The tattoo on Jon Jones’ chest reads, Phillippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Speaking frankly, I’m more inclined to believe that Jones himself–and all the drive, pride, and even cruelty that make him who he is–is the biggest reason for his success, but the first part of the verse seems accurate: of all the athletes in MMA, none seems so capable of anything at any given moment than the UFC light heavyweight champ.
There’s another Bible verse that applies to Jones, though its relation to the champ is a touch less obvious. The verse is Ecclesiastes 1:9–I’m sure you’ve heard it before–and it goes like this: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
This might seem strange when applied to one of the most dynamic, innovative, and constantly evolving fighters in the history of MMA, but the reality is that Jones is less of a pioneer and more of an archaeologist. In yesterday’s Part One, we looked at some of the in-fighting techniques that Jones used to beat Daniel Cormier on Saturday in his 8th title defense, most of which were near mirror images of those used by boxers at the dawn of the 20th Century. Groundbreaking as his approach is for MMA, Jones has never done something that wasn’t thought of centuries before, and we can look to these early in-fighters for clues as to where the champion’s game might be headed next.
As early in-fighters developed their style, they were dealing with a combination of classically trained boxers and wild brawlers. The striking threats they faced, therefore, were necessarily very similar to those prevalent in modern MMA. In his book The Art of In-Fighting, middleweight boxing champ Frank Klaus recommends that in-fighting be done, except on rare occasions, with the head lowered. This, he says, would help to avoid straight punches and wild hooks tot he head, which would likely land on the hard skull or the shielding shoulders rather than the vulnerable jaw.
He also recommended watching the opponent’s feet for cues, so as to keep oneself in this impromptu defensive shell. Here’s his version of the position.
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Which is one MMA fans should be very used to seeing. Just as in Part One yesterday, note that Klaus has his hands positioned to the inside of his sparring partner’s, giving him more options to both defend his own center-line and attack that of his opponent.
Jones, used to facing the same combination of rudimentary lunges and crude swings, has adopted a similar attitude to in-fighting–but there is a problem. It didn’t take Daniel Cormier long to catch on.
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1. Jones backs up as Cormier advances . . .
2. . . . then suddenly switches direction and lunges forward with a straight left to the challenger’s chin.
3. Jones throws himself forward with the punch and ends up with his head past his own feet.
4. Cormier spots the opening for an uppercut.
5. .And delivers.
The uppercut has been part of the boxing arsenal for a very long time. John L. Sullivan is often credited with its invention, but the punch clearly predates the great heavyweight bareknuckle champion. Since the late 1800s boxing instructors have taught the uppercut as a punch to punish aggressive opponents, whose momentum allows their head to travel directly over and even past their lead foot. Here’s an example from Billy Edwards’ 1888 treatise, Boxing and Manual of Training.
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And if that doesn’t resemble Cormier’s counter on Jones then I don’t know what to say. Cormier consistently found the same opening as Jones lunged in, sometimes receiving Jones’ strike and sometimes avoiding it, but countering with uppercuts nonetheless. It took the champion some time to adjust, but watching him do so was a pleasure.
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1. Jones controls DC’s right wrist with a thumb-down grip (circled).
2. As Cormier struggles to free that hand, Jones also controls his opposite arm, transitioning from biceps control . . .
3. . . . to wrist control. And as he does that, he pushes Cormier’s left hand down.
4. And rips an elbow across the top. Cormier senses the blow coming and ducks . . .
5. . . . leaving him wide open to an uppercut.
6. But Jones doesn’t capitalize, and resets instead.
The positioning of Jones’ hands on his opponent’s wrists is very, very important. Rather than taking the conventional handshake grip, with the thumb on top, Jones began controlling Cormier’s right hand with the thumb-down grip you see circled above. It gave him a huge advantage.
To break wrist control, the opponent must pull their hand in the direction of the controlling fighter’s thumb. The gap where the thumb and fingers meet is the weak-point of any single-handed grip, and the opponent’s goal is to yank his wrist against that gap, hoping to force it open and free his arm. Were Jones to have his thumb on top in the sequence above, Cormier would be able to wrench his arm upward, granting him a quick and easy path for what had already proven to be his most effective weapon inside: his right uppercut. Whereas with Jones’ thumb facing the floor, Cormier’s only way out of the grip is to rip his hand down and back, taking it away from Jones’ head and torso and giving the champ more time to regain wrist control before any uppercuts could land.
Once Jones realized that Cormier’s uppercuts were a serious threat–and they were landing cleanly and often in the second and third rounds of the bout–he began to actively hunt down Cormier’s right hand and control the wrist before he could even start punching. This brand of preemptive defense was common among boxing’s early in-fighters, and Frank Klaus recommends several very similar methods in his manual.
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Here, Klaus executes what he describes as a “smart triple movement.” Stepping inside his opponent’s right hand, he pins the still dangerous left hand to his adversary’s chest before going to work with his own left hand to the liver. Bareknuckle and small-glove boxers like Klaus were quite aware of how ineffective their hands and gloves were as means of static defense. Instead of covering up and keeping their hands at home to block, they used them proactively, stopping counters before they could start, and then punching through the openings while their opponent’s hand was momentarily out of play.
The other advantage of Jones’ thumb-down wrist control is that it lends itself perfectly to his coveted elbow strikes. With his hand on top of DC’s wrist, rather than underneath it, Jones has a very quick and direct path to the challenger’s jaw. The only problem is that Jones still tends to think in ones–most of his strikes are set up quite well, but if the initial attack fails he is usually content to reset and try again later, even when a follow-up would work wonders.
Jones did, however, begin to turn the tide with this offense, and even used some of DC’s weapons against him.
As if at war with himself, Jones tends to exploit those weaknesses in his opponent that he recognizes in his own style. This is the way that Jones adapts mid-fight. He is not impossible to hit, but after being struck enough with a certain technique, he will defuse it, and then learn to use it against his opponent. By this route the champion evolves before our eyes, shoring up holes in his armor and then employing the very same weapons that his enemy used to reveal them.
Jones has long been feared for his elbows, but it’s good old-fashioned punching that seems to be the most dangerous development in his game these days. Elbow strikes are lauded for the shortness of their arcs, which is a viable reason to use them in close–but “arc” is the operative word in that sentence. An elbow can swing and slash, but sometimes the well-rounded in-fighter needs to stab. That’s where uppercuts and short hooks come in; because a knife is dangerous, but when things get close and uncomfortable, there’s nothing deadlier than a dagger.
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1. Pinned to the fence, Cormier has both of Jones’ arms in outside control.
2. Jones rips his right hand back, takes a small step back, and frees himself from Cormier’s grip. Cormier lowers his head, trying to drive forward through the space created by Jones.
3. Jones takes advantage of this new bent-forward posture to land a hard uppercut to the body.
4. He quickly rips his hand back again and, now that Cormier expects the body blow . . .
5. . . . sends this one to the challenger’s chin.
6. A tight left hook puts a bow on things.
Jones’ combination punching may be in its early stages still, but there are flashes of brilliance. In his last two fights he has demonstrated an excellent right uppercut and a nasty left hook, two of the favored weapons of the classic in-fighter. More importantly, he is aware of when to use these weapons. Jones doesn’t just throw uppercuts on a whim–he either waits for his opponent to bend forward, or else forces him to do so. Boxers have been doing this for well over a hundred years, and it works as well today as ever.
Jones’ game thus far has been something of an independently discovered recreation. Whether through tape study or simple experimentation, the champion has brought to light techniques that even the most dedicated boxing fans have largely forgotten, and which MMA fans never knew. Even his beloved spinning elbow was a tool used in boxing during the London Prize Ring days of boxing.
Here it is modeled by all-time great middleweight and three-division champion Bob Fitzsimmons–though he has a significantly less flattering term for it.
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So . . . what’s the point? Why make mention of these similarities at all? This article, and it’s predecessor, aren’t intended to discredit Jones or paint him as somehow unoriginal. Jones certainly doesn’t seem less impressive to me as a result of the resemblance his style bears to early modern boxing–if anything, I’m personally enthralled by the fact that he and his trainers have managed to essentially rediscover techniques almost a century after they fell into general disuse and out of the public eye.
I suppose the point of all this is to situate MMA firmly into the history of combat sports. Our sport has often been derided as “human cock-fighting,” and viewed by old school boxing fans as little more than a gimmick away from pro wrestling. Boxing, wrestling, jiu jitsu–these are all part of MMA, but they are separate entities, with histories of their own. It often seems like MMA, the bastard child of the others, doesn’t belong.
But when the greatest champion in the sport–and perhaps the greatest it has ever known–begins mirroring the techniques of some of boxing’s early greats, techniques that today’s boxing greats don’t even remember . . . it gives MMA some context. And it suggests that maybe Jones isn’t merely great for MMA.
Maybe he’s just great.
For more analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. Coming this week: TWO episodes. Look forward to Connor and Pat’s tragically belated Best-of Awards for the year of 2014, as well as an in-depth breakdown of Jones-Cormier.
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