Post-Fight Thoughts: Jon Jones -vs- Thiago Santos
The main event of UFC 239 ended up being a closer fight than I think anyone expected. I was shocked by the fact the judges were split, as Jones clearly won the fight even if it wasn't the most action-packed, exciting contest. Despite a compromised knee, Santos was able to hit Jones and kept the champ extremely cautious throughout the entirety of the fight. Even when Santos was visibly having problems moving, Jones was still tentative — never going in for the kill despite having success when he would throw. Jones employed the same strategy as we've seen in his past fights, but with even less urgency.
The key difference between this fight and his previous title defence against Anthony Smith is that Thiago Santos never switched to a purely defensive mode. Even with a damaged leg, eating body shots in addition to kicks aimed at his injured leg, Santos was still trying to be offensive and kept throwing. Jones also fought terribly, giving Santos every possible opportunity to stay in the fight. Jon made exactly 1 attempt at a takedown, early in the first round, which Santos easily shrugged off. Jones did very little clinch work and fought the majority of the fight at range, throwing 1-2 shots frequently but never in flurries.
As expected, there was a lot of criticism of Jones for not running through Santos. I find that misplaced; just because Jones is one of the most gifted fighters MMA has ever seen, that doesn't mean he's going to finish everyone he fights. Santos had a damaged knee, but otherwise was able to absorb everything Jon threw at him. At this point, it's safe to say that Santos' chin problems at middleweight were almost certainly due to the weight cutting process — because he's far more resilient at light heavyweight and we've seen this demonstrated multiple times now. Since this was strictly a stand-up fight, I'm not surprised that Jones didn't finish Santos; what does surprise me is that Jon essentially did not wrestle at all.
I know Jon has made a habit of trying to beat fighters in their areas of expertise, and maybe that's the reason he decided to kickbox with Santos, but it's still strange to me. While he was never in danger of being finished, Jones wasn't having a ton of success striking. As evidenced by the highly varied scores awarded by the judges, the rounds were very close; I would have expected at least a bit more wrestling — takedowns to put exclamation points on rounds, if nothing else. In the end, it worked out for him, but I have to wonder if there's more to this: was it a conscious choice, was he perhaps hurt, or has his skillset begun to atrophy?
This wasn't the best fight of the night, not even close, but it was interesting. Santos proved more challenging than expected, Jones retained his title, and the combination of split decision and the "what if" narrative surrounding Santos' knee injury at least makes a rematch somewhat plausible. Normally I would be firmly against an instant rematch here, but there's no one else credible to vye for the title right now — and no, Johnny Walker AKA Volkan Oezdimir 2.0 doesn't count. I'd rather see the UFC run this back than feed Jones a green light heavyweight with some quick finishes or a pointless third fight with Daniel Cormier.
Not only does Jon Jones has no equal, but he has progressed to the stage of dominance where no one can even make him work hard. This doesn't produce the most compelling fights to watch, but their contribution to the greater narrative of Jones' dominance largely redeems them. This was yet another reminder that there is still a vast gulf in skill between Jon Jones and all of his opponents. Still, it's fun watching Jones run up the score.
Published: July 7th, 2019.