A fighter's legacy is forged not from his successes but from the times he teeters on the cusp of failure, or rebounds emphatically from it. A fighter is defined, more than anything, by his rivals.
Certainly, Muhammad Ali was the best heavyweight boxer in the world for a number of years, but we don't remember him for effortlessly blasting Zora Foley, Cleveland Williams, and Floyd Patterson. We recall him with fond admiration for his struggle against the relentless Joe Frazier, and for enduring the petrifying George Foreman.
After three years of mopping up the old men of the UFC and PRIDE Light Heavyweight divisions, it seems that Jon Jones finally hit a vein of new blood in his challengers. Among them, Jones might have found a perfect foil in the Olympian, Daniel Cormier.
“When Duncan is Asleep...”
Killing the King provides a study of the flaws and habits of the best fighters in the world, the UFC champions. It is partly an exercise in film study, but I feel it also serves to cut through the hyperbole that we are fed so often in this sport. No one is unbeatable, no one is 'practically invincible', and everyone is making mistakes, all the time.
Mistakes? UFC champions? Yes. Because at the highest level, a mistake is not necessarily a technical error, like dropping your hands or crossing your feet, it is simply the showing of a habit.
The perfect fighter has no habits; is completely unpredictable. He also doesn't exist, and can't, because there are only so many ways to lead or counter without telegraphing or placing yourself in obvious danger. Every fighter gravitates towards their favorite methods, and these become habitual. When you don't even know where to start looking for weaknesses in a fighter, start by taking away their A-game.
You might have been astounded at how much less effective Anderson Silva was when forced to lead, or Georges St. Pierre proved to be when he was denied his jab. It is one thing to be the best in the world with your A-game, it would be an almost unparalleled feat to be the best in the world on your back-up plan.
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.
To the Guillotine with the Chasse Bas
The chief concern of anyone fighting against Jon Jones is not to stand still at range and eat straight kicks over the legs and body. A plethora of Jones' opponents have lost in this phase alone. They get into the range that they are normally comfortable thinking from, but find their lead knee being forcibly straightened by sidekicks and oblique kicks.
This strategy has proved divisive in the mixed martial arts sphere for the reason that it can hyper-extend the knee of a fighter if he receives a kick without suitable flex in his leg. Those in favor of allowing such kicks will often demand that you point them toward a serious injury that occurred as a result of oblique kicks or side kicks to the lead leg. Quinton Jackson's repeated difficulties with knee injuries since his bout with Jones seems an obvious answer.
Through three rounds, Jackson did an admirable job of denying Jones' takedowns or scrambling out of bad positions. At the end of the third, after eating dozens of low kicks, his knee buckled on an oblique kick and he visibly hobbled backwards. At the beginning of the fourth stanza, Jones closed in, easily took Jackson to the ground, and finished the fight.
I should point out that I am enthusiastically in favor of permitting such kicks, even with the injuries that Jackson, and others, might sustain. To me, prohibiting these kicks would be akin to prohibiting armbars because fighters refused to learn to defend them, and then refused to tap out when caught in one. The broken appendage is the fault of the fighter not defending himself adequately in a career where busted up limbs are an occupational hazard.
The oblique kick is not a new development in combat sports, nor is the sidekick to the knee joint. Savate has been fighting with both as primary weapons for decades. Savate, the French form of kickboxing, is unique in its mandatory footwear. The word savate is derived from the French for “old boots” and the art began as a street fighting method. Nowadays the footwear is much more sporty, though.
The shoes worn in savate mean that many kicks are performed with the point of the toes or with the edge of the sole. The coup de pied bas and the chasse frontal bas are very similar kicks, but the former scoops up into the shin with the inside edge of the shoe, the latter stamps in with the sole of the foot.
Coup de pied bas, with the inside of the shoe being used against the shin.
The chasse bas can be delivered with the foot upright.
Or, as Jones likes to, with the toes pointed out to make the foot a wider surface, reducing the risk of glancing off the target.
If you want to learn to deal with a method, go to the people who have been matched against it most often. One of the more common methods for dealing with the chasse frontal to the lead leg in savate is to move the leg laterally, bringing it to the center line so that the chasse misses its mark, but the defending fighter is in perfect position to step in before the kicker retracts his leg.
If a fighter is not so dexterous with his legs, however, a good rule when dealing with low kicks is to pick leg up, make sure it's bent, and point your knee and the front of your shin towards the kick. You'll take the brunt on the hardest part of your shin, and if your leg is bent and your foot off the floor, there is no chance of hyper extending your knee. It's the difference between attempting to break a board that is braced at both ends, and a board which is suspended from one end and free to move around.
The great issue for the heavy handed brawlers—Quinton Jackson and Vitor Belfort most notably—and why they'll never pose a problem for Jon Jones is that they have to walk through those kicks to get in and do damage. So what you'll see is a constant plodding, interrupted each time by Jones forcibly straightening their lead leg at speed, until eventually they give up, stand still, and get battered even worse.
But checking a kick, or evading it, is a reactionary measure. It is breaking out the buckets and hurrying to get the water out of your boat. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that takes on a greater significance when you're talking about the nerves and ligaments in your own leg.
Denying the Straight Kicks
Straight kicks serve a purpose: they keep an opponent at range and punish him there. They are, however, very limited in their optimum range. Not in terms of too close and too far, but just a little movement to the left or the right and the oblique kick and low side kick are hard to throw, let alone land. It’s the same as trying to throw a jab at ten o'clock or two o'clock. You can't actually do it with any decent snap or power. You'll turn first, get the target in your sights, and fire to twelve o'clock.
This crude diagram shows the area in which Jones' right oblique kick does its damage. Coming straight in at Jones takes a fighter through this area, at which point the kick will slam into their lead leg and halt their progress.
When Jones switches to southpaw stance (or is fighting against a southpaw opponent) and dusts off his sidekick, it's the same sort of area in which he can kick comfortably.
The trick is that if a fighter is circling, he will quickly leave that zone of effectiveness in front of Jones. Jones will be forced to turn, and when he's turning, he can't kick. I heartily encourage you to attempt it. It's two separate actions, turn, then kick. A fighter might be able to do it quickly, but it's still a whole lot of extra work.
Lateral movement denies the opportunity to straight kick the lead leg, and that is what you saw a great deal of from Alexander Gustafsson. His circling around the cage had Jones working at a dismal rate at range, compared to his usual performances. Forcing a fighter to turn and move his feet constantly also does wonders to hide a move into boxing range as he follows you around.
Keep Jones' feet moving and he can't kick so freely. Of course, this is true of anyone.
Lateral movement not only forces an opponent to turn before he throws his straight strikes, it demands a great deal of anticipation from him when he does attempt to time them. An instant too soon or too late and that strike is going to fly past the target, or glance off of it. Alexander Gustafsson might not have been pulling his leg out of the way perfectly on time, like a savateur, but when Jones did throw his straight kicks, they often glanced off or missed altogether. Doesn't matter if you're Jon Jones or Bob Sapp—being on one foot, having missed your kick, while your opponent is in punching position, is not good.
The first takedown scored on Jones in his entire career came as Gustafsson parried one of Jones' straight kicks and capitalized. Even Jon Jones can't give up dominant positions so easily, and following this counter he threw his straight kicks far less frequently.
When a fighter is circling, the smart thing to do is to try to herd him into circular strikes—hook punches and round kicks. His movement into them will shorten the path and add force to the collision. But Jones' round kicks have been largely absent in recent years, and when he did throw them against Gustafsson, Gusty would take them and use the recovery time on Jones' kick to get close enough to box anyway. Certainly most will remember the markedly undersized Lyoto Machida stepping inside of Jones off of a round kick.
Gustafsson steps in off of a round kick. On a straight kick, Jones' knee would be in the way of Gustafsson as he moved in.
A final method for denying Jones his straight kicks is simply to kick more. When Gustafsson was struggling with the kicks in the first round against Jones, he started throwing low kicks, Jones began to pick his legs up to check, and the threat of the straight kicks became less constant. Gustafsson had chances to move in. The same was true of the third round of the Jones—Jackson contest. When Jackson kicked, Jones stopped. Then Jackson went back to wading forward and doing naught to prevent Jones from nailing him on the way in.
Denying the kicks and being prepared to deal with them is step one to beating Jones. Without any strategy that specifically neutralizes the kicks, a fighter will have to get very lucky to beat Jones. But that's just one barrier of reach, there's a whole second set of limbs to deal with.
Height and Reach
We have spoken about the importance of the lateral in denying the straight kicks, but now I want to talk about mastering the vertical.
The great boxing coach, Kenny Weldon, often referred to 'the myth of fighting tall'. To put it into my own terms: your reach is greatest at shoulder level and every inch up or down costs you in reach. You can try this yourself quite easily. Stand facing a wall with your left shoulder presented to it as if on the completion of a stiff jab. Stretch out so that your arm is straight, level with your shoulder, so that you can just touch the wall with your finger tips. Without moving, hinge at the shoulder and reach a little higher or lower. The effects are obvious.
To capitalize on a reach advantage, you want your shoulder level with the opponent's face. So a small height advantage is great, but anything beyond that requires the taller fighter to crouch into a deeper stance to maximize his reach.
Furthermore, punching downward on an opponent exposes a fighter to far more opportunities on the counter. When punching downward it is very hard to raise the shoulder, as one should always do when punching correctly, to shield the jaw line. Particularly in MMA, where the gloves are far too small to act as protection, the shoulder remains and enormous chunk of bone and muscle which can be brought across to hide the jaw.
Joe Frazier famously remarked that you'd have to reach down to hit him, and when you did, he'd have something for you. Frazier was short for a heavyweight but exaggerated this by dipping almost constantly through a fight. Fighters opened up and punched down at him, only to eat a hook and hit the deck.
To take advantage of a taller fighter's disadvantages at close range—where his long levers become awkward and ineffectual in transferring power—it is necessary to transition through his striking range. That's a whole range where he can hit you, but you can't hit him. We've spoken about mastery of lateral movement as paramount to denying Jones his straight kicks, but mastery of vertical movement is necessary to get through his boxing range.
Now it is important here to differentiate between dipping and weaving. Dipping is bending at the knees while maintaining the stance with the upper body. Weaving is bending at the waist. Weaving, done badly, can readily be met with an uppercut, or in MMA, a knee. That's not to say that weaving doesn't work in MMA, it just has its risks. K.J. Noons and Igor Vovchanchyn both had incredible success by bending at the waist and coming up with swings.
Joe Frazier bends at the waist amid a Muhammad Ali flurry, then returns with a left hook.
When bending at the legs, rather than the waist, it is much easier to move in on an opponent. Bending forward at the waist tends to hamper foot movement. And as getting in on Jones is the objective here, we'll talk about the more effective method for that end.
Ross Pearson bends mainly at the knees to get in on George Sotoropoulis.
A few weeks ago we looked at Roberto Duran and his terrific method of getting in on taller men. Duran would throw out a jab, signaling to his opponent that he was about to start throwing down, at which point they'd naturally throw back, only to find their punch swooshing past Duran's slick hair. The jab and duck was a classic Duran technique, and is preached by most boxing coaches because it is so battle proven. You initiate, you duck, and you're left with a whole realm of opportunities under or over the opponent's punching arm.
Duran (left) jabs and immediately ducks to the inside of his opponent's return, before opening up with a left hook to the body.
Jon Jones' boxing is actually not terribly unlike that of former bantamweight champion, Renan Barao. He doesn't punch in combination much, he tries to find big jabs and lead hooks when his opponents step in on him. Mitch Gagnon's method against Barao could work superbly for a Jones opponent. Gagnon would jab, dip, and either come up with a rattling left hook, or move in on a single collar tie clinch. Either of these would be brilliant for say, former Olympic wrestler, Daniel Cormier.
But vertical movement is not simply limited to the jab and duck. Alexander Gustafsson had terrific success with the classical body jab. It's a virtually non-existent punch in mixed martial arts, and subsequently even the best fighters in the world don't do nearly enough work on countering or denying it. Yet Alexander Gustafsson and Junior dos Santos repeatedly show what every quality boxer from Sugar Ray Robinson to Floyd Mayweather Jr. already knew—the body jab creates openings.
Gustafsson jabbed Jones' body all night and it threw Jones, the best light heavyweight MMA fighter in the world, into a terrible fluster. Jones was reaching for the body jabs and eating hooks as Gustafsson came up.
Hold on a minute. What about the danger of the knee or the uppercut? Well, it's a lot harder to time a ducking opponent than you might think. Especially if they mix the jab-and-duck with the occasional upright 1-2 to catch you out if you start loading up for an uppercut (in fact, half of Roberto Duran's knockouts came this way). But timing the knee strike is exceptionally difficult, especially if you're concerned about takedowns. Featherweight champion, Jose Aldo is unique in the way that he carries himself, he can draw the shot and already has his knee cocked and ready to intercept. But even Aldo forgets this when he's dragged into an actual striking match.
Vertical movement is a crucial part of the equation to beat Jones because it serves to counter Jones' excellent jab, but it would be remiss to write about Jones and not mention his habit for getting his fingers in his opponent's eyes. 'Touch him with your jab' is a nonsense expression, but you only need graze an eye with your finger and you've crippled your opponent defensively for at least the next few seconds.
You might think it a petty thing to point out, but if you were going into a fight with Evander Holyfield or Floyd Mayweather and weren't prepared to be head butted, you'd be building your game plan on faith in their good sportsmanship when money, fame, and world titles were on the line. In a professional fistfight, you cannot write off repeated eye pokes as an unhappy coincidence. Getting past Jones' hands without meeting them head on is vital.
Before we move to conclusions, it's probably important to note that head movement and lateral movement will also serve to remove the hand traps into elbow strikes which Jones also utilizes to great effect on the feet. Jones' elbows really come into play when and opponent is standing square in front of Jones, at which point he'll reach forward, smothering both of their hands, and turn one arm over into an elbow strike. Alternatively, he uses the same elbow as the opponent comes in. Again, this works best when an opponent is just plodding forward, it was not nearly so effective against the mobile Gustafsson or Machida.
Want to avoid losing the handfight? Move out of range and re-engage.
To best a great champion on his own terms is nigh impossible. To deny his usual method and beat him at the stuff he has barely practiced in the gym is a far more realistic goal. You saw it when Johny Hendricks used his lead hand to take away Georges St. Pierre's jab—all the set ups St. Pierre had built around his left hand suddenly melted away. His takedown attempts became more obvious, his striking became awkward and predictable, and Hendricks never really had to fight the same Georges St. Pierre who battered Josh Koscheck, Carlos Condit, and Thiago Alves.
Jon Jones built his throne on the effectiveness of just a few tools on the feet. We know next to nothing about Jones' bottom game, or how he'll deal with Daniel Cormier's excellent trips and outside single, because we haven't seen that, but every single habit a fighter shows can be trained for and taken away or exploited.
It is worth praising Jones for his performance against Alexander Gustafsson because Gustafsson took away the straight kicks with lateral movement, and battered Jones with level changes and slick combination boxing, but Jones still found his way to victory. Jones might not have clean, traditional boxing, and he might have looked confused as to how to keep the distance when Gustafsson was never straight in front of him. But Jones has a fighters instincts and a great eye for detail. He noticed Gustafsson constantly slipping to the elbow side of his jab, and he timed him with the spinning elbow beautifully. The same flaw was found by Jones' beautiful left high kicks.
The man who beats Jon Jones, be it by striking or by grappling, must get his hands on the light heavyweight king. I don't know if Daniel Cormier has the footwork and the boxing to do it but if he does anything except attack Jones head on, walking through the chasse, the side kick and the jab, he'll have accomplished something and considerably increased his chances of Killing the King.
On the subject of regicide, the nominations for 'MMA Journalist of the Year' have just been announced and I am honored to be one of the five writers shortlisted. If you have enjoyed my work this year and feel like helping me usurp my friend, Ariel Helwani, kindly vote for me here.
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