The main event of Saturday’s UFC Vegas 59 fight card could cause some significant movement in the promotion’s light heavyweight rankings. Heading into the contest, Thiago Santos is the No. 6 ranked competitor, while his opponent, Jamahal Hill, checks in at No. 10.
Santos, who is a former UFC light heavyweight title challenger, has not been the same since he dropped a split-decision to then-champion Jon Jones in July 2019. Santos entered that contest with a 21-6 record with 15 knockout wins — including his three fights leading into his matchup opposite Jones. Including his loss to Jones, Santos is 1-4 in his past five outings.
Hill, who had his first professional MMA fight less than two years before Santos faced Jones for UFC gold, is 10-1-0-1 and coming off two knockout wins under the UFC banner. Including a devastating and memorable finish over Johnny Walker in his first opportunity to headline a UFC event.
To be fair, comparing wins and losses between these two men is misleading. Santos’ defeats since the Jones setback have come to the top of the UFC’s light heavyweight division. Glover Teixeira, Aleksandar Rakic and Magomed Ankalaev vanquished Santos in those scraps. Those men are currently ranked No. 1, No. 4 and No. 3 in the UFC’s 205-pound weight class. Hill’s two most recent wins are over Jimmy Crute and Walker. Crute is ranked at No. 15 and Walker is the No. 13 fighter in the division.
And that is what makes this fight intriguing and important. Santos has maintained his lofty ranking based on the potency of his opponents and his fearsome reputation. If he loses to Hill, a fighter who carries the prospect tag much more than fighters like Rakic and Ankalaev — who are genuine potential title challengers — Santos could fall from the top-10. And at 38 years of age, his hopes of every getting back into the title hunt would likely be dashed.
As for Hill, who is more or less learning on the job as a member of the UFC since 2020, this is the fight that could allow him to shed the prospect tag and join rising fighters like Rakic and Ankalaev as the next generation of title challengers.
Santos has not been the same fighter since he lost to Jones. He underwent surgery on both legs after that setback and since then, his approach to the fight game has changed a great deal. Where he was once an attacking striker with a devastating kicking game, he has seemed almost reluctant to be the aggressor in his fights. A kind person would call him patient. Hill was more blunt in his assessment of his opponent, saying that Santos is “really f-cking gun shy now. He not really coming to bang. He not really trying to fight.”
As for Hill, who is impressively and coldly confident, his past two wins have come in under four minutes combined. The 31-year-old is developing into one of the most effective strikers in the UFC light heavyweight division.
It’s not an understatement to say this fight could determine the trajectory of both these combatants.