MMA Retrospective: Examining the Career of UFC Champion Jon Jones
This past Saturday night at UFC 172, Jon Jones stepped into the cage to defend his UFC light heavyweight title against Glover Teixeira.
It was his seventh defense of his title, making him the longest reigning champion in the division’s history; the previous record holder was Tito Ortiz, who defended the title five times.
The fight itself was a blend of the expected and the unexpected; Jones dominated via his reach and unorthodox striking, but the grappling skills he demonstrated so early in his UFC career were not so easily applied against his gritty challenger.
Then, there was the question of eye pokes, which will give his detractors no small amount of ammunition by which to criticize his performance, which saw him win via scores of 50-45 on all judges scorecards.
Like many champions, Jones has faced his fair share of criticism, and it looks like it will not stop anytime soon; as long as he keeps winning, some fans of the sport will take exception with his methods while waiting for their chance to cheer when he eventually loses.
Now, his future looks to contain two very tough bouts: a rematch against Alexander Gustafsson and a fight with Daniel Cormier.
And yet, amid it all, there stands a fighter who is closing in on Anderson Silva’s record for title defenses, which stands at 10. Alongside Jose Aldo, Jones is working his way toward that benchmark of greatness; to break that record will be nothing less than a positive testimony of consistency and greatness, no matter how many people question the ways and means by which Jones wins.
Fighters such as Silva, Aldo and Jones are rarities in the sport; they're men capable of rising to any occasion, using their physical gifts and skills to constantly defeat their opponents. To retain a title in the UFC in any division is a hard task; yet now, Jones has accomplished this feat seven times.
What kind of man is Jones? Clearly, he is more than the some of his greater or lesser parts; indeed, he is the composite whole of a career that has seen him achieve remarkable things.
Despite the eye pokes, Jones looked excellent against Teixeira, dominating from a distance and up close, where Teixeira had his greatest chance to land his power shots.
Jones took some hard shots, going toe-to-toe with the challenger on more than one occasion, and still won the fight in decisive fashion.
When you look at Jones' career, he has made a habit of making good fighters look average. At UFC 172, he proved it was not a simple byproduct of his incredible reach; it was due to his use of brutal elbows, wrist control and a high fight IQ.
And to think he only started six years ago...
In fact, Jones’ first MMA bout occurred barely a week before Georges St-Pierre reclaimed his welterweight title from Matt Serra at UFC 83.
It was a shockingly busy year for Jones, who fought a staggering seven times in a five-month period.
He defeated Brad Bernard via TKO in a little under two minutes on April 12, and then just seven days later, he defeated Carlos Eduardo by TKO in Round 3 of their bout.
Six days after that, on April 25, Jones defeated Anthony Pina via guillotine choke just 75 seconds into the first round, earning him the first-ever submission victory of his career.
On May 9, Jones earned another TKO victory over Ryan Verrett in just 14 seconds of Round 1, giving him his quickest victory of his career.
On June 20 he stopped Parker Porter via TKO in just 36 seconds, then on July 12, he finished Moyses Gabin (once again via TKO) two minutes into the second round, bringing his career record to a perfect 6-0, will all victories coming by way of stoppage.
Then, the call came that changed his life; Zuffa invited him to fight on the UFC 87 card against Andre Gusmao.
That night, on the same card that saw GSP brutalize Jon Fitch in the headlining bout, Jones earned a unanimous decision, successfully making his UFC debut.
It was a shocking turn of fortune for such a young man, so new in his career, to make it to the biggest promotion in the sport, but Jones did it with shocking ease.
He was only 20 years old when it all began.
Once again fighting on a GSP-headlined card, Jones fought his toughest opponent to date: Stephan Bonnar, at UFC 94 on January 31.
Jones made the most of the spotlight afforded him in fighting The Ultimate Fighter veteran, tossing Bonnar around the cage as if he had never fought an MMA bout in his life. For the first two rounds, Jones shocked and awed all who were watching, reducing Bonnar to the role of Salieri to his Mozart.
It was shocking and humbling to see Bonnar tripped, slammed, suplexed and elbowed into oblivion for 10 straight minutes. It was only when Jones began to tire that Bonnar was allowed to show some signs of life and the grit and determination that had seen him wage that epic and all-important war with Forrest Griffin during the Season 1 finale of The Ultimate Fighter.
Still, there could be no doubt to the outcome of the fight, which Jones won by unanimous decision.
Next up was Jake O’Brien at UFC 100. Jones submitted O’Brien midway through the second round, with a fantastic guillotine choke, earning his first stoppage victory since joining the UFC, bringing his record to 9-0.
His final bout of the year, at the finale of Season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter, saw Jones suffer his first defeat, via disqualification, against Matt Hamill.
In typical Jones fashion, he tossed Hamill around like a ragdoll. He was looking so incredible that one almost felt sorry for Hamill. Then, with Hamill on his back, Jones attacked with a downward elbow that was ruled illegal.
Just like that, without a warning, the fight was stopped, and Jones was disqualified, suffering his first-ever loss.
In March 2010, Jones jumped back into competition against Brandon Vera. It was thought that the striking and submission skills of Vera could give Jones the kind of trouble he had never seen before.
Jones proved all such considerations moot, taking Vera down easily and attacking with brutal elbows, ending the bout at 3:13 of Round 1. This wasn’t just a win; it was a destruction; Jones didn’t just swarm with elbows until the referee stepped in, he hurt Vera badly, and the referee responded to that.
After taking four months off to train, Jones stepped back into the Octagon to face rugged veteran Vladimir Matyushenko on August 1.
Jones ran over Matyushenko with the kind of ease that many fans now note seems missing from his game at the championship level. Jones tossed his gritty opponent around as if he were a rank novice, earning the victory via TKO due to multiple elbow strikes in under two minutes.
Now owning an 11-1 record, Jones was poised to break into those title-contender conversations rampant on internet forums and anywhere else fans and pundits gather. He was still young, and while clearly wildly talented, he seemed like he was at least another two years away from a title shot.
We had no idea that he would become the new UFC light heavyweight champion in less than eight months.
Carrying the momentum of 2010 forward, Jones next fought Ryan Bader at UFC 126. Bader was an excellent wrestler with brutal power in his hands, and coupled with his youth, it seemed to suit him as a spoiler in the bout.
Instead, we got another dominant performance from Jones who proved he was just too good. He not only dominated Bader, but he also handed him his first-ever loss, via guillotine submission at 4:20 of Round 2.
Then, opportunity knocked for Jones, and he answered.
His training partner, Rashad Evans, was scheduled to face current 205 title holder Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, but he had to bow out of the bout due to an injury. Jones was offered the title shot in his stead and accepted the bout on short notice.
Less than two months after his victory, Jones was fighting the UFC light heavyweight champion in a bout that was thought by many to be too much and too soon. Rua looked to have regained his former edge, which had propelled him to greatness in Pride; the idea that Jones would have anything less than a brutal and rugged fight on his hands seemed laughable.
Then, Jones came in, landed a jumping knee to the face of Shogun early and spent the rest of the night beating the champion from pillar to post before finally stopping him via strikes at 2:37 of Round 3.
Jones was the new champion, and he had made it look all too easy.
Five months later, Jones faced the first threat to his title in the form of former UFC light heavyweight king Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
The build-up to the fight featured Jackson poking fun at Jones and the champion looking like a man unsure of what to say.
The fight itself proved that, while Jones may not be adept at psychological warfare, he was completely sure of what he needed to do in the cage. Once again, Jones was just too much for Jackson, taking his time while dominating the fight at nearly all turns.
Finally, Jones closed the show via rear-naked choke, becoming the first man to ever submit Jackson in the UFC while earning his first successful title defense.
But Jones had one more fight before the year ended—this time against former 205-pound champion Lyoto Machida.
Aside from Shogun, everyone who had fought Machida had found his elusive counterstriking style to be too much to overcome with any conviction. Jackson had won a decision over Machida, but many felt that the judges got it wrong.
Jones faced Machida and found out in Round 1 that the hype surrounding “The Dragon” was justified. Machida proved to be elusive on one hand and quick to counter on the other, catching Jones with a hard counterpunch off a Jones low leg kick. The rest of the round had been spent with both men taking turns measuring the distance and feeling each other out.
Then, in Round 2, Jones turned it on, catching Machida with a left hand, which dropped him to the floor. Jones secured a front headlock, pushed Machida up against the cage and then transitioned to a tight guillotine choke that eventually saw Machida fall unconscious.
Jones had not only won the title far sooner than many believed he would, but he also defended it two times, bringing his record for the year to 4-0 and his overall record to 15-1.
More impressively, his last three opponents had been current and former champions, and he had disposed of them all with the kind of ease that looked to be far beyond his years, but clearly not his talent.
On April 21, Jones found himself coming full circle, facing former friend and training partner Rashad Evans.
The fight itself was a culmination of many events that had led to Jones attaining his title shot at the expense of Evans, who felt the situation had proven that Greg Jackson had shown favoritism in handling the situation as a whole.
The build-up to the fight saw Evans positioning himself as the wronged party, fighting to teach Jones a much-needed lesson in humility. Jones played the role of a fighter simply doing his job and pursuing his dream, which every fighter was expected to do.
This was a first for Jones; not only was he fighting a former training partner, who had privileged insight to his game and possible deficiencies, but he was also fighting to put the past behind him.
The two met at UFC 145 in a match that, while dominated by Jones, lacked much of the fire and fury their mutual animosity promised. Jones used his reach to stay out of danger while landing his strikes, and Evans proved he didn’t have a consistent way to get inside.
Jones had defended his title three times against three former champions and had yet to look truly vulnerable in the cage.
But if he looked untouchable in competition, he would soon look very flawed outside the Octagon.
Scheduled to face Dan Henderson at UFC 151, Jones got a call informing him that Henderson had injured himself, and Chael Sonnen was being offered the shot instead. Jones spoke with his coaches and decided to turn the fight down.
From there, Dana White took to the press and attacked Jones and his trainers for not accepting the fight on short notice. This was agitated by the fact that the entire UFC 151 card was cancelled and blamed on Jones.
Amid all the harsh talk and criticism, Jones found himself fighting Vitor Belfort at UFC 152.
Belfort, a middleweight prior to the bout, jumped up in weight to face Jones, and in Round 1, he almost pulled off the upset when he managed to secure a very deep armbar on Jones. Jones remained composed and eventually escaped the submission attempt, eventually stopping Belfort via submission early in Round 4.
While Jones may have earned a few new fans with his display of grit in overcoming the submission, a negative opinion of him was growing.
With four successful title defenses under his belt, Jones ended up on Season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter, coaching opposite the man who had harassed him tirelessly in the media over the UFC 151 fiasco, Chael Sonnen.
Both men seemed to find a kind of respect and admiration for each other during the filming of the show, but there was no doubt that their meeting at UFC 159 would be a reckoning for one of them.
As it turned out, while Sonnen may have been given the shot at Jones' title by being willing to step up as a late replacement for Henderson, in no way did he pose a legitimate threat to the standing champion.
Jones did to Sonnen what Sonnen normally did to his opponents; he took him down and pounded him out inside of Round 1.
It was a short fight that doubtlessly gave Jones some satisfaction, but it was also a close call of sorts. Sometime during the fight, Jones suffered a gruesome toe injury that would have seen the bout halted had Sonnen survived to see the second round.
Had that occurred, Sonnen may have been awarded the victory via TKO due to doctor stoppage, becoming the new champion due to a lowly toe injury.
If Jones thought he had dodged the proverbial bullet for 2013, he would find out differently when he fought Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165.
Leading up to the fight, many thought Jones would walk through Gustafsson as he had so many others. Instead, the challenger gave Jones his most difficult challenge to date.
Gustafsson did what no one else before him ever had; he took Jones down, bloodied him up with strikes and put Jones in a do-or-die position as champion.
Jones staged a successful comeback, landing brutal elbows and kicks and eventually earning a close unanimous decision.
It also may prove to be his finest hour; Jones showed he could overcome serious adversity on one hand, and on the other, his victory whet the appetites of the fans for a rematch, which could see his stature grow even greater should he win.
After being taken the distance by Gustafsson, Jones faced Teixeira at UFC 172.
Jones won the bout via unanimous decision, 50-45 on all scorecards, beating his opponent where he was thought to be the strongest: in the pocket.
With the victory, Jones earned his seventh straight title defense (a record for the division) and made a very strong argument for being the pound-for-pound best fighter in the sport.
While Teixeira was touted as the strongest threat to his title to date, most expect that it will be either Gustafsson or Cormier who will honestly fit the bill; as good as Teixeira is, he doesn’t possess the kinds of threats that Gustafsson and Cormier do.
It's said that at the championship level, the competition gets tougher and finishing fights get harder; looking at the immediate future for Jones would seem to prove that theory a fact.
Unless Jones manages to confound expectations as he did when he first claimed the title.
Which, given his gifts and skills, is entirely possible.
Now, Jones must play the waiting game to see who his next opponent will be.
It could be Gustafsson, Cormier or enderson, should he pull off the improbable victory over Cormier when they fight at UFC 173.
No matter who he faces, Jones is currently in his prime, continually striving to learn and better himself as a fighter. Being so young, he is poised to become the greatest champion the UFC has ever seen.
Outside of fights with Gustafsson and Cormier, it would be interesting to see him matched up with Anthony Johnson or Evans if both men can maintain their winning ways.
If he is to continue to be the fighter his history has proven him to be, he will have to regain his grappling advantage; it's an aspect of his game that has been largely absent in his last two fights.
Part of what has made him so formidable is his ability to be so dangerous in grappling exchanges. While people talk about his striking game more than anything else these days, it was his incredible grappling prowess that enabled him to rise quickly and decisively.
Obviously, given his young age, it is doubtful that his has lost those skills, but given the advantage they have given him in the past, he would be well-served by bringing them to bear in future fights.
He has some very stiff challenges awaiting him, but his past has seen him rise to such occasions more often than not, which is what being a champion is all about.