Jon Jones is that “special” kind of athlete, the once-in-a-lifetime sort of competitor that gets the whole world’s attention and keeps it. He’s the Bobby Fischer of MMA, the kind of prodigy that redefines what is possible within a given sport.
He also is quite good at making everyone else feel like a giant underachiever.
Seriously, the dude’s 23 years old, and he’s getting a title shot. Two years ago, Jones took his first legal sip of alcohol; in a few days, he could be crowned the best fighter in the world. I mean c’mon, didn’t the dude just sprout hair on his face? What’s he doing only a hair's breath away from superstardom?
Obviously I’m kidding—Jones is such a freak athlete that I have no doubt he had a full beard and a rippling six-pack at age 10. And I’m guessing the saintly Jones probably isn’t down for drinking, legal or not. Don’t even get him started on the devil’s grass.
This Saturday, Jones takes another massive step up on competition, filling in for the injured Rashad Evans against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 128. Two years ago, Jones was a complete unknown, fighting Stephan Bonnar on the deep undercard. Now he gets to dance with the man many have called the best Light-Heavyweight fighter in MMA history.
So Jones should thank Rashad Evans for this fortuitous turn of fate—except that Jones has made it clear he doesn’t want to talk about Rashad Evans anymore. Ok then. Luckily, Jones has something else he can thank for his success: Arguably the most well-rounded, creative, “flowing” style in MMA today.
It’s that style Jones will need if he wants to strap on 10 pounds of gold in New Jersey this Saturday. Here are the five keys to victory Jon Jones will need if he wants to inaugurate the “Jon Jones Era” and humble “Shogun” Rua.
Jon Jones has always been an extremely confident fighter. He is a master of visualization, of making his dreams into reality with frightening force. Such confidence is a hallmark of future champions. Muhammad Ali had it; so did Michael Jordan, or Tiger Woods. It is arguably a prerequisite of greatness.
And that’s all well and good. But in the lead up to this fight, his confidence has seemed to grow almost into arrogance, into braggadocio. Jon Jones has admitted that he already considers himself the champion. He has been singing autographs “Jon Jones—Champion 2011” for some time now. He even claimed he was going to submit “Shogun” a short while ago.
Now hold on just a second there. Now I know I’ve never thrown Stephan Bonnar like a sack of potatoes, or choked out Ryan Bader with a submission I made up as I went along. Still, that kind of bald-faced arrogance seems like just the sort of thing that can get a young upstart into trouble. I seem to recall Chris Leben confidently predicting he would send Anderson Silva “back to Japan” before this happened.
Forget trying to submit the BJJ black belt Rua. Forget trying to stand and trade with him in a kickboxing match. Forget, in short, simplifying your gameplan to something you can fit in a sentence.
Jones is one of the most all-around proficient fighters in MMA. Not only does he do everything well, he puts everything together well as well. Aside from GSP, no one transitions from striking, to takedowns, to submissions like Jon Jones does. If he wants to win this fight, he needs to keep “Shogun” guessing from the moment the opening bell rings.
Here I go again, giving pointers to a dude who once elbowed Brandon Vera so hard he broke his face. Literally broke his face with a single shot. From inside the guard. With one elbow.
So that’s pretty impressive. Still, before he landed that Hell-bow, Jones was playing it very fast and loose inside Vera’s guard. He kept his arm extended and planted on the mat; a more savvy guard player then Vera might have snatched up that arm for the submission.
I guarantee you “Shogun” would have.
Jon’s insane creativity is one of his biggest strengths as a fighter, but with that creativity must come poise and precision. Jones does the “big” moves like no one else—landing spinning back-elbows, German suplexes, and flying knees with regularity—but it’s the “little” moves, the small adjustments, the minor details, where his inexperience can be a weakness.
If he leaves even the smallest opening, a savvy vet like “Shogun” will make him pay. Just ask Lyoto Machida.
Luckily for him, Jones has continued to progress under the tutelage of MMA guru Greg Jackson. As his namesake would suggest, “Yoda” is a master of finding a fighter's strength, tempering his spirit, and honing his skills.
In previous fights, Jones was Luke Skywalker in “Empire Strikes Back”: raw, obviously talented, but prone to making stupid mistakes, like walking right into a trap, or getting his hand sliced off.
In his last fight, we saw that Jones has matured to “Return of the Jedi” Luke—a matured, powerful warrior who whoops Darth “Bader’s” ass.
Man, I am such a dork.
Since “Shogun” first came to the UFC, he has been dogged by the spectre of a knee that just can’t seem to stay healthy—and many surgeries, months on the shelf, and the suffering cardio that come along with it.
It’s entirely possible that Mauricio Rua is MMA’s Mario Lemieux, a phenomenal player in his own right but forever held back by injuries and health issues. Many hockey luminaries such as Bobby Orr speculate that Lemieux, and not Wayne Gretzky, would be remembered today as the greatest who ever lived, were it not for his injuries.
So may it be with “Shogun.”
Once again, Rua is coming off a complicated knee surgery and many months on the shelf. Last time he was in this position, he ended up getting strangled blue by Forrest Griffin. If “Shogun” has any cardio issue or ring rust coming off his latest stint on the shelf, Jones needs to make it a factor in this fight.
Jones hasn’t proven immune to gassing, either, looking somewhat sluggish in the later rounds against Stephan Bonnar. Still, no one would deny that Jones is an elite level athlete, and the chances of “Shogun” being the more well-conditioned fighter come fight time are not very likely.
Jones should forgo his usual “explode out of the gate” start in favour of a more measured approach. Make “Shogun” work, make him carry your weight, make him fight your weight off against the cage and make him get out from under you. If “Shogun’s” cardio is at it’s usual post-knee surgery level, he should be in need of an oxygen mask by the third round.
At 84.5 inches, Jon Jones has the largest reach in UFC history. Now, I realize that the official “reach” stat should more accurately be called “wingspan.” Still, semantics aside, the fundamental point is the same: Jon Jones is one lanky mofo. And using those E. Honda-esque appendages should be a cornerstone of his gameplan.
“Shogun” is an extremely versatile striker, and he can switch between “go for broke berserker” and “careful, poised counter-striker” with equal aplomb. Against Machida, he was careful, tactical and looking to counter. Against “Rampage” or “Little” Nogueria in PRIDE, he was aggressive, attacking the ultimate Brazilian “Chute Box” barbarian.
Even the differences in strategy between Machida I and Machida II (chop at the legs vs. headhunt) reveals the subtle changes is style and execution that define a world-class striker.
But whatever way “Shogun” chooses to play it, his strategy involves eventually closing the distance to land meaningful strikes. He isn’t looking to shoot any takedowns, and I doubt he’s going to pull guard. That leaves winning in the standup as the most likely avenue to victory for Rua.
Hence, if Jones can use his long reach to facilitate a stiff, range controlling jab, he can effectively shut down some or most of “Shogun’s” offense. Time to take a page out of the GSP/Manny Pacquiao playbook and develop a really strong, stiff jab.
“Shogun’s” orbital bone better beware.
This last one is kind of eclectic, but I think it’s an important part of every signature “Bones” win. It’s what Greg Jackson’s getting at when he talks about Jon’s “creativity” and how he encourages him to “do his thing” as his head coach.
We can talk about technical acumen and wrestling and Muay-Thai and BJJ ‘till the cows come home, but what could very well win this fight for “Bones” is something else, something outside the norms of combat with it’s rigid adherence to dogma, tradition, and form.
Put more simply, Jon Jones’ biggest asset as a fighter is the stuff you can’t plan for, because you didn’t even know it was possible.
The spinning back elbows. The leaping knees. The WWE-style throws and slams. The submissions that always seem sloppy and ineffective right until the one guy suddenly taps out.
Jon Jones has to keep bringing the funk.
It’s a rare advantage for a fighter to carry in this day when everyone cross trains everything; when the best, most effective elements from every style have been distilled, taken as a whole, then blended together. Almost always, you know what you’re game planning for when you face any fighter. The challenges he presents might be immeasurably steep—GSP’s wrestling, for instance—but it’s not a surprise.
Jon Jones isn’t like that. Time after time, experienced, tough vets have claimed to have this guy “figured out”only to be on the receiving end of another crazy, never-before-seen move Jones made up on the spot. His natural aptitude for fighting, his incredible instincts for physical combat, and his dedication in training combine to give “Bones” unprecedented options in the cage.
It’s hard to plan for what you don’t even know is coming. “Bones” needs to keep it funky when he faces “Shogun” and not let the pressure of a UFC main event get to him. If he can keep his composure and keep “doing his thing” as Coach Jackson would say, I see no reason Jones cannot walk out of UFC 128 as the newest, baddest sheriff in the 205 lbs. class.