UFC 152 Preview: Jon Jones Becomes MMA's First Real 5-Tool Fighter
In baseball, the five-tool player is considered the ultimate expression of the art, God's perfect gift to the diamond. He's a player that can hit for average, power, run like the wind, has a an arm that throws bullets, and knows which hand to put the glove on. These creatures are near myth—but they exist, coming along just a few times every generation. Mickey Mantle was one. So was Ken Griffey Jr.
There have been plenty of great fighters in the short history of mixed martial arts, men and women who have imposed their wills on opponents. But the five-tool fighter has only been a product of our imagination. Bruce Lee was one. Maybe. Probably. So was Rickson Gracie, at least in legend.
In the realm of the quantifiable, even our greatest warriors were missing a tool from the complete fighter's tool box. They simply made up for it by being uniquely great in another area. Matt Hughes, for example, didn't own a screwdriver. But he had the biggest hammer in the neighborhood, and really, who needs more than that?
Enter Jon Jones.
The 25-year-old light heavyweight champion can do it all, and do it as well as anyone in MMA history. We'll see Jones in action later this month when he defends his crown against Vitor Belfort. That's fitting in a way. Belfort was once known as the "Phenom." Many thought he would redefine what it meant to be a mixed martial artists. Instead, he's suffered through an up and down career.
Jones is the new wunderkind. His potential is through the roof, his skills expanding and morphing with every fight. Already he's something new, a hybrid, a fighter capable of doing anything he (or a coach) wants to do.
Imagine that. This is a man who can do anything, wreak uncomfortable levels of havoc on opponents, change lives and a rival's well being in the blink of an eye. Jon Jones, as he exists in the moment, is the best fighter in UFC history.
These are the five reasons why.
Jones started life as a wrestler, so when it came to striking, he was a blank slate. At first, he filled the void, that place in your brain where technique, strategy and coaching are supposed to be, with the random. Jones literally trolled YouTube for ideas, picking up moves and ideas from a variety of source material—boxing, traditional martial arts and even the world of professional wrestling.
Greg Jackson, the legendary MMA guru from the New Mexico desert, brought order to madness. He took the most amazing clay—supple, soft and malleable—and turned it into the closest thing to a perfect fighter the world has seen.
Today, Jones' standup technique, if not flawless, is incredibly functional. He uses his enormous physical advantages (he has an 84" wingspan) shamelessly and smartly. Front kicks, head kicks and jabs make up a huge part of his arsenal, as they should.
With Jackson and fellow coach Mike Winkeljohn leading the way strategically, Jones dominates the distance game against everyone he fights. It's a staple of Jackson's teaching (see teammate Carlos Condit's similar strategy against Nick Diaz), and Jones executes the game plan better than anyone.
Jones can not be suckered into standing and trading. Condit falls victim to that at times, but never Jones. He is meticulous about distance, always stepping back to reestablish his range, brutally exploiting every physical advantage.
Jones' discipline almost never fails him. When he can't score from a distance, he never hangs around at range, avoiding an opponent's kill zone. That's not his game. That's a game of 50/50, and Jones is so dominant in other areas that he doesn't need to play it.
Instead, if an opponent is able to close ranks, Jones almost immediately moves the contest into the clinch game. And like every other part of his game, Jones is very dangerous here.
The most crowd-pleasing part of the Jon Jones arsenal comes into play here—the spinning back elbow that always gets a roar from blood-thirsty fans. More dangerous, however, by far, are his Greco Roman and judo throws.
Jones, again, uses his body type and leverage advantages here to take opponents to the mat with relative ease. The diversity of his arsenal is impressive. He executes trips and throws from a variety of positions, including the front headlock and the collar tie.
He's particularly dangerous in the front headlock position because his opponent needs to focus on the guillotine choke, allowing Jones to switch to Greco Roman techniques and score takedowns. That's the advantage unique to a fighter with multiple tools. His skills in one area opens up possibilities in another.
Jones is a sly takedown artist, controlling the upper body and then, like lightning, using his incredible dexterity to slide a leg between his opponent's and executing a text book inside leg trip. There has never been an MMA fighter as good in the clinch as Jon Jones—a bold statement, but one I'll stand by.
Jon Jones had "champion wrestler" written all over him. He won a Junior College championship at Iowa Central Community College and an NCAA championship seemed to be his destiny. Instead, he left school to begin his MMA journey and wrestling's loss became our gain.
Jones does his best wrestling work from the clinch. That makes the most sense for a very careful and calculating fighter. Shooting takedowns from a distance is a dangerous game. Failure in the clinch generally leaves Jones right where he started—in the clinch. A failure shooting a double leg can leave you in a very bad position.
Most remarkable, and scary for the wrestlers facing him, is Jones' ability to defend the takedown. He's fought a collection of great wrestlers, from Ryan Bader to Vladimir Matyushenko, and never been on his back.
Worse, attempting a takedown on Jones is a risky proposition. If he sprawls successfully and captures a front headlock, the guillotine is a constant threat. With Jon Jones, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.
Jones has a strong submission game, but his real strength on the mat is his absolutely magnificent ground and pound. The face-smashing elbows he used to, well, smash the face of Brandon Vera and Matt Hammill were incredible displays of sheer brutality.
In some ways, it's this casual brutality that makes Jones a special fighter. He shows no hesitation when it comes time to enter "Hulk Smash" mode. Whether it's the use of a kick to an opponent's kneecap or an elbow to the eye socket, Jones has a real mean streak. When your job description is "cage fighter," that's a significant advantage.
Grappling is all about control, and Jones is rarely ever in a bad position, carefully and confidently shutting down his victim's strengths and attacking them where they are weakest. It's the hallmark of the multi-tool fighter, and no one uses his tools better than Jones.
Take a look at Jones' title win over "Shogun" Rua to see Jon's mean streak in action. He bends the rules to the breaking point, but is always careful to stay within them. Jones completely shuts down Rua's vaunted half guard game, and then goes to work, controlling his opponent on the ground and unleashing a brutal beating.
Jones' best weapon in the submission game is the guillotine choke. He's won four fights with the hold in his career, most famously dropping Lyoto Machida's lifeless corpse like he had just won a particularly gruesome rap battle. It was a move disturbing for its pure nonchalance, Jon's coolest moment and perhaps the scariest for his future opponents. This is a man who will choke you unconscious and then simply discard you like you never even existed.
Jones is also dangerous in the top position. Against Ryan Bader, Jones showed his ability to think, his skill in human chess marking him as a technician rather than a mere "athlete."
Realizing Bader was turning on his side every time Jones was in the half guard, looking to escape and reset on his feet, Jones used a D'Arce choke to attempt a finish. When Bader defended that choke, Jones was able to switch tactics and finish the fight with the guillotine.
It was a clear display of grappling mastery. Although we hadn't seen much of his jiu jitsu game, it was obvious after that fight that Jones had a solid submission game. Combined with his ground and pound, Jones is perhaps the scariest fighter in the world on the ground.