Can Anyone Beat UFC Living Legend Jon Jones?

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterMarch 1, 2019

Jon Jones attends a news conference for the UFC 235 mixed martial arts event, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Las Vegas. Jones is scheduled to fight Anthony Smith on March 2 in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
John Locher/Associated Press

There are no perfect fighters. No athlete is unbeatable, certainly not in a sport where large people wear tiny gloves and throw haymakers with reckless abandon and startling force.

At least, that's what I've always believed. And why not? After all, we've seen the greats of this sport fall. The toughest men and women to ever step into a cage have each eventually left the arena in ignominious defeat.

Fedor Emelianenko was unbeatable—until Fabricio Werdum choked him silly in just over a minute one sad night in San Jose, California.

No one was going to beat Georges St-Pierre again—right up until the moment little Matt Serra caught him behind the ear and changed the world.

Remember Anderson Silva? He was an impossible puzzle too—and then he danced a little too close to the sun and got singed right on the chin by Chris Weidman.

This is a sport that humbles all its legends in time.

So, when Bleacher Report asked me to poke holes in Jon Jones' game, to imagine him defeated and deposed, I immediately said yes. I'd done this before with the seemingly unstoppable Ronda Rousey, not only identifying weaknesses in her game, but even picking out the perfect opponent to remove her from the throne.

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That worked out pretty well. Not so much for Rousey, who was kicked right into the WWE. But for me.

Jones, surely, has a weakness too. Even Superman has kryptonite. And so I turned to the tape, watching fight after fight as the sinking feeling in my stomach grew.

Yes, every fighter is human. Jones is too. He's just the next evolution, the kind of man born for a dystopian future where every moment is a fight for survival. Watching Jones in the cage is a chance to see a man doing exactly what he was born to do.

"Jon Jones is simply the best to have ever done it. It is just as simple as that," ESPN analyst and former Jones opponent Chael Sonnen said. "And every time you see Jon fight, you will make a case for the other guy, which is important, and that is what keeps the industry as a business moving forward. And every time Jon fights, we get reminded there is just simply nobody who can go with him."

Long and lean, yet still sturdy and strong, Jones has the physical tools to contest every fight on his own terms. Under the tutelage of Mike Winkeljohn and Brandon Gibson, he's developed a striking style that allows him to engage when he wants and how he sees fit.

His long legs allow him to reach out and touch fighters who can only dream of striking him back. From his normal stance, he can pepper foes with kicks to the legs, the knee an especially favorite target. When he switches to a southpaw, it's the body kick that stings. He can, like Michelle Obama, go high from either stance.

Standing at range is a fool's game against Jones. Crossing that no man's land in between, however, is a truly dangerous endeavor. It is, as former Bleacher Report colleague Jack Slack pointed out in a 2014 essay, the key to killing the king:

"When studying the technical and athletic marvel that is UFC light heavyweight champion, Jon Jones, the crucial question is range. Too many men have plodded or sprinted towards him, hoping to clench their teeth and get through Jones' striking range and into their own on nothing but a prayer. But lately a chink has appeared in the champion's armor. Alexander Gustafsson laid the foundations, and showed just how much Jones can struggle without his favorite toys."

Unfortunately for Jones' opponents, Slack's analysis was more apt five years ago than it is today. In the last several years, he's learned to use his kicks as a deterrent, less focused on landing a clean shot than simply forcing his foes to stay where he wants them.

The Gustafsson rematch last year serves to highlight just how thoroughly Jones has corrected all of his flaws. The strikes he was already good at have demonstrably improved, and he deploys them better than ever.

Jones demolished Gustafsson in a rematch last year.
Jones demolished Gustafsson in a rematch last year.Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

Old tricks, like Gustafsson's jab to the body, are negated with the threat of an uppercut, Jones' tape study and uncanny ring smarts enabling him to seemingly peer into the future to see what opponents will try next. Attempts to circle away from his linear attacks are punished with brutal body and leg kicks and a snapping left hook.

As opponents attempt to solve the range puzzle, Jones will suddenly step in with a strong single leg or a vicious short elbow, his arms long enough to use it the way less gifted fighters might use a straight punch. In recent fights, as if all that wasn't enough, he's added a stinging jab to the repertoire, just one more thing for rivals to worry about as they step into the biggest bouts of their professional lives.

Worse, if you can somehow close the distance, he's an excellent clinch fighter, pushing even the best grapplers up against the cage and slowly sucking their will with precision knees to the body. He inspires dread in even the stoutest of hearts with the constant threat of a spinning elbow strike.

Did I mention he's also a wrestling prodigy with the kind of brutal ground-and-pound that makes the squeamish and the decent call for an end to this sport's very existence?

Jones' dominance is such that even his single loss was the result of his demolishing poor Matt Hamill with elbows, their downward angle an absurd technicality that led to his disqualification. In 19 UFC fights, 12 of them contested for the light heavyweight title against the best in the world, I could only find a handful of times Jones was even in trouble, let alone close to defeat.

Aside from the first Gustafsson fight, Jones has looked mortal only in moments, never for extended periods.

Rashad Evans, Jones' former training partner and friend, caught the champion with a high kick and a hard punch in their 2012 fight. Few in the division's history can match Evans' combination of speed and power, but even the former champion could only use it to his advantage a couple of times in a five-round fight.

TORONTO, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 22:    (R-L) Vitor Belfort attempts an arm bar submission against Jon 'Bones' Jones during their light heavyweight championship bout at UFC 152 inside Air Canada Centre on September 22, 2012 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo
Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

At UFC 152, Vitor Belfort, another former champion, caught an overconfident Jones with an armbar in the first round, taking advantage of Jones' putting his right hand behind Belfort's head to control his movement. Belfort, who has never completed a submission off his back in his 22-year fighting career, nearly pulled off a miracle win.

Against Chael Sonnen, whom Jones manhandled and toyed with before mercifully ending the contest as the seconds ticked down on the first and only round, disaster almost struck. A flaw in the Octagon's construction caused a gruesome toe injury. The cage itself, perhaps, is as dangerous as any human foe.

Beyond these rare shows of vulnerability, the best bet for success against Jones has been to take your lumps in the cage and then cross your fingers on the drug-test results afterward. That's the only way an opponent has managed to stay out of the loss column, though Daniel Cormier's post-fight tears and prone body after a head-kick knockout tell a different story than the one on the official record.

Drug use and criminality of various kinds have plagued Jones throughout his career. By his own admission, it remains an issue, though one he claims to have under control.

"It was something I was striving for, especially going to rehab this summer. I was striving for complete sobriety. But, I am not ready for it," Jones told ESPN's Ariel Helwani last year. "It is not who I was, and it's not who I am in my life or career. And I am at a place where I can be honest with myself."

Jones, as ever, is the man most likely to stop the myth of Jon Jones in its tracks. Even during fight week, fans still worry that something will go wrong—perhaps because it has before. That, as much as his transcendent excellence, has been the story of the man's career.

Impulses and demons are the only worthy rivals for an athlete as gifted, smart and adaptable as Jones. It's the internal struggle, not the one in the cage, that has always been Jones' toughest test. At UFC 235, the champion will be fighting Anthony Smith. But the real battle will be the one he fights against his own worst inclinations.

               

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.