Why Thiago Santos beat Jon Jones at UFC 239

It still feels quite bizarre to write a headline like the one above.

Taking it into perspective; Thiago Santos is 35. He started his UFC career 1-2. He went 10-5 at middleweight. He has had a total of 19 UFC Fights, and I’m not sure anyone could have convinced me even last week that Thiago Santos would beat Jon Jones for the UFC Light-heavyweight title.

But he didn’t, did he.

The fight was scored as a split decision by the three judges at ringside, and by all means, that was a fair reflection on the fight. It was brutally close. It was technical, edgy, heart in your mouth stuff at times, passive during others. Ultimately this fight could have gone either way. But when I sat down to score this, even just after a second watch, I scored this fight for Thiago Santos.

Arguably the easiest rounds to score here were Rounds 3 & 4. Jon Jones was able to capitalise on the left leg struggles and coast his way to a better round both times. Round 3 was Jones most convincing round by far, finding rhythm with oblique and leg kicks and doing just enough to stay on top.

It may have been exactly what he did in Rounds 3 & 4 that lost him the fight. I’ve often spoke about in the past that for fighters to stay in this game, as long as Jon Jones has had, and stay at the top, they have to adapt their game. We’ve seen it with the likes of Jose Aldo, Daniel Cormier etc. These fighters are a lot different to when they were first crowned a UFC champion.

As with many factors in the Octagon, a fighter can be passive. Passiveness can come in many ways – whether it’s stalling up against the cage, holding top position for a round or generally disengaging in combat strikes. Jones had an air of passiveness about him that many would actually commend coming into this fight. Santos has that wild ability to capitalise on your mistakes, whether it’s with a head kick or a body kick. He has that killer instinct many fighters lack to get to the top.

When it came down to the nitty gritty – passiveness is what cost Jones the fight for me. What made Jon Jones a dominant champion in his early days was his killer instinct. He finished 5 out of his first 6 title fights all by stoppage. Going round by round, Jones may have taken Rounds 3 and 4, but I scored 1 and 5 with relative ease for Santos, especially the final round. The championship round as dubbed by many, and aptly worth mentioning in this article in particular.

Round 2 is where it all came down to. This was a fascinating round to watch back. It kind of summed up the fight to a degree. The tide was almost turning for Santos as the commentary team began to notice his left knee struggles. He could put weight on it, no doubt, but it’s usefulness as an offensive weapon had clearly reached a limit.

Santos had two moments in particular where his left leg gave out on him. In the judges eyes, this may have seemed to have been a knockdown. It was quite clearly an injury in the broadcast, but these judges have to be subjective in their views. Who are they to know that Santos was carrying a left knee injury prior to the fight? Who are to hold them accountable if they believed the knee injury was a doing of Jon Jones in the first?

When his knee buckled however, Jones fiercely failed to capitalise. Santos arguably benefited from this in Round 2. Up against the cage, he fell back against the netting and protected himself from a Jon Jones strike – soon turning the tables – into a barrage of punches towards Jones. He used the momentum to his advantage. Jones, had failed.

I went back and logged each strike landed in this round. It might not be the most accurate way of determining a decision, but it definitely factored into my overall judgement. To disprove my records even further, ufc.com had entirely different records to me. I logged Santos as the more active with strikes in Round 2 with 14-11. A lot of Jones offensive output consisted of the oblique kick, the leg kick and shots to the body.

The modern MMA scoring system puts an emphasis on damage, so even if Jones did out-strike Santos unbeknownst to my records, Santos definitely did the most damage with his strikes. The flurry of punches Santos threw after his knee buckled, the first time, was a theme for the round and the fight overall. There’s no doubt Santos didn’t do it on purpose, but when his knee gave out he was prepared for what Jones brought offensively.

It’s this instinctive nature in Santos, paired with the determination and grit he showed to fight withstanding an injury, that won the fight for me. Jon Jones will consider himself very lucky after re-watching the tape. In particular that he had Thiago Santos at a limited ability in the Octagon, and that he escaped that fight with a decision win, split or no split.

If I was Thiago Santos I would be hopefully optimistic about the fight outcome. Against a fighter of the caliber of Jon Jones, he survived 5 rounds and arguably won it on some peoples scorecards. But it’s nothing to be assumptive over.

There’s no doubt we’ll see a better version of Jones if this rematch plays out. He has shown that in his rematches with Gustafsson and Cormier; that he can evolve to an even higher level than he showed in first fights. Santos’ injury may have been a blessing in disguise in a weird way. A more cautious, tentative Santos has proven to be a better foil for Jones style that what we could have seen from the healthy version. If he was at 100%, who’s to say Jones could have countered him at some point or at least made him pay for the risk taking we usually see.

There’s so many talking points to cover here, and I don’t want to get into all of them. But one things for sure, I wholeheartedly believe Thiago Santos won that fight. Their second calling will come, but for the reasons above I’m not as optimistic as some may be for the rematch. This will always be a ‘what if’ mark on a division, and on the legacy of an almost 8-year champion.

But we’ve had plenty of those. They never live to tell the tale.


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