Thiago Santos hits Jan Blachowicz with a head kick

After the collective “meh” surrounding Jon Jones vs. Anthony Smith, the UFC came up with the perfect solution! Have him fight… Thiago Santos? A guy with an even less impressive resume and four years Jones’ senior? This is what happens when you’re this good; you run out of competition.

Without meaning to disrespect Santos, Jones is the easiest money a bettor can make at UFC 239. But like any good competitor, I assume that Santos vehemently disagrees. So if the Brazilian hammer wishes to shock the world, what’s he gotta do?

Move laterally

Standing 6-foot-4 with an 85-inch reach, trying to fight on the outside with Jones is a fool’s errand. It’s like a child trying to fight his dad; impossible for obvious reasons and embarrassing for both parties involved. And he doesn’t even really have a jab. No, Jones does most of his out-fighting with snap and elliptical kicks. These linear kicks were enough to have the cardio-machine Daniel Cormier sucking wind in their first fight.

But in their first fight, Alexander Gustafsson revealed the obvious solution: move around Jones. Linear strikes can be dodged with lateral movement, and smart fighters avoid whiffing kicks. Jones is half the boxer he is the kickboxer, and all of a sudden the deceptive short-armed Gustafsson had the boxing match he wanted.

Santos doesn’t have the grace or stride of the towering Swede, but he doesn’t need to. He’s not trying to rack points over many engagements, but inflict massive damage over a few.

Cut the Octagon

The man who best had a chance to beat Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, squandered his first opportunity by chasing. In close, Cormier’s muscled dough boy frame and wrestling pedigree put him on equal footing. But he spent the majority of the fight walking in a straight line, seemingly oblivious to the straight shots to the gut and legs.

Being the power hitter, Santos will be the one moving forward. Should the fight drag into the later rounds, there’s no way he can match the champion’s gas tank. He cannot afford to eat strikes to close distance only to have Jones circle away. Jones is too lanky to win a brawl based on hand speed, so if Santos can keep him in front he may win a few exchanges.

Aim low

Jones is just too tall and too defensively savvy to rely on head shots for damage. There’s a reason the last person to land multiple head shots successfully stood 6-foot-5 with stride length and hand speed.

If and when Santos closes the distance and gets in money range, he needs to target the legs and gut… at least at first. Checked leg kicks can still be effective and the body can’t move like the head, so he’s guaranteed to inflict damage. Plus, low targets sap mobility and stamina which are two massive disadvantages Santos needs to mitigate.

And they don’t need to hurt Jones to be effective. Like a solitary housefly repeatedly landing on your computer screen, annoying can be enough to draw a reaction. Land enough punches to the gut or slapping leg kicks and Jones will react. And that’s when Santos can surprise him with power over the top. We’ve seen this work in the biggest upset in UFC history before.

Accept possible humiliation

Under no circumstances can Santos afford a long fight. Jones can adapt in the space of a single round, and no one wins the championship rounds against him. If Santos finds himself getting beat early, he should bite down on his mouthpiece and start brawling.

Laugh if you want, but Cormier’s second loss to Jones was ten times better than his first even without considering the No Contest. Yes, Jones finished Cormier the only time in his long and storied career. Yes, he’ll have to watch his corpse flop uselessly on highlight reels for years to come. But he made it a fight. He measured Jones and fought on equal footing for as long as it lasted. And then eventually, the risk of a high octane pursuit of Jones came to fruition in the form of a head kick.

If Santos wants any chance of winning, he has to be okay with losing. He has to be okay with Jones shooting under his right hand, grounding him, and submitting him early. Because trying not to lose spells doom against Jones.

I give Santos less of a chance against Jones than Anthony Smith, but who knows? He may surprise us.

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