This feature was originally published in the Total Fight Training supplement

BETWEEN April and July 2008 Jon Jones fought and won six times, all by stoppage, earning himself an invite to the UFC, MMA’s big league. After another six wins, with one disqualification loss, Jones found himself competing for the light-heavyweight title. To say the New York native’s rise to the top was meteoric is an understatement. On his way to the title, Jones dispatched veterans and highly touted up-and-comers with the same explosive and dominant ease. In taking the 205lbs belt, his victory was brutal and decisive as he became the youngest ever UFC champ.

Clearly, Jon Jones’ reach inside and outside the Octagon is massive. Many attribute the champion’s success to his physique and, at 6ft 4ins with a reach of 84.5cm, he has many advantages over his opponents when it comes to striking. Others cite his natural gifts as a fighter, hard to deny when he seems able to out-wrestle, out-grapple and overpower all-comers. Finally, there are his coaches and mentors, Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, and their ability to forge potential into success. It is a formidable combination of all three that has seen Jones (18-1) fight his way to the top of a notoriously tough division and claim his place as the king of the light-heavyweights.

Stay humble, work hard

Jones comes from an athletic background. A state wrestling champion in high school and community college, Jones has two brothers who are both involved in professional sports, playing American football. Despite his background and innate ability, Jones keeps his feet on the ground.

“Jon obviously is physically gifted and mentally strong but he is also super humble and very coachable,” says Greg Jackson, one of MMA’s best coaches and one of Jones’ mentors. “He listens all the time and appreciates the training. It’s something he has in common with Georges St. Pierre [the long-time UFC welterweight champion]. Neither of them acts like they know more than you do and I think that is one of the big traps that fighters fall into. When you have so many people telling them that they’re geniuses every 15 minutes, pretty soon they’ll believe it so it’s hard to stay coachable. But, I think that is an attribute that Jon has. One of the things that I’ve seen define champions is their willingness to learn, their openness to learn and not become a know-it-all.”

On top of Jones’ desire to learn, Mike Winkeljohn, the light-heavyweight’s striking coach, cites his impressive work ethic. “During training camp, Jon works very hard. He’s here 100 per cent and does an incredible amount throughout the day from doing his conditioning work to doing different grappling classes. So he’ll put in his time.”

The final piece of the puzzle for the coaches is self-belief. “On top of all that learning and work that he does, he believes in himself,” explains Winkeljohn. “If I show him a new technique, or Greg shows him something, whatever it may be, Jon will try it out the very next time he spars.”

Repetition then drill down

“We spend a lot of time with Jon getting him to do the right things at the right time,” says Mike. “I really believe in repetitions so that they become confident in the technique without even thinking about it.”

Though Jones began his MMA career by teaching himself how to strike via YouTube videos, his time with Mike Winkeljohn, a decorated Muay Thai fighter in his own right, has seen the light-heavyweight’s skills on the feet improve in leaps and bounds. The formula is, once again, fairly simple.

“I teach a basic striking class where we won’t spar. It’s very important to drill without getting punched in the head. It’s hard with a gym full of fighters as some of them will just want to go hard. But what I’ve found is with guys like that is that they get tough, though next year they’re the same fighter, just as tough, with quite a few less brain cells.”

Dividing the classes between live work and technique drills is an important part of the learning cycle at the gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “What we do is to slow things down and drill things in a controlled atmosphere so that we can do the repetitions over and over and they become second nature.”

As Jon Jones’ main striking coach, Mike also holds one-to-one classes with the champion. “I’ll do a lot of mitt work with Jon, putting myself in positions to mimic the opponent he’ll be fighting so that he can practise the proper length of his strikes, the change-ups he wants to do and the footwork and techniques that put him in areas people won’t expect him to be, allowing him to attack or shoot in for the takedowns.”

Spending between half an hour-to-an-hour every day doing extra padwork, these times are spent perfecting and drilling techniques. “At first, when Jon comes into camp, we’ll do a lot of repetitions on learning new techniques but the further we get into camp the more specific we get to the opponent he’ll be fighting. But early on in the camp I’m always trying to add new skills to his toolbox that can be used further on down the road,” says Winkeljohn. “I’ll assess during the camp if Jon is able to utilise and sharpen those new tools and if so, we incorporate that into the camp-specific training. If not, we put it on the shelf and use it later on. Closer to the fight we’ll put Jon on the clock and pick up the intensity. We always do five-minute rounds so he can see and feel the length of the rounds in his mind. In fact, towards the end of camp we’ll have guys come in and shoot in on him in the middle of the pad work, or grapple with him to tire him out so that it really simulates the fight.”

Swim to win

“Swimming is definitely the most challenging element of training,” Jones reveals, perhaps somewhat surprisingly. “It’s brutal. I usually start off warming up with some 800s and then I do resistance swimming where I’ll have a bungee tied around my waist and I’ll swim out to the middle of the pool. They’ll hang on to this bungee and basically I’m swimming and I’m not going anywhere. When I get really exhausted they usually let the bungee go and I’ll have to finish over to the other side of the pool, then I have this other drill we do called diving swims where you start at one edge of the deep end. Standing out of the water you jump and dive in, you swim across and pull yourself out at the other side of the pool, turn around and as soon as you turn around you dive right back in and you just keep going back and forth. Eventually, pulling yourself out of the pool is so exhausting.”

Grapple with the basics

In mixed martial arts, the ability to wrestle as well as use submission grappling techniques is paramount. A decorated wrestler in his school days, Jones has fared just as well against the submission skills of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialists such as Vitor Belfort and Lyoto Machida as he has against legitimate wrestlers in the form of Ryan Bader, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Chael Sonnen.

“A lot of what we do with Jon is expanding his knowledge of the wrestling and ground game. He was fairly raw when he came to us in all areas, even mentally. He had all the basics in terms of technique but it was more a case of giving him ideas as he is very creative,” explains Greg Jackson. “In his jiu-jitsu privates we’ll go over basic manoeuvres and the details of certain techniques. When it comes to gameplan time, I’ll tell him that we’ll be doing certain things and we’ll drill them over and over again until he gets them down.”

With the normal pro classes lasting between one hour-to-an hour-and-a-half, and privates lasting another half an hour, Jones is clearly packing in the training and practise necessary to make his skills second nature.

“There’s no real secret formula with Jon. I mean, he has great striking coaches, great jiu-jitsu coaches, great wrestling coaches and then me putting everything together. He does all the normal practices and sparring as well as daily privates,” Greg reveals. “The thing with Jon is information. What I like to do is give him ideas and let him play around with them and make them his own. Some fighters are very creative and like to be able to flow within certain parameters and Jon is certainly one of those guys.”

Whilst Jon will work with Greg to a specific gameplan, his coach also develops a personal growth plan for his fighters looking at deficiencies and weaknesses that need developing. “In the privates we’ll work on areas that I think need strengthening but we also look at opponent’s and their ‘x factors’ as well as vulnerabilities that I want them to exploit in the fight.”

The other important part of the grappling game is wrestling, including takedowns, defence and body position. The man who has been helping Jones recently is Israel “Izzy” Martinez, an Illinois native who came to the gym after helping UFC lightweight Clay Guida.

“Izzy works with Jon a lot and will modify classes around Jon’s fight camp. So, when Jon fought Chael Sonnen, Izzy spent a lot of time working with the class on specific drills for that opponent,” explains Mike Winkeljohn. “It’s the same as the striking classes with a lot of drilling, a lot of repetitions and a lot of basics.”

Preparing for Chael Sonnen, an accomplished wrestler, Jon’s trainers highlighted some specific techniques in training. “We wanted Jon to shoot with his head on the outside of Chael’s front leg so that he didn’t walk in to any punches. In camp we spent a lot of time on avoiding the left side when we looked for the takedown, and on defending the looping right hook that Chael likes to throw,” explains Winkeljohn.

Attitude to altitude

Albuquerque’s height of 9,000 feet is a boon to Jones and the other fighters who train there and Jackson’s gym in particular is local to some impressive peaks. Jones is quick to emphasise how crucial this is to his conditioning.

“Albuquerque has a lot of mountains and it’s high elevation, so even if I’m just jogging on a treadmill inside of the gym, I’m still going high elevation,” he enthuses. “And when I get into those mountain runs it really uses the land. You go even higher. When you get up to 9,000 feet working out it’s really hard to breathe and your body gets adjusted to it. That means you’re getting into phenomenal shape. When you come down from that mountain or get to the city you’re fighting at, which is usually sea-level, you feel like you have an untouchable tank of gas. It’s not the longest run, it’s just hard work. I’m not a big believer of these long, boxing-style jogs. I’m a big believer in sprints and hill sprints, short bursts, and that’s how fighting works. A fight is a short-burst thing, so that’s how I do it.”

Analyse and periodise

In the modern era of MMA, strength and conditioning can make the difference between winning and losing, especially when the opponents are so well matched in skills. Jon Jones is an athletic individual with some clear physical advantages over his opponents but he doesn’t neglect his conditioning regime. Having begun working with Adrian Gonzalez before a stoppage win over Chael Sonnen, Jones improved again.

“The very first thing I did with Jon was a functional movement screen,” explains Adrian. “It’s a seven-point screen that looks at his mobility and flexibility that I use as a jump-off point to create a programme. The screen uncovered a number of mobility limitations and a few chronic issues that he probably developed over the years. What I did with Jon is to take a holistic approach to open up his hips, his shoulders and thoracic spine. Through that increase in mobility and flexibility he saw an improvement.”

The development in his flexibility had the knock-on effect of greater strength gains. “The joint malfunction I saw in Jon was that he was loading his legs and arms asymmetrically. After we opened him up with these mobility patterns we got feedback from the gym that he had more power in his kicks and in his takedowns,” Adrian reveals. Adrian uses two mobility patterns to activate his athlete’s muscles which are alternated over the weeks; linear and lateral. Using foam rollers and different stretches, such as a scapular push-up stretch for the shoulders and a box hip flexor stretch for the hips, Adrian can open up the muscles and joints, allowing for better mobility and thereby improve athletic performance.

Jon Jones

Working with Gonzalez at Elevate PHW, Jones has the best facilities on offer including an exercise physiology laboratory where his coach can derive all manner of data including VO2 max and heart-rates.

“Jon’s programme is somewhat unique in that we do his strength and conditioning work on the same day, including his speed work and power work. The amount of each element he does depends on where he is in his camp. Closer to the fight we focus more on conditioning and less on strength but he’ll continue to do some amount of speed, agility, power, strength and conditioning in every workout block; it is just the amounts and times change,” Adrian says.

Working with Jon three times a week for between an hour-to-an-hour-and-a-half each time, Gonzalez uses block periodisation to develop his athletes. In the first instance, “In an eight-week fight camp, we use two three-week blocks focusing on strength and then power. The final two-week block is then more conditioning-based where we simulate fight conditions,” say Adrian. The aim is to carry the gains in each block over into the next. ”But this also allows us to address certain deficits as well as tracking improvements. So, over the camp, if we needed to emphasise power, we can manipulate the programme to work on that area.”

Adrian has an interesting insight into what makes Jones so formidable.“The thing I’ve noticed is that Jon is very comfortable being uncomfortable. He’s okay with pushing himself and his work ethic is phenomenal and he’ll give one hundred per cent every time,” Adrian reveals. “The other attribute Jon has is that he is naturally athletic. I truly believe he has only tapped into a small spectrum of what he is capable of. For example, he came to me with a deadlift of 225lbs and over a six-week period improved it to over 400lbs. Really his body is just now developing.”