Watching a replay of Jon ‘Bones’ Jones dismantle Glover Teixiera at UFC 172, I was engrossed in the remarkable clash of sporting paradigms that was occurring before me. Teixeira is a thoroughly traditional light heavyweight; an endomorphic hulk of twitching, explosive muscle, a fighter whose every thrown strike is infused with brutal knockout potential. He has the look of a man with not just an iron jaw, but one that could take on a stick of dynamite and come out looking pretty. Though he is an accomplished wrestler and grappler, the vast majority of his fight wins have been by KO. He continues a long tradition of power punchers in the light heavyweight division; Chuck Liddell, Quinton Jackson, Mauricio Rua, even Rashad Evans. The other great champions in the division, Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz, though they aren’t sluggers, are as specific operators in their own style, both archetypal ground-and-pound specialists. Basically, the history of the division indicates that success is found sitting hand-in-hand with speciality, that even though the sport is called ‘mixed martial arts’, if you’re able to be categorised in a defined style with a rich history in the division, you’re off to a good start. That is, until Jon Jones arrived.
Jones may well become the greatest fighter in the sport’s history. He is also the least definable, the most unique, the most difficult to predict. He looks like no other light heavyweight, all sharp limbs and spidery movement. He throws the most imaginative array of strikes in the UFC, spinning back elbows, elbow jabs, chopping kicks, axe kicks, flying knees, they’re all part of his deadly arsenal and all are thrown casually by Jones, as if it’s utterly natural, which it is, for him. At 26 he’s already the record holder for the most successful and the most consecutive title defences in the division, with 7. He has the longest win streak in the division (11), the longest wins-by-submission streak in the division (5), and is third behind UFC legends Georges St-Pierre (9) and Anderson Silva (10) for title defences in the UFC overall. If not for those two men, the argument for Jones being the greatest ever fighter would be a much easier one.
And the most remarkable thing about his success has been the way he has achieved it. He is not a power-puncher in the Liddell mould, not a ground-and-pound artist like Couture (though he can win fights using these methods). He isn’t really a specialist submission fighter, though he has won 6 of his 20 fights that way. And nor is he primarily a battler, a fighter who outlasts his opponents and makes the judges decide, like Forest Griffin, though again he has 5 decision victories. He is none of these things specifically, he fits into no single pigeon hole. He is simply great, not good, at it all, and it’s this remarkable versatility, this supreme coverage of every base, that has made him the sport’s greatest current champion.
Elite versatility. It’s something that rarely goes unrewarded in any sport. You can look at basketball, at players like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, who, apart from possessing all the traditional skills that the point and shooting guard needs (mainly passing and shooting), also transcended their positions by being masters in the other key aspects of the game generally, by being freakishly athletic, by mastering the post game, etcetera.
Then, surveying the contemporary scene, the premier examples of this same elite versatility are unquestionably Lebron James and Kevin Durant, the two best players in the sport. Both have smashed the previously defined parameters of what it is to be a small forward; they both have the supreme shooting ability close to the basket and from range, both are physical enough to get to the rim and finish with force, but both are also veritable point guards in terms of beating men off the dribble and acting as play-makers, dishing effortlessly for others. And then, maybe most crucially, both posses the staggering height, length and strength that, combined with everything else, allows them to dominate the league. Lebron especially, with his newly refined post game, his rebounding and his elite defence is really the ultimate basketballer, who can excel in literally every position on the court.
You can’t really call Lebron James a small forward, or a shooting guard, or a power forward, just like you can’t call Jon Jones a slugger, or a master kicker, or a submission artist or anything else. The reason none of these labels fit is because these men are actually all of these things, executing each vital skill at an elite level.
Other sports submit to those who resist the paradigm just as readily. Take Calvin Johnson (huh, good luck), intimidatingly nicknamed ‘Megatron’, the 6 ft 5 inch, 108 kilogram wide receiver who plays for the Detroit Lions. His rare combination of agility, size and speed, and fine hand-eye coordination skills has made him one of the most feared weapons in the NFL. Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III are two prime examples of a new breed of athletic quarterback, whose exceptional rushing ability makes them an increased offensive threat, albeit one more exposed to the risk of injury.
Cristiano Ronaldo is perhaps the ultimate footballer, holding every physical virtue a traditional striker needs: pace, strength, calm finishing, freakish jumping and heading ability. But then he also has the sublime dribbling skills of a winger, the passing prowess of an elite No. 10, as well as an arsenal of powerful long range shooting, and perfect dead-ball technique.
These athletes are the product of a sporting bar that is being being endlessly raised. The higher it goes, they higher they jump. Team sports, and some individual ones, are quickly moving away from compartmentalisation, from being about a collection of cogs with specific roles. They’re heading towards being an arena that’s increasingly being controlled by the super athlete, the all-purpose maestro. This is not to say that supreme specialisation has no part in modern sports, one look at Peyton Manning, or Rhonda Rousey disproves that theory completely. But the specialised sports-person has to be very, very good indeed, because the waves of elite versatility are lapping at the walls of their stronghold, wearing it down.
Jones put on a master class against Teixeira, and the way he beat him was astounding. Pre-fight, every onlooker had expected Teixeira to want to get in close, fighting in a phone booth so to speak, so his short, thudding punch power could be fully unleashed on the wiry Jones. The Brazilian had said as much leading up to the fight, highlighting this area as being one of Jones’s apparent weaknesses. Consequently, many expected Jones to try and keep the fight largely on the outside, to maintain distance with his kicking, particularly his favoured low slashing kick to the opponent’s knee. Jones’s incredible reach would then be his best weapon, holding the stocky Brazilian at bay and picking him off with rapid pinpoint strikes. And this is what happened as the first few rounds came and went and it was largely successful for Jones. But, in the latter stages, Jones decided to really show what a multi-talented fighter he is.
In the fourth and fifth rounds, the most damage was done by Jones in these close visceral areas that Teixeira supposedly wanted to facilitate. Jones’s elbows scythed through the face of Teixeira, slicing and dicing his brow to crimson tatters. Jones would actively shorten the distance, initiate clinches on the margins of the octagon, readily giving Teixeira the fighting environment he was supposed to have thrived in. Really all the 26 year old was giving Teixeira was a royal battering, a clinic in dirty boxing. Joe Rogan, the commentator, was stunned, but then pointed out that Jones often likes to prove to people just how good he is in all aspects of fighting. It’s astonishing really, for a professional fighter to use a title fight as a stage to show how good he is at beating an opponent at his own game.
He won by unanimous decision, spending the final minute of the fifth round doing a Muhammed Ali impersonation, bouncing around the octagon, easily avoiding the lethargic hay-makers that Teixeira was desperately heaving. He held his hands aloft even before the final horn had sounded, an image of cocky supremacy. A new paradigm had emphatically laid waste to the old.