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The Great Divide: Does Jon Jones cross the line inside the Octagon?

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UFC 235: Jones v Smith Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

Jon Jones’s next title defense is just around the corner as he faces Dominick Reyes in the main event of UFC 247 next weekend. Much has been written about the light heavyweight champion’s already complicated legacy that involves a pair of USADA suspensions, but for the purposes of this week’s discussion Alexander K. Lee and Mike Chiappetta are focusing solely on his in-cage antics.

Specifically, when it comes to the actual fighting, is Jones a cheat?

JON JONES BENDS THE RULES—AND THAT’S PART OF HIS BRILLIANCE

Lee: To quote the legendary George Costanza: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

On that same token, “You’re not a cheater if you believe you’re fighting fair.”

Is Jon Jones a dirty fighter? Of course, he is! We’ve all seen him jam those digits into his opponent’s eyes. We’ve seen him threaten to sideline foes by driving his heel into their obliques in what is essentially a stand-up stomp. And let’s not forget the shoulder crank he utilized at UFC 172 that not only served to neutralize Glover Teixeira, but resulted in the Brazilian vet’s labrum being torn.

It’s gotten to the point that Dominick Reyes has to make it a point to speak to the referee before his fight with Jones to remind him, “Hey man, please look out for this, he’s notorious for this.” Does that sound like something someone would say about a fighter who was even remotely clean?

Anyone with a working pair of eyes can see how “Bones” works the Octagon angles better than any fighter and I’m not just talking about his footwork on the mat. In a competition where he already has so many advantages, it’s impressive (if not necessarily admirable or respectable) that he still seeks an edge. It’s pathological. On fight night, Jones leaves nothing to chance, even if that means having a looser definition of what is sporting and what isn’t compared to his peers.

Poke in the eye? Just maintaining distance. Oblique kick? Daniel Cormier said it was okay. And that shoulder crank? Nothing against it in the rulebook, even Teixeira’s coach took no issue with it. The only time Jones has even had a point deducted in a fight was in his recent five-round spar with Anthony Smith, where it looked like he got bored at one point and threw a knee at a downed Smith that was so blatantly illegal it would have ended his title reign if Smith had chosen to milk the infraction and take a disqualification victory.

But he didn’t. And here Jones stands, still the champion. He’d still be undefeated too if he hadn’t decided to style on Matt Hamill with a series of illegal 12-6 elbows in a fight that he could have won with any number of unprohibited ground strike techniques; instead, he aimed a few daggers at Hamill’s forehead and learned that if you’re going to cheat, don’t be so obvious about it. It’s a lesson that he carries to this day as one of MMA’s pre-eminent rulebreakers.

His eye pokes are a work of art at this point, a no holds barred/pro wrestling/Three Stooges maneuver that he’s utilized in countless championship contests against the likes of Cormier, Teixeira, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Rashad Evans, Alexander Gustafsson, and Vitor Belfort. Often, it’s just the threat of being on the wrong end of one of his finger spears that throws his opponents off their game, which makes them almost more insidious somehow. It’s not necessarily about poking so much as creating the fear of being poked.

That’s one thing that’s so important to remember about Jones, that his long history of unpenalized fouls has raised his temerity to the point that in his mind it would be foolish not to occasionally turn his UFC bouts into street fights. Especially ones where only he is allowed to fashion a stabbing device out of a broken bottle, metaphorically speaking. To put it another way, he knows that he’s allowed to bring the proverbial knife to a fist fight.

The onus falls on the referees, judges, the UFC—and to some degree, the media—to police Jones’s tactics, which seems unlikely to happen at this point given his loose relationship with the rulebook so far. So long as he stays within the loose boundaries of the ever-confusing “Unified Rules,” he is above the law, much to the chagrin of his rivals.

Look, it’s a horrible thing to say that we won’t see change until someone loses an eye or suffers a major knee injury as a result of Jones’s questionable moves, but that is the case. The question isn’t whether Jones will cheat again, rather when will it happen, how much will it affect the fight, and is it possible that he and his team will continue to develop new, possibly unethical ways to frustrate his opponents?

At the end of the day, a fight is a fight and Jones isn’t the only fighter to take advantage of unchecked fouls. How often do we see kicks to the groin debilitate a fighter without major consequence to the culprit? How many times must we see a referee miss a hand grabbing on to the cage fence to prevent a takedown that would completely change the course of a fight? Jones has displayed all of these weapons in his arsenal and he’s better at using them than anyone.

There’s a difference between illegal and dirty and Jon Jones is definitely dirty. What makes it so hard to swallow for his critics is that he’s always managing to get away with it.

HIS EYE POKES ARE A PROBLEM, BUT HE’S NOT INTENTIONALLY DIRTY

If you were an attorney, and a good one, you certainly have a great deal of circumstantial evidence to make a case against Jones. As Alex noted, the longtime, two-time UFC champion has had his share of transgressions. He was disqualified for illegal elbows against Matt Hamill. He was hit with a two-point deduction for an illegal knee against Anthony Smith. He’s had warnings for eye pokes and/or open hands in several matches, including in fights against Alexander Gustafsson, Daniel Cormier, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Glover Teixeira.

That’s a lengthy record that basically spans his entire time as a top professional.

It all leads into UFC 247, when Jones will attempt to defend his UFC light heavyweight championship against Dominick Reyes.

Is Jones actually a dirty fighter? Let’s have a closer look at some key examples, starting with his most recent major controversy, the illegal knee against Smith. Was the strike illegal? Absolutely. But when you watch the video, Smith, who is downed against the fence, clearly begins to get up off the mat. His body starts rising. And Jones is clearly trying to time the strike to connect just as Smith becomes a legal target. But just as Jones’s knee starts to come forward, Smith rethinks it and sinks back to the ground. He stays a downed fighter, and Jones’s knee lands a split-second later. The whole sequence takes a blink. His intent was a perfectly timed knee, but Smith’s hesitation changed the timing. This infraction is a perfect example that illegal is not equal to dirty.

The Hamill fight was more blatant, but again, defensible. While most remember that Jones had already had some UFC experience at the time — it was his fourth Octagon bout — few remember that he was only 22 years old, and that his professional fighting career was barely 18 months old. In MMA terms, he was a baby. It was a mistake born of youth, ignorance and inexperience. If you rewatch the fight, you can see on his face how shocked he was at the stoppage. In the press conference, he still seems baffled, admitting, “I didn’t realize that they were illegal shots that I was hitting him with,” even as he accepted the referee’s decision with grace. Even Hamill didn’t blame Jones, calling it “a mistake” and saying, “He definitely didn’t lose this fight and I definitely didn’t win.”

The oblique kicks and shoulder cranks? Both perfectly legal. Many people feel especially queasy about techniques that target ligaments and tendons, but these are no different than the purpose of a kimura or a heel hook, two techniques that never get characterized as dirty despite the similar danger they present. If you have a problem with these, blame the rule book, not the fighter.

So the crux of the case against Jones comes down to fingers. There are many examples of Jones stopping an onrushing opponent by extending his hand; it’s a bad habit but it’s not dirty. Earlier in his career, Jones would sometimes reach out with fingers extended while moving forward; that is more problematic. These days when those fouls occur, he is usually backpedaling or sidestepping and attempting to keep an opponent at distance. It is instinctive, and even though it should have been drilled out of him by now, it’s a very human reaction.

He deserves his share of blame. So do the referees, who often refuse to enforce a point-deduction for first offenses, effectively giving fighters a freebie. While it is a difficult call to take away a point, more consistent punishments would likely bring about change.

But who knows if Jones can ever really adjust. He is by nature an improvisational fighter who sharpens his technique in camp and then lets things flow naturally on fight night. He’s always been this way, and it’s the source of his brilliance as it is a source of his biggest issue. He feels his way through moments, and sometimes he does that quite literally. But again, illegal does not equal dirty. It’s not done with intent.

That said, Reyes’s move to publicly make an issue over Jones’ cage tactics is a brilliant pre-fight salvo. My colleague is right that the fear of an eye poke can be a psychological advantage, but by publicizing it, Reyes has deflected pressure in the other direction. The referee now knows his officiating is being closely watched by the fight world, and Jones knows that there will be a hypersensitivity to it. If that makes him more conscious of what he’s doing, it reduces his improvisation, and that is ultimately good for Reyes. It is good for Jones, too. Win or lose, it’s better for all parties involved if the outcome is for once, free of controversy.

Poll

Does Jon Jones cross the line with his in-cage fight tactics?

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  • 62%
    Yes
    (1555 votes)
  • 37%
    No
    (932 votes)
2487 votes total Vote Now