With his win over Ryan Bader, Jon "Bones" Jones crossed that blurry line between prospect and contender. Jones' six fights in the Ultimate Fighting Championship have created more hype for a fighter than any in recent memory. Much of this hype is due to his exciting style and the echo chamber that is the Mixed Martial Arts online community, where fighters go from the greatest thing ever to complete frauds over night.
Don't let the title of this article fool you into thinking that this is part of that echo chamber—this is a detached look at Jon Jones' potential, skills and possible futures in the sport.
Now a big part of the excitement surrounding Jones is the amazing athletic ability he brings into the Octagon and there is no doubt the Jones family is blessed with some amazing genes. Jon’s brother Arthur was a 5th round pick in the 2010 National Football League Draft at defensive tackle by the Baltimore Ravens and his other brother Chandler is currently playing defensive line at Syracuse.
Like his brothers, Jon is blessed with an excellent athletic frame—a very long and lanky 6’4” height with an amazing 84.5 inch reach. Jones is quick, strong and seems to have good endurance as well.
Unlike his brothers, “Bones” didn’t focus on football in high school, choosing instead to focus on the wrestling team and as a senior in 2005 he won the New York State Wrestling Championship.
Jones then went to Iowa Central Community College to wrestle at the JUCO level, a very tough level of college wrestling. Often, high level JUCO wrestlers transfer to elite DI programs and go on to greatness in their upperclassmen years. Jones won a JUCO National Championship and received a degree in Criminal Justice with the intention of becoming a police officer.
Jon began dabbling in MMA in 2007 with Team BombSquad in New York and fought his first pro fight in 2008. “Bones” quickly racked up a 6-0 record in just four months. In August of 2008, the UFC signed Jones and asked him to fill in for a fight on just three weeks notice against Andre Gusmao. Jones won the fight via decision.
Jones then was given a fight against TUF Alum Stephan Bonnar, who was returning from a lengthy lay off due to injury. Jones won the fight with an impressive array of strikes and throws, which resulted in the first round of Jon Jones hype. After that win, Jones joined the much hailed camp of Greg Jackson.
Jones would go on to fight on the UFC 100 card against Jake O’Brien and win via choke. Jones was then given another TUF veteran Matt Hamill, who Jones dominated until he was disqualified for the use of “12-to-6” elbows when he was raining down strikes on Hamill from the full mount.
Jones was featured in main event matches in the first two UFC on Versus cards and now Jones has been given a quick turn around match against UFC Champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
What has really caused excitement in the MMA community is the skill set that Jon Jones brings into each fight—skills and techniques not often seen in the MMA.
When striking, “Bones” is very inventive in how he mixes his strikes into fights. He has a very long reach, and he uses it very well with a good jab and strong front kicks to keep opponents on the end of his strikes. He also mixes in exciting spinning back kicks, flying knees and has also developed a sequence in which he changes levels and touches his opponent’s leg like he is looking for a takedown and then spinning into an over the top elbow strike.
Now Jones does have some problems with his striking. While he has gravitated towards the flashier techniques, his fundamentals need a little work, not shocking for someone who has only been training in striking for three years. His defensive striking has yet to catch up with his offensive skills. He uses very little head movement and has a tendency to move straight back and when “Bones” starts throwing punching combos he tends to bring his hands down to his hips rather than back to his chin, leaving him open to a counter strike. Also, when throwing his lead hand, Jones tends to pull his right hand back in what boxing coaches call ‘drawing the bow’ which also leaves him open to counter strikes.
“Bones” strong foundation in Greco-Roman wrestling makes him a monster in the clinch, with powerful suplex takedowns. To compliment the strong upper body work of the Greco-Roman grappling, Jones has been adding Judo throws to his arsenal at a shocking rate. Adding a huge outside leg reap, foot sweeps and hip throws to his already intimidating array of wresting takedowns makes Jones one of the best takedown artists in the Light Heavyweight division.
Early in his MMA career, Jones didn’t show much in the way of top position. Even in his early UFC run he had no trouble taking Stephan Bonnar down but had a great deal of trouble keep Bonnar down. But Jones has been developing his top position centered on delivering elbow strikes, and he used this new focus to crush Matt Hamill and defeat Brandon Vera and Vladimr Matyushenko.
To go with his evolving top position game Jones has a good front head lock choke series, using his long arms to threaten scrambling opponents with D’arce, Anaconda and Guillotine chokes. Headlock chokes tend to come naturally for strong wrestlers, who use the head lock for control and Jones has done an excellent job adapting them to fit his body.
That said, “Bones” grappling still needs work. In his fights with Vera and Matyushenko, Jones showed a lack of basic defensive principles in the leaving his arm straight out across his opponents body, ripe for an arm bar.
Jones has also not demonstrated great guard passing abilities and he has never found himself on his back in a fight. Kenny Florian, a BJJ black belt who also spends time with Greg Jackson, has said that Jones’ abilities on his back, especially his guard game, are not very strong on ESPN’s MMA Live before UFC 126.
This is to be expected. Jones has only been training for three years in all these techniques but his potential is what is sparking debates all over message boards and forums. The skill set and athletic ability he posses all at the age of 23 have fans wondering how good Jones can be in five years and then in 10 years.
At the end of his career how will we remember Jon Jones?
I would warn fans who paint Jones as a “can’t miss prospect” that any prospect can in fact miss. A perfect example of that is loser of UFC 126’s main event, Vitor Belfort.
Nicknamed “The Phenom” at an early age by Vale Tudo legend Carlson Gracie, Vitory boasted amazing athletic skills and skill set that was clearly ahead of his time. In the late 1990s when most fighters still only trained in one art Vitor brought a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to go with pro level boxing, and he used those skills to win the UFC Heavyweight Tournament. Belfort was declared the next “Greatest Ever” by fans and what was to follow was a career of inconsistency and disappointment with some successes.
Jon Jones is now entering a formative period of his career, receiving his first title shot. No fighter goes undefeated in modern MMA, a loss is a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’.
But the big question at Light Heavyweight is who? “Shogun” Rua certainly presents serious problems to Jones—high level Muay Thai striking, a granite chin and excellent jiu jitsu to challenge Jones’ grappling abilities. Shogun could be argued to be more skilled at range, in the clinch and on the ground than Jones, but three knee surgeries may have sapped Rua’s athletic gifts.
If Jones is able to become the Champion the other major contenders at 205-pounds, Rampage Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Thiago Silva and Rashad Evans don’t seem to match up favorably.
The biggest threat to Jones in that weight class seems to be prospect Phil Davis, who is another super talented young wrestler. But were Jones has added creative striking to his game Davis has shown a flair for impressive submissions, from climbing the cage to sink in an Anaconda Choke to creating his own variation on the Kimura. Davis has the explosive takedowns and wrestling background to take Jones down and the offensive grappling to put Jones on his back and in trouble.
Now, Jones is still growing at 23 years old and he has spoken to the likelihood of moving to heavyweight. To make that leap, Jones would have to be very sure of his grappling from his back because the UFC Heavyweight division features much stronger wrestling than at 205. Jones will be faced by strong, accomplished wrestlers like current Champion Cain Velázquez, former champ Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin, Jon Madsen and other strong grapplers like Frank Mir and Roy Nelson.
So will Jon Jones be the best MMA fighter ever? Nobody can know that this early in his career.
Jones has the ability, the skill set, the attitude and the youth to put a serious stamp on this sport and is certainly capable of evolving into the greatest MMA fighter of his time.
I understand that there will be fans that make all of us want to hate Jones with their over the top praise of Jones, but his career will be one that all MMA fans should be excited to see play out.