally throwing the latter to the solar plexus as well, letting his charging opponents slam, gut-first, into his heel–like a reverse battering ram.
These strikes have proven effective time and time again, and Jones relies on them to control the distance and pacing of his fights. Charging through them is not an option. Going around them, however . . .
Lateral movement–circling, in other words–has long been the cure for long and tall opponents. In December of 2013, Alexander Gustafsson proved just how effective it could be against Jones.
(Click to enlarge)
1. Gustafsson steps toward Jones, preparing to attack.
2. Instead of moving straight forward, Gustafsson steps to his left, moving his body to the inside of Jones’ lead left foot. He lands a body jab.
3. Now a head jab, and Gustafsson takes yet another step to the left. Jones is now completely square to him.
4. Out of position, Jones staggers back as the jab connects with his face.
By circling as he closed the gap, Gustafsson was able to nullify the champion’s potent kicks, which almost invariably travel a straight line to the target. As Gustafsson shuffles past and around Jones’ left foot, he nullifies it completely. When Jones did try to counter Gustafsson’s circling jabs with his straight kicks, Gustafsson won the exchanges (GIF). The logic is simple: if Jones’ straight kicks are trains bearing down the tracks, simply step off the rails, and let them miss.
There is, however, a point at which lateral movement becomes excessive. This, ultimately, was Gustafsson’s downfall, as he fell so in love with the idea of dancing around the more sluggish, static Jones that he limited his own offensive potency. To be effective, lateral movement must be combined with aggression, whether in the form of feints, strikes, or takedown attempts. Given space to work, Jones will happily move forward and pressure, and his round kicks, particularly off the left leg, are murderous.
(Click to enlarge)
1. Jones moves forward and forces Gustafsson toward the cage.
2. As he feels his back nearing the fence, Gustafsson begins to circle to his right.
3. Jones was expecting this, and he steps in hard with his right leg . . .
4. . . . unloading a powerful left kick to the Swede’s arms.
5. While Gustafsson is still reacting to the kick, Jones falls in on him and grabs a clinch.
Lateral movement while advancing is critical for circumventing Jones’ linear kicks, but excessive side-to-side movement on the outside is nothing more than a ripe opportunity for Jones to catch his prey in the sweeping arc of his legs. As Jones continues to develop, his left kick is becoming more powerful, and he uses it brilliantly to intercept opponents pointlessly dancing around out of range. If Cormier hopes to avoid taking these kicks (and even taking them on the arms is not fun) he will need to move forward while moving laterally, and attack while doing so.
Pressure and Attacking in Sequence
We come now to the crux of any strategy to beat Jon Jones, and one for which the window of opportunity may be rapidly closing. Pressure has long been the greatest tool against long and tall fighters. Jack Dempsey flattened Jess Willard in 1919, not by fighting cleverly or carefully, but by smashing violently through the 6’6″ cowboy’s flimsy defenses, knocking him down seven times in one round. In 2003, Corrie Sanders did something similar when he splattered the giant Wladimir Klitschko with rough, bruising tactics in the pocket, knocking him down four times in just two rounds and taking his WBO belt.
It is the habit of tall fighters to have few layers of defense, usually because their first layer of defense, their reach, is so incredibly deep. Jones is no exception. Against Alexander Gustafsson Jones looked consistently unimpressive when pressed backward and pressured, particularly when Gustafsson managed to string to gether combinations of strikes and pursue him while continuing to punch.
(Circle to enlarge)
1. Gustafsson and Jones square off.
2. As Gustafsson leaps forward with a left hook, Jones covers up.
3. As usual, Jones attempts to step out of range, but Gustafsson isn’t about to let him. He grabs the back of the champion’s head with his left hand . . .
4. . . . and cracks Jones with a right uppercut.
5. Now Jones straightens up, hands still glued to his face, and backs away, and Gus sends a right hand plummeting through his forearms.
6. Gustafsson tags Jones once again with a jab as the champion turns his face away.
7. Then, feinting with his left . . .
8. . . . he lands a right hand to the body, as Jones leans away from an expected right hand to the head.
Jones, like most tall fighters, makes more and more mistakes the longer his defense is tested. He is often able to stop a single strike, and sometimes even to counter effectively. He does so in the sequence above. Given a second consecutive attack, he falters, often resorting to simple, predictable backpedaling. As additional strikes are tacked on to the assault, Jones becomes easier and easier to hit, and looks more and more like an amateur fighter, flinching and looking away, crossing his feet and extending both hands away from his head. In his confusion, he fails to see strikes coming, and opens himself to others in his desperate attempts to guard himself.
As I say, this is a natural outgrowth of Jones reliance on his height and reach. When confronted with an opponent in Alexander Gustafsson who could match his reach and circumvent his intercepting strikes, Jones suddenly found himself in very unfamiliar territory. Cormier will need to force Jones once more into that uncomfortable country, where his reach actually begins to work against him. Only then will Cormier be able to employ his wrestling and boxing abilities to full effect. Move in on an angle, strike, and keep on striking. If Cormier can stick to Jones like glue, he can keep him uncomfortable long enough to really make something happen. He just might be fast enough, and skilled enough, to make it work.
Caveat and Conclusion
Jones is beatable. The mistakes he made against Gustafsson were amateur ones, and indicative of serious problems in his defensive fundamentals. The word “amateur” is very important here. Jones has been champion for nearly four years, but has only been fighting professionally for six and a half. He makes amateur mistakes in part because of his style, but he also makes amateur mistakes because he is, essentially, still only an intermediate student of mixed martial arts. Given his resume, it’s easy to forget that.
I mentioned before that the window of opportunity to capitalize on these tendencies may be closing. Last April, Jones fought a Brazilian by the name of Glover Teixeira. Riding a twenty-fight win streak, Teixeira was a feared knockout artist with powerful hands and respectable grappling skills. Like most of Jones’ opponents his best chance was to get inside and beat Jones up. He tried and, for a little while, was very effective. But it quickly became clear that this was not the same Jon Jones who had struggled with the boxing of Alexander Gustafsson.
This Jones used the jab, liberally and well. He stabbed Teixeira with his long lead repeatedly, denying him access again and again. He slipped punches and countered with left hooks, and knocked Teixeira’s mouthpiece out of his mouth with uppercuts. This Jon Jones could box. And then, after two close rounds, Jones closed the gap himself. He pinned Teixeira against the fence and, fighting in the range that supposedly favored the smaller man, crushed him. The champion took his fair share of shots–uppercuts worked well for Teixeira in the beginning–but answered each and every one with a blow of his own. Elbows sliced Teixeira’s eyebrow open. Uppercuts and hooks snapped his teeth shut and his head back. Body punches bruised his ribs.
By the end of the fight, Jones was blocking and evading nearly everything that Teixeira threw, and landing nearly everything that he condescended to throw back. It was a different Jon Jones, and a stark reminder that, while youth and inexperience can allow mistakes, they can also promise improvement. Jones is the champion, but he is also still a young man, with years yet to grow and improve. He is continuing to do so with each and every fight, and any man attempting to beat him will have to be prepared for the weaknesses of Jones’ last performance to simply not be there anymore.
Beating Jon Jones is a tall order–just about the tallest in the history of MMA. Daniel Cormier certainly has the confidence to match Jones, but can he beat him? I’m being completely frank when I admit that I truly do not know.
I wouldn’t bet on it, though.
For more analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face punching, hosted by yours truly and Sherdog’s Patrick Wyman. Join us this week for our end-of-year special, and our answers to listener questions.
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