Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 239’s Thiago Santos

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Brutally powerful kickboxer, Thiago Santos, will attempt to dethrone Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight kingpin, Jon Jones, this Saturday (July 6, 2019) at UFC 239 from inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Let’s all be realistic here: no one can really hold a candle to Jones’ overall skill set. At the same time, he will eventually taste defeat, and it’s up to UFC to keep providing contenders to give it their best go.

It’ll happen someday … probably.

Still, if one fighter is always going to have the technical edge, there are still traits one could look for in a underdog to defeat him. Knockout power is certainly a plus. Aggression and mental fortitude are an absolute must. Add in a dash of unorthodox technique, and suddenly that ideal underdog is starting to sound like Thiago Santos.

It may be a long shot, but let’s take a closer look at the Brazilian’s skill set:

Striking

A black belt in Muay Thai and green rope in Capoeira, Santos kicks absurdly hard. At Light Heavyweight, however, he’s not simply melting opponents with single kicks. Instead, Santos is throwing everything and the kitchen sink at opponents, usually looking to overwhelm with utter violence.

Most of the time, Santos fights from the Orthodox stance, but he’ll switch to Southpaw often enough. In truth, it’s less that Santos is a switch stance fighter and more that the Orthodox stance cannot contain Santos’ desire to smash (GIF). As shown in that clip, the best way to describe Santos’ boxing is enthusiastic. The man does hit plenty hard and loves to leap in with a pair of heavy hooks. He will eventually play on the threat of his looping shots by trying to place an uppercut straight through the guard, but it’s rarely more complicated than stringing together power shots until one slips through the guard.

Take a look at the finishing sequence from his recent knockout win over Jimi Manuwa (GIF), for example. This is not technical boxing — Santos is whinging punches and falling all over the place. At the same time, he’s not completely without process. Santos is in good cage position, and the pace he’d previously set was so absurdly high that no one could expect to remain perfectly technical. Lunging shots or not, Santos managed to pull away from Manuwa’s shots, switch from his usual Orthodox to Southpaw, and fire different looping punches around Manuwa’s high guard.

Santos’ kicking remains a great asset even if it’s not stopping foes in their tracks immediately. It still most be noted the Santos’ kicking power is elite — arguably the best pound-for-pound on the roster alongside Edson Barboza. One clean kick is a fight-changing experience. A major weapon for Santos is definitely the switch kick. Switching his feet quickly, Santos will power through a left kick to the body or head of an orthodox opponent. Usually, this power kick is set up by a few quick switch kicks to the inside of the leg.

Santos has a few other ways to set up the power left kick though. At times, he will fully switch to Southpaw before shuffling forward directly into a full power kick (GIF). That shuffle is very important, as it allows Santos to close distance and load up the kick. If his opponent tries to back away — wouldn’t you back away from Santos’ suddenly pushing forward quickly? — it benefits the Brazilian, who will end up in perfect position to land with the shin.

Santos’ strike selection is smart. His left leg is his biggest weapon, and he adjusts to his opponent’s stance well. Against Orthodox foes, he’s going to target the body and head with his quick switch or by fully committing to the Southpaw switch before firing. Against a Southpaw like Eryk Anders, Santos will more actively chop to the available lead leg with his left and throw his right kick more often to the open side.

Last time out, Santos showed an unusually patient approach against a fellow kickboxer in Jan Blachowicz. Rather than try to overwhelm the Polish striker, Santos hung back and worked his right low kick, really digging into the calf. The first round was close, but Santos’ patient attrition work built up and saw him begin to take over in the second. When Blachowicz charged forward in the third, a pair of hooks ended his night (GIF).

It was a great win, but trying to fight technically against Jones would be a terrible decision.

Defensively, Santos is certainly a hittable fighter. When attacking with his hands, he can get more than overzealous, leaving plenty of opportunities for opponents. The bigger problem though is that Santos is terribly vulnerable when placed onto the fence, as he’ll try to throw a wide check hook rather than protect himself. It worked out against Blachowicz, but other fights have managed to get inside the hook and crack him.

Wrestling

For most of his career, wrestling has been a dirty word for Santos, as defensive grappling in general is responsible for most of his career losses. However, his defense has come a long way over the years, particularly as Santos has grown to be a more physical fighter.

Against a short-notice replacement and smaller man in Kevin Holland, Santos had little trouble over-powering him with double legs along the fence. Generally, the sequences went something like this: stun Holland with a punch or kick, flurry along the fence, dump him with a double leg takedown, and then pound away. Somehow, Holland survived the assault(s), but it was a nice little display of well-rounded violence from the Brazilian. Against bigger men in Anders, Blachowicz, and Manuwa, Santos was still able to find success in distracting foes with a wild exchange before tackling the legs along the fence.

Simple and effective.

Defensively, Santos’ biggest issue is that he gets way too wild. When kicking at range, Santos is powerful and denies takedown entries easily — good luck trying to catch that guy’s kick! It’s when he rushes forward and abandons stance that Santos struggles with giving up top position. Against Anthony Smith, for example, Santos rocked his foe with a spinning kick and attempted to follow up with a flying high kick. It sort of landed, but Santos also flew by right past “Lionheart.”

Smith merely latched on and landed in mount!

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Outside of an arm triangle attempt opposite Holland, Santos doesn’t do jiu-jitsu, he elbows the hell out of people.

Santos’ defensive jiu-jitsu shares the same problem as his defensive wrestling. At this point, Santos is definitely technically capable of defending himself. He survived some very bad positions opposite Gerald Meerschaert, for example, which is impressive considering “GM3” holds 20 career victories via tapout.

In that bout — and in other recent examples like when mounted by Smith — Santos was patient and waited for his moment to explode out. Other times, Santos just tries to yank away and stand up far too quickly, which is what allowed Eric Spicely to climb onto his back and choke him out. As with much of Santos’ approach, reckless aggression is a consistent double-edged sword, but he only seems to be improving at managing the risk.

Conclusion

Santos has earned this shot, riding a four-fight win streak and having won eight of his last nine. While it may feel like UFC is simply throwing another Middleweight at Jones, “Marreta” has been building toward this run for years, improving his technical skill and ability to fight like a savage without consequence. In truth, we’ve never seen someone who can kick with Jones — it’s at least a new challenge.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.




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