"What's it going to take to beat Jon Jones?"
The immediate reaction to this question is almost universal, even when it's posed to some of the brightest minds in combat sports.
It goes something like: "Wow. That is a good question." (Sigh. Long moment of silence.) "Man. That is a really good question."
There's a reason why Jones has been unstoppable in mixed martial arts. There are many reasons, actually, and pointing them out is easy enough. Trying to devise an actual method or plan for overcoming them ... well, so far, that has proved to be impossible.
Ahead of Jones' title defense against Thiago Santos at UFC 239 in Las Vegas on Saturday night, ESPN asked some of the top coaches in the world to give it their best shot. What's it gonna take to beat Jon Jones? Here's what they came up with.
Henri Hooft, Hard Knocks 365 (coached Vitor Belfort, Rashad Evans against Jones; coaches light heavyweight Luke Rockhold)
Jon has everything you want in an athlete. He's tall (Jones is 6-foot-4), uses his reach. He has a very high fight IQ. And it looks to me, in every fight, he's trying to get better everywhere. I think he's a guy who works a lot on himself.
I think you need to be tall enough to get past his reach and you also need to be technical. You need to have a fight IQ like him. People always say, "You have to [get] close to him as soon as possible," but that's not easy with a guy who is that smart. You need pressure, of course, but I think you need to mix it up and make him tired. He's too relaxed. The striking that DC [Daniel Cormier] used on him, it's not really the type of striking that gets Jon into trouble. It's a big, strong guy moving forward, but for a kickboxer with a high fight IQ, he will pick that apart. He'll stay behind his jab and clinch when he has to. Alexander Gustafsson made him react the first time they fought, which made him tired.
Jon is a technical fighter. In every sport, you have one guy who is just the best. Every sport has it. There's one guy. One day he will lose, somebody will come along in the right moment. But right now, that's Jon.
Javier Mendez, American Kickboxing Academy (coached Cormier against Jones twice)
There have been a few opponents like this, and he's definitely one of them -- there's no way to attack him on the psychological side. He's pretty well put together for what he wants. DC is a master chess player, but Jon is a master chess player, too. And DC ended up making the first mistake in his fights against him.
You have to have a heavy output, but avoid damage because he's so damn good at everything he does. I think output is key. You remember his first fight against Gustafsson, Jon was a little taken aback by the pressure. He realized he had to suck it up, which is what he did because that's the kind of guy he is. You're gonna have to knock him out to beat him. If you don't pressure him he will dissect you, and eventually he'll go in for the kill when he's decided to put an end to it.
Marc Montoya, Factory X (coached Anthony Smith against Jones)
I felt like a lot of the preparation we did for Jon Jones would have worked, but unfortunately we didn't get to showcase it. And I'll tell you, ultimately, what it will take to beat him first and foremost is to not allow the entire pressure of that week, the distractions, to get to you. Jon is used to it. That entire week, all the extra media, that feels normal to Jon.
When it comes to inside the cage, I'll tell you one thing Jon does really well. If you notice, he always starts a fight off with something big -- even if he doesn't hurt you. For instance, he'll throw a spinning back-kick, and even if you block it with your arms, you realize there's a lot of speed and power in there. And I think what ends up happening to a lot of guys, including us, is you go, "Oh, OK. That's what it is." And you end up sitting back and getting mesmerized by it.
There are ways to prepare for him, but I'll say, I've never looked at another fighter the way I looked at Jon after studying film. I was like, "Man, it is tough to find holes here." The preparation for that, I'll be honest, helped me a lot because I had to dig so deep into the archives to find a way to attack Jon Jones.
Rener Gracie, Gracie University of Jiu-Jitsu
To beat Jon Jones, you're going to need Robert Whittaker's boxing, Valentina Shevchenko's kicks, Henry Cejudo's wrestling and Brian Ortega's jiu-jitsu. Besides that, it's not gonna happen. And that's my final answer. (Laughs.) If it came down to simple game planning, it would have happened a long time ago. There's a reason why the legacy continues.
He is the game planner of game planners, and he's one of the most disciplined fighters in MMA in terms of sticking to that game plan -- much like Georges St-Pierre. Georges St-Pierre was never emotional about his fights. It was 100% strategic. And because of that, he followed a certain set of operation rules when he was in there. Jon is the same. He's not emotional. He has one objective, and that is to beat you at the game you play best.
He's not the same fighter in every fight. Unfortunately, you can never train for the Jon you're going to get, because you're going to get one that's different from the one anyone and everyone else got. For anyone to contemplate how Jon is going to get beat, it's dreaming and speculation at best because no one knows how Jon is going to fight on any given night. Even when he's fought the same opponent a second time, he's fought them different because of how much he learns in the first go. Jon has no exploitable weakness. Every category, he's a 10.
Mark Henry, New Jersey striking coach (coaches top-10 light heavyweight Corey Anderson)
In my opinion, Jon is the best MMA fighter to have ever fought. I kind of have [the strategy to beat him] in my head, saved for my guy, but I will say I remember when Frankie Edgar fought BJ Penn [in 2010]. Penn was stopping everybody. He wasn't just winning, he was stopping guys. I remember people saying Frankie had no chance, and I feel it's kind of the same with Corey and Jon.
Preparing for Jon would be very different from anybody Corey's fought, because he likes to go southpaw and righty. You have to be ready for both. You can't go too hard on Jon, because he'll take you right down. You have to be careful with what you do.
Ray Longo, LAW MMA
You need somebody who can put him on his back. If you can't match him on the outside, and no one can, I would love to see how he fights off his back. I thought DC was going to impose his wrestling a lot more in their fights. But listen, you can talk about it all you want, but doing it is a totally different thing.
I've worked with some really good wrestlers and sometimes they don't want to expend that type of energy. But you know what it is? You're either all-in or you're all-out. You get a guy like [UFC welterweight] Colby Covington, he's nonstop. The takedown is all he wants, and I think he's probably better off like that. You get these wrestlers who fall in love with striking and they get comfortable backing off and standing for a bit. You take a guy like [UFC welterweight] Ben Askren who is just gonna wrestle you to death? I think Jon Jones needs a light heavyweight Ben Askren.
Nobody is punch-proof, so that's always an option -- but it doesn't seem to be working too well. It's not an easy task, though. It would take an exceptional gas tank. It's easy for me to say, "I'd love to see him fight off his back," but who the hell is gonna do it?
Eric Albarracin, Pitbull Brothers MMA
It's going to take somebody as tall as him, somebody his size. He's a hard puzzle to figure out because of that 84-inch reach. I think it has to be a good striker who has some wrestling. I'm thinking about this Johnny Walker. I've never trained with him, but he's tall, he's long. He'll need to have the wrestling, but that's the guy I think of.
I just don't see this dominant, 6-foot-5 wrestler coming up who's going to pin Jon Jones for five rounds. Where is he? I don't even see one in college, and even if there were, it would take him years to get to Jon. It has to be a striker with good enough wrestling to keep it standing. Look, if I'm a wrestler and you kick me in the stomach, my wrestling is at 90% now. Kick me again, now it's at 80%. Guys don't want to wrestle in the fourth and fifth rounds. They're thinking, "I'm already tired. We're slippery. I'm just going to waste energy if I try to get this takedown."
Someone like Johnny Walker, a dangerous striker. He's creative. I don't know how his wrestling is, but he needs to be working on it now, outside of camp. Because Jon Jones is probably going to try to take him down -- and if Walker is to the point he doesn't worry about the wrestling because it's there, he can concentrate on winning that standup fight.
Duke Roufus, Roufusport
The key to Jon Jones that no one talks about is he's incredible at hand fighting, both on his feet and in wrestling positions. His opponents can't figure out the hand fighting and why he's so darn good at it. It sounds like a weird skill that nobody focuses on, but he does. And it's the main reason guys aren't getting anywhere near taking him down, because he stops you before you get there.
Someone will be trying to rip his head off, and he stays calm. He'll slip the punch and put his hands on your hands, which means you're unable to punch or shoot on him now. It takes a cool customer to do that. I'm going to reach out, risk you hitting me, and put my hands on your hands so you can't do anything to me. [Nick and Nate Diaz] do it well -- they'll reach out with their hands and it distracts you. Gennady Golovkin and Vasiliy Lomachenko do it in boxing. You've got to be able to out hand fight Jon if you're going to challenge him.
Danny Castillo, Team Alpha Male
I would go to the body a lot in the early rounds. That does three things: It keeps Jon guessing, drains his gas tank and opens him up for straight and overhand right. When Jon is orthodox, he tends to leave his lead hand a little low, defensively.
You have to move laterally. You can't just come straight forward. If you come straight forward, you're coming into an elbow or you're getting taken down. In order to beat him, you definitely have to work those angles and keep him on edge, meaning hit him with a bunch of feints, change levels, maybe attack takedowns early in the round to get him thinking. And after that, that's when you can open up with your striking. And you have to recognize where he's trying to take the fight. Often, you can read your opponent's game plan during the first 10 minutes of a title fight.
Eddie Cha, Fight Ready
Everyone has holes, but you have to have somebody who is capable of exploiting those holes against Jon. First off, you have to be able to wrestle. He's going to go for two or three takedowns per round, and if you don't have takedown defense, the fight is pretty much over.
The big thing is you have to have two different game plans for Jones: one for when he's orthodox, and another for southpaw. When he fights orthodox, he's a completely different fighter from when he's southpaw. When he's orthodox, he's throwing side kicks to the knee, the jab, the right hand low and high. He's even more of a problem southpaw, because he's a little farther away from guys -- he'll throw that tete kick to set up the high kick. There just aren't a lot of guys out there who can switch stances and show you that many different looks.
Another thing is kick defense and kick counters. You're going to see more kicks than hands. His left tete kick is literally like his jab. It's not too hard of a kick, so most guys try to ignore it or walk through it, but that's a countering opportunity. I'd be coaching my guy to throw the left hook, cross to counter that kick.
And every time somebody feints or throws a punch, anything, Jon is extending the hands, and that's why he's been susceptible to the right hand. That's a big no-no to extend the hands, but he gets away with it because he's so long. One thing you can do is feint high and throw the low kick. You have to make him look high, low, inside, outside -- broaden his range a bit. And you have to be able to adapt on the fly between rounds. Jon is so good at making adjustments, you can't throw the same thing over and over throughout the fight.