The main event of UFC 214 brings one of the most anticipated rematches in recent memory. Sure, plenty of that anticipation stems from the dramatic public trashtalk and press conference scuffles between Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones. But we shouldn’t let the ongoing saga outside the cage blind us from the quality product we’ll get inside the cage. The fight isn’t just a rematch for the sake of rehashing bad blood — Cormier and Jones are, without question, the two top light heavyweights in the world.
Heading into their first fight at UFC 182 in January 2015, Jones was a small favorite. Ahead of their rematch this Saturday, Jones is a substantial favorite, and rightfully so — the former champ thoroughly dominated Cormier in all phases of the fight. But Cormier is no push-over. He’s a legitimately phenomenal talent, and to write him off in the rematch would be foolish. But after he was entirely shut down over 25 minutes in their first bout, how could Cormier get the upset in the rematch? What advantages, either athletic or technical, can Cormier press? With a handful of key adjustments, Cormier could realistically beat Jones.
It’s no question what Cormier’s go-to game is: he’s a pressure fighter that wants to move forward behind smothering and surprisingly powerful strikes, beat his opponent up in the clinch, and eventually get a takedown where he is an absolute monster on top. With that “A-game” in mind, how can Cormier implement it against Jones? Or better yet, what changes does he need to make to implement it? It’s easiest to think of the gameplan in four distinct phases: striking in open space, entries to the clinch, inside the clinch, and earning the takedown.
STRIKING IN OPEN SPACE: COMPETING WITH KICKS
Generally, Cormier wants to be and is a forward-moving pressure fighter. But even with that forward pressure, he spends ample time at range in open space. Given the substantial difference in reach and Jones’s prodigious kicking game, long range striking is probably Cormier’s weakest range against Jones. In their first fight, Cormier was regularly troubled by Jones’s long range boxing from the southpaw stance and his unorthodox kicks from either stance. Importantly, though, Jones was only offensive when allowed to be offensive; when Cormier attacked Jones was entirely defensive.
For all his flashy offense on the feet, Jones has never been a particularly skilled defensive striker, nor has he ever been a great counter-striker. Jones thrives on attacking first in each exchange. Step one for Cormier then, of course, is to get off first. This was clearly his strategy in the first fight and it should remain his strategy in the second. Cormier must be the busier fighter because when he is attacking, Jones is typically only defending. It’s simple, then: if Cormier is attacking, Jones isn’t.
Even though he is the much shorter man, Cormier was often able to compete with Jones in kicking range. Obviously, the difference in their leg reach is substantial, but at kicking range, Cormier can throw his underrated kicks while outside the range of Jones’s hands. And if Cormier is in fact the more active fighter — the fighter leading the exchanges — those kicks not only accumulate damage on Jones, but stifle Jones’s strikes from a safe distance. Indeed, the first fight was surprisingly competitive while on the feet and when Cormier was kicking. To stay safe on the feet, Cormier must let his kicks fly.
However, in the first bout, as each round went on, Cormier either tired or became frustrated, giving up on his kicks as time passed. If it’s strictly a conditioning issue that prevents Cormier from throwing more kicks, he’s in trouble; at 38 years old, it’s hard to see Cormier getting in better shape. However, if he makes kicking a prominent part of his gameplan, he may be able to avoid much of Jones’s dynamic attack on the feet.
ENTRIES TO THE CLINCH: JABS AND LEVEL CHANGES
Perhaps what hurt Cormier the most in the first fight was that he ate a myriad of strikes each and every time he moved forward into the clinch. For that reason, Cormier should put extra emphasis on safely entering clinch range. If he can do that throughout the fight, he’ll obviously have more energy and be more dangerous once he finds himself in the clinch.
Early in their first fight, Jones hurt Cormier as Cormier plodded forward with little head movement or feints. Essentially, Cormier fought as if he expected Jones to respect his forward movement, but that plodding forward movement only led him directly into Jones’s strikes.
There are a couple of simple yet effective techniques Cormier can use to move forward into the clinch. First, Cormier can and should use a basic single, double, or triple jab as he moves forward. Given that we already know Jones isn’t a great counter striker, a pumping jab would likely occupy Jones’s hands and eyes, effectively blinding Jones to Cormier’s forward movement. And if we look at Cormier’s fights since his loss to Jones, we see Cormier slowly but surely developing a more educated jab — a weapon almost completely absent in the first fight. In fact, in his fight at UFC 200 against Anderson Silva, Cormier showed both a flicking and thudding jab as he moved forward. That fight is particularly instructive of Cormier’s potential gameplan going into UFC 214, as Cormier was preparing for Jones until Silva took the fight on only a few days notice.
In addition to the jab, Cormier could and should use level changes to disguise his forward progress. The up-and-down movement works in several ways. Attacking the body first allows Cormier to take advantage of his height disadvantage — a punch to the body is his most available attack against the much taller Jones. Additionally, a level change — either a punch to the body or a fake shot — takes advantage of Jones’s very “handsy” defense. That is, Jones’s first line of defense is typically his hands as he reaches out to maintain distance and a touch on his approaching opponent. Lowering his level as he moves forward should cause Jones to instinctively lower his hands, which creates openings for strikes to his head. Glover Teixeira was able to use exactly this technique to some degree of success in his bout with Jones.
Finally, a level change disguises Cormier’s forward progress because it allows Cormier to load his legs for a spring forward while simultaneously blocking Jones’s view of Cormier’s legs. That is, instead of looking at Cormier head on with view of his hips and legs, when Cormier is lowered Jones is looking down at the tops of Cormier’s shoulders.
In any event, I have no doubt Cormier has worked extensively on his clinch entries. If he wants any chance to achieve the upset in the rematch, he must be able to wade through Jones’s extensive offensive arsenal without eating a handful of strikes each time.
INSIDE THE CLINCH: AVOIDING WRIST CONTROL
To the surprise of many, Jones was able to thoroughly control and batter the Olympic wrestler in the clinch. Jones is arguably the best clinch fighter we’ve ever seen in MMA, but to beat him, Cormier must win in the clinch.
Early in their first fight, Cormier found some success landing punches with his free hand in the clinch. However, Jones was soon able to apply one of his strongest and favorite techniques — dominating wrist control in the clinch. Like so many men before him, Cormier seemed entirely flummoxed by Jones’s wrist control. Whether Jones has an overhook or an underhook with his other arm, he will always look to use one hand to control his opponent’s free wrist. The position is dominant because it allows Jones to bear his weight down on his opponent while threatening with strikes as soon as he lets go of that wrist. And in their first bout, Jones spent long stretches of rounds completely controlling and overpowering Cormier in the clinch using this exact technique.
For Cormier, the best technique may be the most obvious and simple — he must train escaping wrist control. Of course, after a lifetime of wrestling, Cormier has spent countless hours escaping his wrist from another man’s grasp. But Jones is considered the best fighter of all time for a reason: he doesn’t just have average or even great wrist control; he has elite wrist control. Cormier may not need an elaborate or expansive change to his strategy to avoid Jones’s wrist control. Instead, he may just need to spend time drilling exclusively wrist control escapes to the point he expects his writs to be grabbed and is able to take immediate, instinctual action to escape.
Escaping wrist control isn’t merely a defensive maneuver for Cormier. Having a free hand gives Cormier an important opportunity for offense. Instead of trying to free his wrist and dig for an underhook (a strategy he tried to no avail in the first fight), Cormier should violently rip his wrist free and immediately look to strike. If Cormier merely attempts to grapple with his free hand, Jones will almost assuredly re-grab the wrist and assert his dominance in the clinch. However, if Cormier looks to immediately strike with the free hand, he robs Jones of one of his favorite techniques. Teixeira was able to press this advantage against Jones, freeing his hand from wrist control to land powerful uppercuts.
TAKEDOWNS: ATTACKING BELOW THE HIPS
As with the clinch, many observers were surprised when Jones was able to win the takedown battle in the first fight. But to say that Jones simply has better wrestling and Cormier cannot take him down would be foolish. Like with any other martial art, wrestling has a wide array of techniques that work better or worse against different opponents and different defenses. It’s not to say that Cormier could necessarily easily take Jones down, but changes to his takedown techniques could lead to more success in that area.
Given their height difference and Jones’s prodigious talent with clinch strikes and upper-body control, Cormier would be well-served to pursue more lower-body takedowns. Even if Cormier is unsuccessful in pursuing a double leg or single leg takedown, dropping his level to attack Jones’s hips takes away Jones’s biggest weapons. Moreover, attacking Jones’s legs for takedowns limits openings for Jones to hit Cormier with tight elbows or knees to the body.
Essentially, Cormier needs to make the grappling exchanges look more like a high school wrestling match than an MMA fight. Because while Jones may be the better MMA wrestler and better overall athlete, Cormier is almost certainly the more skilled wrestling technician. Attaching himself to Jones’s legs allows Cormier to press his advantage in chain wrestling. Indeed, the one takedown Cormier was able to land on Jones — a moral victory of sorts in the fifth round — came from Cormier relentlessly chain wrestling from attacking a single leg. To earn even more moral victories and takedowns to win rounds in the rematch, Cormier must vary his wrestling attack and should focus on lower-body takedown techniques.
EARNING THE UPSET
Cormier has a massive task ahead of him. He must defeat arguably the greatest MMA fighter ever, a man that has already soundly beat him. And of course, we expect Jones to have developed a handful of new tricks since his first bout with Cormier. Namely, with the addition of the oblique kick to the knee and improved head movement, Jones seems even more well-equipped to handle a pressure fighter. But we shouldn’t entirely count out Cormier, one step away from being a “true” champion. With several key tweaks to his strategy, Cormier can press his own advantages while denying those of Jones. With those often simple tweaks in strategy and technique, Cormier will put himself in position for a shocking upset and give us a rubber match that MMA fans could actually get behind.