The Wrestling of Jon Jones: Adaptation or Deterioration?

Jon Jones
(Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)

In 2009, Jon Jones captured the attention of MMA fans. After only training in mixed martial arts for about a year, the young phenom displayed prodigious development in his striking and an athletic style that immediately translated to physical dominance.

Those in the know may not have been particularly impressed with his flashy, understandably messy striking, but the wrestling ability of the junior college national champion was undeniably phenomenal.

For more context on what Jones’ wrestling credentials actually mean, please reference Coach Mike Riordan‘s article on the subject.

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10 years later, predictably, Jon Jones is a very different fighter. While most have focused on the progression of his unique striking style, the wrestling of Jon Jones has changed dramatically as well.

The Wrestling of Jon Jones

Title Run

Shots

As a wrestler in MMA, the takedown opportunities most available to you are reactive shots. Body type can drastically alter a wrestler’s style, however. Jon Jones has always been lanky for his weight class, and while he has the skill set to shoot doubles or singles with driving finishes, it’s not his most comfortable takedown approach.

Luckily, in MMA, you’re often given entries on a silver platter as opponents leap into you, hips forward.

Jon Jones shoots on opponents in his title run
My only explanation for what Matyushenko did is that he did not believe Jon Jones was going to try to take him down.

From space, Jones isn’t an excellent wrestling technician. Even when he was much more boxing heavy, his striking didn’t blend into takedown entries in the traditional sense, meaning most attempts had to come off explosive level changes. For a tall man, that can be exhausting without a quick finish.

By Jones’ last couple of non-title fights, his striking style had developed to the point where most light heavyweights were extremely flustered. A folkstyle elite in Ryan Bader found himself completely out of stance for their entire fight, making him an easy shot target, freezing up, standing square and raising his hands every time Jones made a move. Bader took terrible, telegraphed shots from the outside and even pulled guard twice.

Upper Body

The worst part of rewatching every Jon Jones fight was hearing Mike Goldberg call every single thing that happened from the clinch Greco-Roman. For the uninformed, Greco only allows attacks above the waist, your legs can’t be used in the attack, either. So the foot sweeps, inside trips, and hip tosses (mostly) from Jones are decidedly not Greco, Mike. I believe he also referred to a few positions as “the Greco-Roman clinch”, which is about as bad as calling the double collar tie “the Thai clinch.”

On the other hand, wrestling Greco likely gave Jones the conceptual feel to add upper body techniques into his arsenal for folkstyle and freestyle competition. For those familiar with judo, the idea of kuzushi, off-balancing your opponent or other setups before your attack, still applies. Because there is a one-point stepout rule in Greco, there is a constant pushing and pulling from all manner of ties, and most major offense ends up occurring on the edge.

You exploit your opponent’s hunger for the stepout and use their momentum for the throw. I will say that Jones had an exceptionally quick trigger on his upper body techniques, and had no fear in executing when he felt his opponent bring their weight forward heavily in a familiar tie.

Jon Jones throws Stephan Bonnar
It appears that Stephan Bonnar never figured out why the throws were working.

Jon Jones hasn’t thrown anyone since his title run, there are a few reasons for that, the most obvious is that no one is mindlessly pressuring into him from over-under, double underhooks or double overhooks anymore.

In this Hector Lombard wrestling breakdown, you’ll see that most of his most aesthetic attacks were possible because of sustained, predictable pressure from his opponent in the clinch.

Setups

Also featured in said Lombard breakdown is how clinch knees can be perfect setups. When your opponent is standing square, the knee becomes available. After feeling a few decent shots, Matt Hamill and Brandon Vera favor one side and lead with their hip, blading their stance to avoid further punishment.

Jon Jones uses knees to set up takedowns
Yes, fine, I will take that leg.

You can see Jones tripping both inside and outside after his opponents practically offer him their lead legs.

Against Vera we see Jones using the inside trip to enter in on a double leg against the cage. Beginning the attack from an underhook and collar tie, Jones had the freedom to immediately switch his hands to the double after driving Vera back.

Leading From Upper Body

Not all of Jones’ offense from the clinch came reactively.

Off the Russian tie, Jones works for the inside trip setup into a shot for the first time, but Bonnar had enough room behind him to escape, although his defense is frankly terrible. The following inside trip attempt came with no tangible setup, Bonnar was simply standing close enough that Jones could reach his trail leg and fall forward.

Jon Jones trips Stephan Bonnar
Stephan Bonnar’s wrestling was pretty bad.

Title Reign

Some might say Jon Jones has constantly evolved his game. This suggests that every development has been for the best. It is more accurate to say Jon Jones has constantly changed his game. In examining his title run, we’ll see brilliant and questionable tactics alike come and go.

Punching and Slipping Into the Clinch

This is a wrinkle that would have worked particularly well with throw-happy Jones. Essentially every opponent Jones has ever faced as a champion has been eager to walk into him and throw a heavy rear hand.

It made perfect sense for Jones to be able to time and slip or duck under those strikes for reliable clinch entries.

Jon Jones slips punches to enter the clinch
I am a very talented illustrator, obviously that fight against Shogun did not happen IRL.

We saw this exactly once against Shogun Rua, but the tactic did not return until Jones had been through the wringer against Alexander Gustafsson in their first meeting.

The basic reason we’ve seen so little of this is because Jon Jones has become more and more specialized as an outfighter. If you watch his UFC debut against Andre Gusmao, Jones was essentially a pressure fighter. Not many fighters have been competent enough to consistently get inside on Jones on their terms, so perhaps the necessity is not there for this approach.

What we saw much more often in this time period was Jones turning in with his shoulder to intercept the striking entries of his opponents. This is a very Greco-Roman way to deal with pressure, but Mike Goldberg didn’t mention that once. 

Unsuccessful Attempts

Earlier, we discussed kuzushi and Stephan Bonnar’s awful defense. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson is not exactly known for his defensive wrestling, but he showed aptitude for defending attacks with no effective setup.

Jones looks to inside trip without creating any motion from Jackson, and it gets him nowhere. Jackson is blocking the hip, anticipating the attack, or knees. Jones looks to level change off the front headlock, and Jackson is quick to recover underhooks and lift him back into stance.

Jon Jones fails to take down Rampage and Gustafsson
Take that, people who criticize Rampage’s wrestling.

Alexander Gustafsson is a competent wrestler, but the size narrative holds true. On the inside trip, there should be some motion to force your opponent to step forward with the leg you want to attack. Jones was pushing Gustafsson backward from over-under, but ended up simply chasing the leg to no avail.

These examples serve to show that Jon Jones cannot just manhandle opponents. From open space, he needs his setups as much as anyone.

Inside Trips

So why attack from open space?

It was during his early title reign that Jones began to favor attacks against the cage. Against his shorter and smaller opponents, Jones was still able to hook the leg on his inside trips, but it didn’t matter whether or not he set up the attack. He would either have a reliable way to get their back to the cage, or he would finish.

Jones went to the same trip off front headlock against Jackson, who couldn’t simply create distance with his hips and stonewall the attempt anymore. Against Lyoto Machida, the attempt got him to the cage, and Jones’ long arms allowed him to finish the double through Machida’s underhook.

Jon Jones inside trips Rampage and Machida to the fence
Machida was doing so well.

Shots From Outside

Jones’ kicking game gave all of his opponents a similar gameplan – walk forward and try to punch him. As previously mentioned, Jones’ height relative to his opponents makes level changing a bit of a pain. Against Gustafsson, Jones sold out on a true double attempt for his entry, but most of the time Jones is dropping enough to get to the head outside single.

Because of his length, Jones can reliably switch off to a double (the trail leg is well within reach), or reach up and finish on the head or neck, functioning similarly to an ankle pick.

Jon Jones shoots in title fights
Being large definitely gives Jones more options when it comes to finishing his shots, even if getting to them is harder.

Finishing on the head works even better if his opponent is underhooking the finishing hand, as they’re essentially positioning his arm for him.

The Foot Sweep

Because of his proficiency in upper body positions, many opponents turned to controlling Jones’ wrists or staying out of solid clinch positions to avoid his throw and trip-based offense.

The fear created by Jones’ clinch attacks opens up the foot sweep. Throws and trips often work after your opponent resists whatever feel or pressure you give them. Thus, many Jones opponents allow themselves to be moved around in the clinch, rather than playing into whatever Jones could be looking to set up.

The foot sweep works by first steering your opponent in a particular direction. Once the step comes, you can block the foot and use whatever tie you’re holding to turn their body over the sweeping foot.

Jon Jones foot sweeps various opponents
File the foot sweep under, “Things Mike Goldberg Called Greco”.

This is a great look from Jones, but we haven’t seen an attempt in years. As we’ll soon see, most opponents just opt for linear movement in the clinch, allowing Jones to put their back on the cage.

Doubles On the Cage

This is by far Jones’ best position in the modern version of his game. In no place do his length, size, and power come into play like they do offensively against the cage.

If Jones is fighting a smaller opponent, it doesn’t matter what tie they end up in against the cage. Even if they have a strong underhook, Jones can change levels and get in double leg position through their arms. If he is literally anywhere else, Jones can change levels whenever he wants and get to the double.

Jon Jones doubles against the cage
I have no idea what Chael was doing.

This is true for every fighter, but not every fighter has the strength or long enough arms to consistently lock hands or collapse the legs like Jones can once he gets there.

It’s also the case that Jones doesn’t just start shooting right away against bigger or more competent wrestlers. Against Daniel Cormier, Jones had banked several rounds of body kicking and attritional warfare to wear down the challenger. You can see that Cormier is standing straight up with his legs together, in no position to defend a double leg. The same can be said for Saint Preux and Sonnen.

Jones is aware of this important piece of his game, and he’s taken steps in his recent career to further exploit it.

Recent Looks

Against Anthony Smith, Jones made frequent use of shoulder bumps in the clinch against the cage. It’s something we’ve seen him do against several opponents.

Those strikes aren’t particularly effective, but they’re certainly annoying. If Smith is in a lower stance, Jones can crouch and find Smith’s chin consistently on the way back up. Naturally, Smith stands straight up to lessen the impact.

That opens up the double entry.

Jon Jones takes down Anthony Smith
No comment on the second attack, I don’t know why Smith was on one leg.

It is certainly worth mentioning that this attack works off the wrists. With wrist control, Jones can disengage and level change whenever he wants, but there is little keeping his opponent from preemptively getting a wide base and preparing for the attack. Typically, this is a position where Jones will break the tie and strike, so his opponents stay closer to their striking stance for a quick reaction. In this way, Jones’ game fits together quite well in the clinch against the cage.

Troubling Approaches

After a long layoff, Jon Jones showed a new, but puzzling look against Alexander Gustafsson.

Jon Jones takes bad shots on Alexander Gustafsson
Decent defense from Gustafsson, but also, bad offense from Jones.

Jones repeatedly took intercepting shots from far on the outside.

To be frank, they were bad shots. Jones bent over at the waist and did little in the way of level changing. When Jones did try to finish on the head, as he had in the past, he didn’t have leverage on the leg to make it work. When he did have control of the leg, he committed both hands, unsuccessfully looking to crack down, a finish we haven’t seen from him. Gustafsson had to work hard to crossface, underhook or guillotine his way out, but these were ultimately unnecessarily taxing efforts by Jones.

Many will be quick to point out that these shots allowed Jones to enter into the clinch. A simple counter point would be, has Jon Jones had any trouble entering the clinch on anyone? From my perspective, there was no need for this approach.

Ultimately Jones was able to blast Gustafsson off his feet, finishing the fight with ground and pound soon after. But it’s not unfair to point out that Gustafsson’s base had been compromised at that point, and the shots were utter failures previously.

It seems like nuance for the sake of nuance, not a necessary adaptation. It’s possible that Jon Jones’ commitment to outfighting fed into the idea that he needed clinch entries from further outside. We haven’t seen Jones abandon his typical clinch tactics, but this was not a valuable addition to his game.

Previously we had mentioned that against smaller opponents, Jones could shoot through underhooks against the cage.

Well, against a larger Anthony Smith, Jones had an incredibly difficult time getting to his double leg.

Anthony Smith stuffs Jon Jones
Jones’ only successful double on the cage came off the wrists.

While shooting near the cage is a good look, one we haven’t seen since Vitor Belfort, it’s concerning that Jones was so easily denied once he got to the cage. Against Alexander Gustafsson, Jones expended energy unnecessarily. Against Smith, Jones seemed to be far more concerned with energy conservation. There were several spots where it didn’t appear that much was keeping Jones from dropping back down on his double, other than the idea of how much effort it would be.

In each of his last two fights, Jones’ form on his shots has visibly regressed. One theory I’ve seen is that when Jon Jones focuses on an area of his game, others suffer. Jones has been vocal about his new emphasis on boxing, perhaps that additional training has dulled his wrestling.

Jon Jones vs. Thiago Santos (UFC 239)

While Thiago Santos had not proven to be a great defensive wrestler in his middleweight career, neither had Anthony Smith.

Given the power possessed by Santos, coupled with his willingness and ability to kick on the outside with Jones, takedowns would be well advised.

We’ve seen plenty of effective strategies from Jones throughout his career when it comes to taking the fight to the ground. We’ve seen just as many strategies disappear completely from his game.

For better or for worse, there are many unpredictable elements in Jon Jones from fight to fight. Once the bout is underway, hopefully there are helpful takeaways from this article that will allow you to identify Jones’ strategy and better grasp the narrative of the fight.

To answer the question posed in the title, it’s both. Throughout his run, Jones has tweaked his wrestling approach to navigate the solutions his opponents come up with to beat him. But it’s also true that Jones has simplified his wrestling game immensely in the past couple of years, and it’s hard to deny he’s less effective than he used to be.

Will that will matter against Thiago Santos? We’ll find out on July 6th.

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