As the Mixed Martial Arts community gears up for Jon Jones (25-1-1) to defend his title at UFC 247 against rising contender Dominick Reyes (12-0), much has been said about Jones being the Greatest of All Time (GOAT). Now most Jones fans will bring up his near decade long undefeated streak or the former champions he has beaten. Taken in a vacuum these are both excellent arguments for his GOAT-hood. But the world of MMA is not a vacuum and there are multiple reasons why Jon Jones is not the greatest of all time. In order to assess Jones’ viability as the GOAT, a criteria must be developed and tested against.
Jon Jones Is Not the GOAT
The criteria to be used today will be mainly quality of opposition, record, meta considerations, technical abilities and athleticism. Another thing to focus on is the value of the GOAT discussion and its relevance within the sport of mixed martial arts. Quality of opposition is important because impressive performances are only truly impressive against someone who is close in physical and technical ability. It’s the same reason why Kamaru Usman’s knockout of Colby Covington is more impressive than anything Michael Page has done. Though the striking was not beautiful he was able to do to Covington what no one else has.
Facing the best and coming short is not a great argument for the best fighter ever. That is why a person’s overall record is important, but your record is only valuable if you have fought and beat truly excellent fighters. Meta considerations are important as well, because if you do not fight anyone who can provide challenges to your game then you cannot claim to be the best. If there are answers to what you do yet your opponents offer none, we cannot claim your say your skills have been tested. On the topic of skillset there’s no need to explain why that’s important in sports. Athletic ability while considered a shortcut to most analysts has an important role in determining greatness. After all this is a sport, sports are a celebration of athletic achievement.
Quality of Jon Jones Opposition
Question the legitimacy of Jon Jones legacy with any fan of his and they will quickly pull a list of the names he has beaten. While there are many recogniseable fighters among the lists, it is important to remember that a big name does not necessarily mean the best fighters. For example Ronda Rousey is certainly a bigger name than Petr Yan but no one who has knowledge of both fighters abilities would question Yan being the better fighter. Just because someone has name value does not mean they are an elite level fighter. With that being said Jones match-ups leave a lot to be desired.
Starting with Ryan Bader, who is certainly a good fighter, but tends to choke when he is intimidated by his opponent. The next is Mauricio Shogun Rua, who had been through wars during his years at Pride and had lost a step before stepping foot in the octagon with Jones. Rashad Evans is also highly touted but has no real resume to speak of beyond a young Phil Davis and his record after the Jones fight indicates either a massive drop off or a reality that Evans may not be as skilled as the general MMA public thinks.
Next we can look at Lyoto Machida, Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort, all three of whom are middleweights, one of which nearly ripped Jones’ arms to pieces. Jones’ victories against Daniel Cormier have more to do with the meta considerations of his division but it is worth noting that DC was past his athletic prime when he faced Jones.
This is a category which serves Jones well. Despite some controversies Jones is nearly undefeated within the octagon and many assert that he is truly unbeaten. While this is a valid argument to make, the context surrounding his record is important. Jones did not beat anyone who, looking at it objectively, offered any significant problems to his game or his abilities. Jones has always been the better, bigger and stronger fighter in his match ups. Michael Page does not have a better body of work than Rafael dos Anjos or Robbie Lawler. He has fewer losses but has not fought nearly the same amount of top level competition. On that same note can we cannot claim Jones’ record is greater than Jose Aldo or Georges St Pierre.
The abilities and technical limitations of a fighter’s division is important to that fighters success. Take for example Royce Gracie. Had he fought someone with decent grappling and take down defense, he’d have been knocked out. Now looking at most of Jon Jones opponents it is clear few if any brought any significant answers to Jones’ game. From what we have seen from Jones he struggles when someone is able to kick with him and throw punches in combination. There are not many willing kickers and even fewer combination strikers in the light-heavyweight division. While Jones fans are quick to point out Thiago Santos’ “black belt in Muay Thai.” this is by far the worst Jones has looked in any of his fights. A fighter struggling to come up with solutions when presented with unique problems is not someone that should be considered the GOAT.
Jones has benefited from his frame and being able to simply walk backwards with his arms posting on his opponent. His defensive flaws would be easily punished in a more technically present division. Disregarding the Santos fight, Jones last 3 opponents have landed less than a third of their strikes to Jones’ legs. This is significant as Jones’ ability to move out of the way of strikes has been fundamental to his defense. This is important when considering his wins over Daniel Cormier.
By all accounts Cormier is an amazing light heavyweight, but he does not present any problems to Jones’ game. Cormier is significantly shorter than Jones, he doesn’t use kicks and often tries to walk his opponent down. Considering Jones’ abilities as an outside point/attrition fighter its clear to see that Cormier’s skill set does not match up well with Jones’. Jones has also shown a particular vulnerability to leg strikes, largely since his defensive options don’t allow him the opportunity to check kicks particularly well. So we can see that the meta of the light-heavyweight division has had a great deal to do with Jones’ success.
As previously alluded to, Jon Jones has some significant technical deficiencies. The most glaring is his defensive limitations which is largely just walking backwards out of the way or being tough enough to eat any strikes he can’t walk away from in time. While defense is something that is severely lacking in MMA currently, this may not be a big deal. But this is a discussion around who is the best ever and the other contenders for the throne, namely GSP, Jose Aldo and Demetrious Johnson, are all fairly defensively sound, this is rather damning.
Considering Jones has the longest reach in the UFC it makes no sense that he does not use his jab. In fact if he developed a jab he would be able to answer people coming at him throwing combinations. Being able to intercept opponents and throw off their strikes with punches would fit Jones’ game perfectly. Yet he has shown no sign of developing a jab in any way throughout his career. Jones is good at a great many things. He is good at using kicks to keep range as well as game planning to remove opponents’ significant weapons. Namely the shoulder crank he uses against fighters he believes may have a boxing advantage. Overall Jones has not shown that he possesses the most polished game. He largely relies on his athletic gifts and durability to get him through fights.
While plenty of analysts feel that athleticism is cheating, and they are right, it is an important consideration to make when assessing greatness. Like it or not MMA is a sport and in sports being a good athlete is important. As we have noted before Jones is naturally a strong athlete for the sport. He has good cardio, especially for his division, and has a massive reach and height advantage over most opponents. Being long is important in MMA. Range allows you to inflict damage onto your opponent without being at risk of receiving a counter. It also forces opponents to walk into your range in order to land strikes.
Jon Jones also possesses a ridiculous level of durability which allows him to get away with things other fighters cannot. Now while athleticism is important in MMA it is not the be all and end all of the sport. This especially when making considerations as to who is the greatest of all time.
Performance Enhancing Drugs
Now many critics of Jones will claim his Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) use is enough to eliminate him from the conversation of GOAT. The PED scandals around Jones are not clear cut enough to lay an indictment of his whole career. In fact the reality of drugs in sports is that we are often unlikely to know who exactly is abusing PEDs and who isn’t. Also PED use has no value in this discussion anyway.
There is no GOAT
Questions should be asked about the validity of discussions around who is the best ever. The criteria is always going to be subjective, based on whatever the person developing the criteria thinks is important. Khabib Nurmagomedov is not going to think being the best striker is important. Israel Adesanya might not think being the best grappler is important. Alexander Volkanovski might argue that a rounded game is what matters most. Who can argue that any of them are wrong. It is also important to note how rapidly the meta of MMA has shifted in the past 30 years.
A journeyman fighter in today’s game would likely beat the breaks off all of the competitors in the first UFC. They likely would have a great deal of success 10 to 15 years ago as well. This sport is still in its infancy where tactics and technique have not met each other yet. MMA is still a dumb baby and its dumb to be calling for the GOAT because we don’t really even know what greatness is. While there are fighters who look better according to the criteria above, they are not the best ever. Jose Aldo has beaten significant and varied competition over a long period of time. Jose Aldo is also someone who is able to gas himself out by trying to dodge feints.
Jon Jones Is Not the Greatest of All Time
Jon Jones has fought at the highest level of the light-heavyweight division for almost a decade. This is an amazing achievement, especially considering how difficult it is to win consistently at the higher weight classes. Jones is certainly the greatest light-heavyweight but that’s not the same thing as being the greatest fighter ever. At UFC 247 Jones faces the second real test of his career in Dominick Reyes. In this fight we will see how his greatness holds up.
There is never going to be a fighter who is the best at everything. MMA is too complex for that. Which means arguments around who is the GOAT are flawed, since we will always eliminate parameters. A point for the GOAT discussion is that we can talk about what makes a fighter great. If we want to have a discussion about why someone is great we should just talk about it. MMA is too young and is evolving too fast to give any merit to Greatest of All Time discussions.
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