In many ways, Thiago Santos is no better than the dozen title challengers Jon Jones has already beaten. He is no more technically sophisticated than Anthony Smith, no more athletic than Vitor Belfort, no faster than Ovince Saint Preux. In many ways, he is far worse than some of Jones’ victims. Daniel Cormier, Lyoto Machida, and Alexander Gustafsson all have deep wells of skill the likes of which Marreta could not dream of matching—and none of those men has lost a fight to Eric Spicely, either.
So what’s with this feeling that Santos may in fact be the most dangerous foe Jones has ever faced?
One thing which cannot be overstated (and which explains my own preference for the likes of GSP and Jose Aldo when it comes to the GOAT conversation) is the fact that light heavyweight is really very bad. The division over which Jones has reigned for the better part of these last eight years is among the weakest in the entire sport, one of those weight classes where the crusty old veterans just keep getting older and crustier, and yet the best prospects modernity has to offer bounce harmlessly off of them over and over. Year after year, the light heavyweight legends just keep limping along, slightly worse than the year before but always good enough to randomly knock out a Corey Anderson or Tyson Pedro.
Thiago Santos is not the first middleweight to peer upward and decide that his luck would be better tried against bigger and (quite literally) badder competition. Three of Jones’ previous challengers came from ranks of 185, and former middleweight champ Luke Rockhold will also be trying his hand at light heavyweight at UFC 239. But Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort were too old and too frail when Jon fought them, and Anthony Smith, his most recent victim, lasted hardly more than six minutes when he and Santos squared off in 2018—which is to say, he survived four times longer against Jones than he did against the Brazilian sledgehammer.
Athletically, Santos belongs in the same category as Yoel Romero and Jose Aldo. His knockout power puts him next to men like Dan Henderson and Robbie Lawler. And despite the fifty pounds of separation between them, he throws kicks as quickly and as accurately as Edson Barboza. He is quicker, more dynamic, and certainly a lot crazier than the vast majority of contenders at 205. He has a strange penchant for mentioning the pain he hopes to visit on his opponents in his interviews, and it wasn’t long ago that he deliberately threw out a whole training camp’s worth of gameplanning in favor of an impromptu slobberknocker with Jimi Manuwa. He ate everything the English puncher had to offer, and then knocked him out.
But it’s the kicks that Jones will have to be particularly watchful of. He has never faced anything like them before, and for a fighter who specializes in keeping his opponent’s at arm’s reach, Jones is liable to spend lots of time right in the middle of Santos’ kicking range.
1. As Anders backs him toward the fence, Santos throws away a big, halfhearted kick to get some space away from it.
2. Anders moves forward again.
3. This time Santos interrupts his advance with a stomping side kick to the knee. Anders has to pause and bend his legs to avoid injury.
4. Anders continues to press forward, but Thiago’s kick feints keep him from closing too quickly.
5. Santos circles to his left.
6. As his lateral movement changes the angle, Santos snipes Anders’ hamstring with a hard outside low kick.
7. Santos goes back to circling; Anders continues advancing, now squaring his stance, pointing his knee out to discourage outside low kicks.
8. This time Thiago nails him with a savage inside low kick, taking advantage of the new opening and making Anders stumble.
Santos possesses a full vocabulary of lightning fast kicks, which help him both to maintain and exploit the kind of long range that Jones usually prefers. And when the low kicks and body kicks start to draw a reaction out of the opponent, Santos is always eager to lay his shin across someone’s face, or else try some kind of triple axel rolling thunder madness that ends with him on his ass and his opponent decapitated.
When it comes to fighting dynamic kickers, pressure is usually the best tack to take. Even the best counter kicker in the world has an easier time kicking off the front foot than he does going backward—and Thiago Santos is no Marlon Moraes. And much to the fortune of his savvier foes, Santos has a tendency of falling to pieces under concerted pressure. Uriah Hall and Gegard Mousasi both kept Santos’ feet to the fire and beat him, and even David Branch was able to knock Santos out halfway into the first round of their fight, making him just the sixth knockout win on a 26-fight record.
Here we encounter another stylistic problem for Jones, however. While he may still be able to win through savvy and technical skill at kicking range, he will be at uniquely serious risk whenever he gives Santos space to use his legs. And yet, Jones is not a pressure fighter. He certainly can pressure when it suits him. He swarmed and mauled Glover Teixeira for five brutal rounds, and both Sonnen and Belfort spent a lot of time with their backs to the fence against him. Nonetheless, most of Jones’ more recent experience has prepared him to respond to pressure, not apply it.
When Jon does fight on the front foot, he is effective from two ranges: long range, which we already know is a precarious place to be when Thiago Santos is the foe, and the clinch. Jones is undeniably one of the very best clinch fighters in the sport. His tall frame lets him yank more diminutive opponents around by the neck, pulling them into vicious knees. His invasive, obnoxious wrist control allows him to manipulate his opponent into vulnerable positions. And if the combined utility of his long arms and pointy elbows isn’t obvious, you need only give Jones a moment in close range and he will show you with a smile.
The problem for Jones is that he struggles between these two ranges. His boxing has come along marvelously in recent years, but Jon has spent his entire fighting career insulated by his tremendous reach, and he remains uncomfortable and flinchy whenever it is taken away. Indeed, except for the Sonnen and Teixeira fights, he has rarely ever brought the clinch to his opponent. Usually, the smaller guy is trying to press forward through a hailstorm of kicks and jabs, and then Jon invites him into the clinch before he can set up in midrange.
When he does have to do the pressing himself, it isn’t always pretty.
1. Jones moves forward after just missing on a long elbow attempt.
2. He steps out away from Teixeira’s right hand as he moves in. Glover reaches out cautiously to post a hand on Jones’ neck.
3. As Jones grabs a collar tie with his left arm, Teixeira throws a chopping overhand right over it.
4. Jones ducks awkwardly to get away from the punch, looking down at the floor.
5. Teixeira doesn’t put much into this left hook, and Jones is still somewhat fortunate to block it with his broken posture and splayed guard.
6. Anxious to get out of the pocket, Jones reaches out with both arms, trying to control Teixeira’s head and arms.
7. Before any such control is established, Teixeira lets rip a right uppercut. By some miracle, waggling his head without ever taking his eyes off the floor, Jones avoids the worst of it.
8. Finally, the clinch.
Jones is not and never has been much of a defensive maestro on the feet. In his last several fights, we have seen cleaner and more consistent footwork, and a lot more head movement. Nonetheless, we’ve still witnessed plenty of Jones flinching and squirming whenever he gets into middle distance, and all the while, haven’t we been wondering: what if some maniac with a giant hammer tattooed on his chest and a chainlink crucifix inked on his back were to start swinging like crazy the moment Jones hesitated?
In the last example, Jon’s results were imperfect, but the pawing, crouching rush forward was enough to deal with the predictable range of exactly three counter punches offered by Glover Teixeira, who stuck reliably to his orthodox stance and was slowly ground to grist.
Santos’ power to trouble Jones lies not only in his potent kicking game, but in his own counter punching. As far as counterpunchers go, Santos is about as stark a contrast to old man Glover as you can get. He is perfectly happy to square up or switch stance in the very midst of a combination. And as for those combinations, they are both unbelievably wild and deceptively unpredictable, quite unlike Teixeira’s compact fours and threes. Santos will throw a looping shot from absolutely any direction he can, swinging his hooks and uppercuts like they were iron balls on the end of a long chain. He does all of this while retreating, often at top speed, with little discernible rhythm. Methodical pressure can sort this tactic out rather quickly, but a more reckless or less confident advance is asking for something like this.
1. Blachowicz eats the second painful outside low kick in quick succession.
2. He decides that he must push forward to keep Santos off-balance.
3. Blachowicz starts off with a long, pawing jab. Santos retreats in his southpaw stance.
4. Next, a searching uppercut that just misses the mark.
5. Blachowicz is halfway through shifting into southpaw to follow through on this left hook when Santos connects first with a right.
6. Blachowicz is barely stunned but the next shot coming his way is a lot worse. Santos whips his left hand toward Jan’s chin.
7. Practically falling over backward, Santos’ swing connects right on the point of Blachowicz’s chin.
8. Jan goes down as Thiago follows through on his devastating hook, ending in an orthodox stance.
You might call this countering footwork a “retreating shift,” but that seems to lend an inappropriate sense of deliberation. Watching the sequence play out at full speed, it looks a lot more like Thiago Santos saw an open target come rushing toward him and decided to throw a few really savage punches even as he was falling over himself trying not to get hit. Technically, the approach leaves something to be desired, but occasionally, the tactic is trickier if neither man really knows what’s happening.
Of course, all the benefits of wild unorthodoxy mean nothing when the opponent applies calm, deliberate pressure and fires clean shots straight down the pipe. Jones might be able to do this. It bears repeating: David “the Brooklyn Blanket” Branch managed to knock Santos out—quickly—just by pressing him backward and hitting him with a few sharp punches.
But Jan Blachowicz suffered the opposite fate. Being one of the most technical kickboxers in the whole division, he enjoyed a very even fight with Santos at long range. But as soon as he tried to press forward with a combination, Santos pulled some wild athletic nonsense and dropped him like a sack of Polish oats. Jones does not share Jan’s passion for counter punching, nor does he rely on it, so he may very well be content to stay at range and avoid the risk. But if he does, well... we’ve been over this. Thiago Santos is going to try to kick him, really goddamn hard.
In all likelihood, Jones will win. Even if Marreta manages to hurt him, Jones has displayed an as-yet uncrackable chin, and possesses an inimitable poise in tough situations. Even if the light heavyweight GOAT is thrown stumbling back into the fence, the chances are still very high that he will take Santos down and bloody him up before tying him into a neat little knot. For all the stylistic difficulties Santos poses, his defensive wrestling is not among them.
Even so, Jones has quite openly admitted to overlooking opponents in the past, and he has never been a man to balk at repeating a mistake. For all of his faults, and all the oddball losses on his record, Thiago Santos is something Jon Jones has never faced before. That alone makes him dangerous.
For more on Jones vs Santos and the rest of UFC 239, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the original podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.