Jones, Johnson and Golovkin: Where Combat Sport Becomes Fighting Art

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Maybe you were disappointed by Jon Jones versus Ovince St. Preux. I wouldn't blame you, it was objectively not a good fight. That one twenty-five minute slog did little to rain on the parade of artistic attack which marched through the weekend's fight fixtures though. Not only did UFC 197 bring out the best in many of its performers, Bellator 153 checked all the boxes on Friday, and Gennady Golovkin decked yet another opponent with no trouble at all on Saturday night. In a weekend of flying knee breakers, reverse toe holds, jumping switch kicks and au batidos I am finding it hard to organize my adulation so the best place to start is with the man who stole the show, Demetrious Johnson.

In the Court of the Flyweight King

Save me your 'pound-for-pound' and your arguments about who is the 'GOAT' based on a metric you devised yourself, all you need know is that Demetrious Johnson is one of the best to ever play the game. To Henry Cejudo's credit he immediately demonstrated something which every one of Demetrious Johnson's opponents should be attempting—to hack out his trailing leg. Fighters who use a lot of lateral movement spend a lot of their time between stances and out of position to check low kicks. If you can catch one of these fighter's trailing legs as they circle or retreat, there's a good chance it flies up in the air, gets seriously bruised up, and pins them in position on one leg for a follow up attack.

Eight or nine of these landed and Demetrious Johnson would not be the fastest man in MMA for the remainder of the bout.

But a minute later Cejudo demonstrated perfectly why it's not as simple as “more low kicks”. The same kick attempted, but this time avoided. Now I want you to look at the difference in ring position between the two.

In the first kick, Johnson's back foot is by the fence, he is under pressure. He has to circle out and he cannot retreat. Retracting the leg to the fence is still an option but it serves little purpose and does not better his position, it simply flattens him to the fence in front of Cejudo.  In the second he is out in the open, under no pressure, and always has the option of retreat. The lead foot is simply pulled back out of the path of Cejudo's kick.

Cejudo showed those much vaunted wrestling chops in the second clinch of the bout as he hit a beautiful inside trip into Johnson's guard.

But Johnson demonstrated a very simple but equally beautiful stand up. Feet on the hips, biceps control, and simply kick out to the technical stand up. Ever so simple but it allowed him to regain his feet easily after spending no time at all on the floor. There are too many top level fighters who would spend far longer under a wrestler like Cejudo trying to set up a sweep or submission, forgetting entirely about the third option in the guard's holy trinity until they had dropped half the round to him. Sweep, submit, or stand up.

Johnson's best work came, again, in the clinch along the fence. As Cejudo pushed him to the cage wall, Johnson constantly threw up light knees. The kind which are picked up from the floor rather than driven in with the hips. When Johnson got the chance, he would break his hips away and angle off as he slapped on the double collar tie. Much has been made of the fact that Cejudo's wrestling might be as good as it gets but that Olympic wrestling doesn't have people hitting you while you're in the clinch. It is also worth noting that the double collar tie is scarcely used due to its doing little to facilitate a shot and simply giving the opponent elbow control.

The most important point of Johnson's transition is in his angling the hips off. Where Anderson Silva and Fabricio Werdum will often slap on the double collar tie with their back to the fence, they rarely do such good work with their feet in combination. Cejudo was forced to follow Johnson around—the main point of taking angles to begin with—and ate a sharp knee to the liver and elbow to the jaw before he was even in position to defend himself. As always, movement creates openings.  Stunned off of the elbow, Cejudo ate a knee to the jaw and was sent reeling, Johnson followed to pick up a first round finish.

Johnson might not have picked up a finish like this before, but it is nothing new in his game. It was a constant feature against Ali Bagautinov, against whom Johnson would dive in to strike along the fence, and then get turned onto the fence himself. His transitions into the collar tie and tremendous ability to break away from the fence with it allowed him to batter Bagautinov in that bout.

There is a lot of criticism of the flyweight division as being dead in the water now that Johnson is seemingly done clearing it out. In this writer's opinion the division could benefit from being treated like the more stacked division. At present, none of Johnson's challengers have to beat any of the top dogs to get to him. The closest we get to two top contenders meeting is stuff like John Dodson versus Ali Bagautinov and Joseph Benavidez versus John Moraga—after all the participants have already been pushed in to lose against Johnson. If you want stiffer tests for Johnson and to actually build fan followings, make the flyweights work harder to get to him, start matching them off against each other in genuine number one contender matches and make the rankings mean something. Between Benavidez, Dodson, Horiguchi and others there is plenty of talent in the division but treating it as the Demetrious Johnson show, with no other flyweights ever competing in five round fights and no top contenders meeting each other until Johnson has already spoiled their unbeaten streak, is turning flyweight division into the Hulk Hogan era WWF. 

That Jon Jones Fight

In the main event Jon Jones took on Ovince St. Preux in a fairly tedious decision. Many were unimpressed because Jones didn't pick up a stoppage against an opponent who was visibly gassed from the second round onwards but I could never blame a fighter for fighting methodically. The problem was that Jones seemed to tire of throwing unanswered strikes at St. Preux which is a bad look in a lopsided fight in which you are the huge favourite. For St. Preux's part it was brave to step in against Jones at short notice but his striking looked more limited than ever. I wrote last week about how St. Preux rarely if ever throws in combination. I counted on three fingers the number of times St. Preux threw a combination—each time generously considering the one-two as a combination—and on two out of three attempts he landed the second punch hard on Jones' chin. The fact that this level of success in combination didn't spur St. Preux to throw more and not waste so much time feinting and angrily slapping Jones' hands was disappointing.

The gist of the bout was that St. Preux would feint nine or ten strikes, getting kicked in the knees and body in between, before lunging and missing with a single strike. It continues to surprise me that no one except Alexander Gustafsson has shown themselves capable of defusing the low line oblique kicks and side kicks. There's two ways to do it, pick your knee up and check the kick—which leaves you back at square one, at the end of Jones' striking range once the kick has been retracted—or use lateral movement between engagements to dissuade Jones from throwing them in the first place which is what Gustafsson did so well. There is, to a degree, a third method which is to crowd Jones as Daniel Cormier did, but that involves walking through them first. As the rounds progressed Cormier ate more and more blows between successful closings of the distance, and became less effective when he got there as a result. On the few occasions that opponents have thrown low line kicks back at Jones he has neither enjoyed them nor shown himself adept in dealing with them. St. Preux chucked a couple back with decent success but abandoned it for long periods at a time in favour of feinting back kicks which never came.

The sole highlight of the fight was Jones actually throwing the jumping side kick to the knee he can be seen working on in this video:

Rodriguez's Bicycle Kick

Returning to beautiful bits from the weekend, Yair Rodriguez and Andre Fili put together a quick storm of action with an incredible finish. Rodriguez landed the big low kicks at range, while Fili got in with sharp jabs on the occasions the two came close enough. Close to the end of the round, Fili hit a tournament karate favorite—a shifting left hand inside of a round kick which knocked Rodriguez to the mat. These kind of intercepting punches as the opponent kicks are the favorite of Lyoto Machida largely because a punch while the opponent is on one leg has a great chance of knocking him to the floor even if the connection is not a great one.

In the second round Rodriguez fought more from a southpaw stance. The finish came as he showed a low line side kick, then feinted another with a leg raise, turning it out and following with the round kick to the head. A beautiful jumping switch kick which caught Fili flush and saw the end of the fight.

Most who have seen Rodriguez fight before will remember him missing this a great many times before finally picking up this knockout. Here are two from the same fight but if Tony Ferguson's success has taught us anything it is that fans love a wild man.

It was a crushing knockout but with one man being twenty-five and the other twenty-three, they're practically infants in their MMA careers. There is still plenty of time to see where they go from here but you could not imagine a better sort of fight to get casual fans get excited for up coming talent though. If the UFC could secure a couple of fights like this on each pay-per-view card it wouldn't have half as much trouble building up new names. But then it's the fight game, you can't actually make interesting fights just ones which might be interesting if you're lucky.  But with this victory it is clear that Yair Rodriguez has all the potential to be the star in Mexico that the UFC desperately wanted Cain Velasquez to be.

A Crisper Barboza

A final important bout from UFC 197 was the much anticipated meeting between Anthony Pettis and Edson Barboza. Here Barboza picked up easily the biggest victory of his career and looked sharp doing it.  Pettis came out looking smart, he was moving a great deal more than usual seemingly to defuse the threat of the low kicks and make his legs a more difficult target. However Pettis got into a rut of pumping two jabs and stepping in with the right hand. Barboza would wait until the right hand had missed and would return with the left hook, stinging Pettis flush. When the two traded blows, Barboza would finish with the sharp left hook taking him back into his guard and protecting him behind his lead shoulder—that 'closing the door' we always reference.

Especially effective throughout was Barboza's inside low kick with the lead leg. This skip up technique is pretty awkward but Barboza has it down to one sharp, instantaneous motion. When you see a master of it like Rambaa Somdet you realize just how dangerous and debilitating it can be if you are willing to put in the hours. It simply plays havoc with the opponent's stance. Barboza battered Pettis' lead leg throughout, and even paired it with the left hook, Cub Swanson style. Unlike Swanson, however, Barboza's left hook had far less pivot and did not turn him so sideways, so that the kick had good hip rotation. Where Swanson's emphasis is often on the hook with the kick as the afterthought. Different folks, different strokes, and just really interesting stuff to compare on this unusual combination.

Henderson versus Koreshkov

At Bellator 153 on Friday the company had one of its biggest wins in a while as welterweight champion, Andrey Koreshkov put on the fight of his life against top UFC lightweight, Benson Henderson. Walking Henderson to the fence, swarming on him with hard knees and kicks, and sprawling on any attempt at a takedown. Henderson had shown decent success at welterweight in the UFC in his bout against Brandon Thatch, but Koreshkov proved too much. While there are many who would say that Henderson is best as a lightweight—and I would agree—Koreshkov showed himself extremely technically able in this bout. To Henderson's credit, though he looked physically overwhelmed he never looked to have accepted the fact that he was beaten. Even from his back he was throwing those famous capoeira style kicks from the floor, including a tasty au batido which he used to regain his feet. An exceptionally cool, if labor intensive, alternative to the traditional technical stand up.

The task for Bellator now is following up on the biggest victory of Koreshkov's career. Lightweight and welterweight are the most talent rich divisions in MMA but the UFC has all the best talent at welterweight on lockdown. The most interesting thing that Bellator could possibly do is convince ONE FC to co-promote a card and top it with Koreshkov versus Ben Askren. Askren is the sole man to defeat Koreshkov, and while he remains one of the top welterweight talents out there he has looked lazy and downright sloppy at times in his last few fights, seemingly aware that the opposition he has been matched against is not up to snuff. He had some scary moments in his first bout with Sapo, looking in no condition to keep shooting failed takedowns for three or five rounds. Alternatively Bellator could keep its eye on UFC cast offs from lightweight and welterweight, maybe even at the lighter end of middleweight, and offer them title fights against Koreshkov. Build him up as some kind of Russian UFC hunter.

For Henderson? There's no shame to be had in this defeat, Henderson has been handicapping his performances in his last few bouts by insisting on fighting at welterweight while he is still one of the top lightweights in the world. As a lightweight, Henderson is the highest ranked fighter outside of the UFC and Bellator should look to use that. With Will Brooks apparently wanting to go to the UFC when his contract expires, Bellator should make him defend his title against Henderson—if Brooks intended to leave anyway there's no harm in him winning, and if he loses to Henderson perhaps that UFC offer will become less appealing. It's certainly one of the most meaningful fights they can make at this point. ]

Venom's Toe Hold

Michael Page also picked up an impressive submission win with what looked like a reverse toe hold. Very unusual to see outside of 90s era Pancrase and I was glad that he was able to finish it as his opponent went unpunished for landing numerous illegal upkicks to the face in an attempt to get out of it.

But watching Page fight has become more frustrating than enjoyable. His style is still unique and entertaining, but promoters are still squandering his tremendous talent against overmatched opposition. We are four years into Page's MMA career, he is already almost thirty years old, and he has fought no one of even marginal note inside the cage. It's not his fault, he signed to face the formidable Fernando Gonzalez before that bout fell through, it is the fault of promoters trying to sell the untouchable Anderson Silva vibe. It is just so hard to take that vibe seriously when he hasn't even fought the better fighters in the B-league.

Another Golovkin Knockout

The boxing press are still gagging for Gennady Golovkin versus Canelo Alvarez but many in the community have given up on it happening, at least until they both really need it. Yet as someone who doesn't have to write narratives for that sport, I'm more than happy to tune in once every few months to watch Golovkin steam roll some mandatory challenger and enjoy picking out which tools in his usual bag of tricks are getting the job done. On Saturday night Golovkin picked up his twenty-second consecutive knockout against Dominic Wade and it was textbook Golovkin.

Golovkin established a left hook to the liver early as he walked Wade down, deflecting the meaningful blows and simply taking the lesser ones. As the two came into a clinch, I appreciated the referee encouraging them to fight out of it—whenever I return to boxing after so long covering MMA and studying the fights of old timers like Henry Armstrong and Archie Moore, it saddens me when referees call a break at the first sign of the fighters' heads touching. So Golovkin worked a Jack Johnson uppercut under his own arm, and dipped his head underneath Wade's in order to create space and withdraw his arms from the clinch. A left hook, a left straight and an overhand right as WaWaderd tried to fight back sent Wade to the canvas.

It was the right hand over Wade's left, the old cross counter which was causing Wade trouble in the early going. As Golovkin connected one to start the second round, Wade began to keep his left tighter to his head and not open up with his left when Golovkin closed in. For Triple G this was an invitation to work the body. Left hooks to the body and wide rights followed. A nice left uppercut from from close range set up a wide right to the body.

Soon after, Golovkin used the same squared left uppercut to raise Wade's head in hopes of landing the overhand. A Golovkin favorite which was instrumental in knocking out Ishida among others. As it turned out the right hand did not find its mark but the left uppercut had connected so unexpectedly that Wade went to the floor anyway.

The finishing blow was another right hand across Wade's left when it was slow to return.

Another terrific performance and while they say that Golovkin just doesn't bring in the viewers, consistently knocking out opponents is always going to ensure a market for Golovkin among fight fans. The question is whether his constant forward pressure and disregard for his opponent's punches will catch up with him as he edges towards forty.

Pick up Jack's new kindle book, Finding the Art, or find him at his blog, Fights Gone By.