Pre-Fight Thoughts: Jon Jones -vs- Thiago Santos
Returning to action for the third time in 6 months, Jon Jones takes on surging light heavyweight Thiago Santos in a fight that may seem like a lopsided squash match on paper, but which could prove to be more competitive and engaging than one might think. Yes, Jones is the most dominant light heavyweight champion in UFC history, he's also still in his prime years and shows no sign of slowing down. Still, to dismiss Thiago Santos — even in spite of his unimpressive run at middleweight prior to moving up — is incredibly unwise. No one is unbeatable; dominant champions may exude an aura of invincibility but all it takes is a committed opponent with a sufficient mixture of confidence and skill to shatter that illusion — and make no mistake, it is always an illusion — with a perfectly timed punch or kick.
Everyone loses eventually. Jon Jones is an obvious favourite coming into this fight but there are no sure things and Santos presents his own unique challenges. In the past, I've said things to the effect of "I can't pick against [dominant champ] until someone proves to me that it's possible." Those fighters — including Cris Cyborg and Jose Aldo — then went on to get demolished. So aside from trying to avoid any sort of jinx, I also think that's somewhat lazy analysis on my part; one needs to consider what it would hypothetically take to upset a Jon Jones.
Thiago Santos is the best striker that Jones has faced in a very long time. Daniel Cormier has very good boxing, but it was rendered largely ineffective in both fights with Jones and Gustafsson is a mediocre striker who happened to have success in their first bout. Regardless of how much weight you give to Jones' assertions that he didn't train seriously for that bout, "The Mauler" was unable to replicate even a fraction of that performance before being savagely TKO'ed in their rematch. I would argue that you have to go back to the Lyoto Machida fight, a bout in which Jones had a lot of difficulty until he adapted in the third round and changed the whole tenor of the fight with a counter-elbow before choking "The Dragon" unconscious.
Now, Lyoto Machida and Thiago Santos aren't all that comparable as fighters beyond the fact they are both good strikers — a counter-striking karate specialist versus a hyper-aggressive kickboxer. Jon Jones is an effective striker, but he is far from polished. Jones utilises his absurd reach advantage in combination with his wrestling to support his unorthodox stand-up skills. Jones doesn't throw combos for the most part, but accumulates a lot of volume over time as his opponents progressively become more and more defensive. No one has had a good answer for Jones' combination of distance management and slow-burn style of attacking opponents' knees and body.
Santos' power and aggression could work to his advantage as well as his detriment. Jones is not an aggressive finisher, which is why he's gone to decision against opponents who were embarrassingly outclassed such as Anthony Smith and Ovince Saint-Preux — he's amazing at punishing fighters for trying to win, but is content to coast against someone fighting simply not to lose. I don't think Jones really wants to clinch with Santos, and if the Brazilian's been working on his wrestling defence then we'll have a real fight on our hands. Normally the one working to reduce his opponents' mobility, it would be interesting to see what happens if Santos can land some of his crushing kicks against Jones' skinny legs.
I see a lot more potential for Jones to lose this fight than I did the Gustafsson rematch or the Anthony Smith fight. Santos is a much more damgerous opponent than I think a lot of people are giving him credit for. I still favour Jones but not to the point where I would consider a Santos win to be a massive upset. An upset, yes, and in the context of Jones' legacy of unmitigated dominance for 10 years a truly historic accomplishment on Santos' behalf, but not in the realm of Matt Serra defeating Georges Saint-Pierre. I'm expecting Jones to attack Santos' legs, take him down and look for a submission or TKO. Jones isn't a heavy hitter and Santos' chin has been nothing short of impressive since he stopped cutting to 185 pounds. Conversely, if Santos wins then it will almost assuredly be the result of a strike-based KO.
There are some questions that this fight will help answer: how has Jones' training fared given the tumult at the Jackson-Wink gym, does Jones truly take this fight seriously? This is the opportunity of a lifetime for Thiago Santos, a man possessed of the violent capabilities and sociopathic confidence required to dethrone a true great like Jon Jones. I joked on Twitter that if Jones is going to lose, it will be against a middleweight — it's already nearly happened twice, against Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort. I'm still picking Jones to win, probably by submission, but I have genuine concern that Thiago Santos may shock the world tonight.
Published: July 6th, 2019.