The light heavyweight division is an absolute wasteland; granted, less than it used to be with fighters like Dominick Reyes and Magomed Ankalaev on the upswing, but 205-pounds is still pathetically shallow with a gigantic gulf between Jon Jones and everyone else.
Everyone in the middle of the rankings seems to have lost to everyone else in a sort of crabs-in-a-bucket situation, and even fights involving top contenders (such as Volkan Oezdemir vs. Anthony Smith) can devolve into who gasses less badly. A former unranked middleweight made it to #2 and a title fight at light heavyweight with no tangible additions to his skillset, which speaks volumes.
That makes it all the more special when light heavyweight turns in a legitimate gem like Jan Blachowicz vs. Thiago Santos, a fight that could somewhat accurately be described as a brawler of a technician against a technician of a brawler.
Jan Blachowicz has been underrated for a long time; since his last loss, Blachowicz has gone on a four-fight streak with wins over legitimately well-regarded light heavyweights such as Nikita Krylov and Jimi Manuwa. He’s on the brink of a title shot and facing one of the most violent people on the planet in Thiago Santos to claim it.
Meanwhile, Thiago Santos was a scary middleweight, but fell short against borderline-elite competition; after a quick loss to Dave Branch, Santos moved up to light heavyweight and has found nothing but success. After a brutal knockout win over Manuwa, Santos is an established light heavyweight with the potential to make the top of the division far more interesting. He looks to overwhelm the cleaner technician in Blachowicz in an attempt to earn an eliminator or a title shot.
Jan Blachowicz has put together a four-fight win streak since his last loss, and yet it’s difficult to see him as a title challenger; part of it is that the top of the division seems so much more skilled than the rest, and another part is that the aforementioned loss was to light heavyweight journeyman Patrick Cummins. However, Blachowicz has added legitimate nuance to his game since that loss, and his technically strongest moments are arguably his most patient ones.
Blachowicz is offensively most potent when he’s moving forward and swinging, as he has legitimate power in his hands, but he’s far from his best in a technical sense; he invariably shifts as he moves forward and he swings relatively wildly, which makes his bursts somewhat liable to be countered as he’s in a position that makes defense difficult. The lack of good counterpunchers at light heavyweight makes that mostly academic, though; Blachowicz’s aggression, even unrefined, actually made him a surprisingly bad matchup for the elite Alexander Gustafsson on the feet. Gustafsson didn’t have the mobility on the backfoot to stay away from Blachowicz, nor the counterpunching to punish or frustrate Blachowicz’s advances, so he traded sloppily and ate a lot of punches until he could find takedowns that won him the fight.
Blachowicz has since added tools to his game that make him less reliant on the blitz (even though he does go to it fairly often), and the primary one is the jab. Blachowicz isn’t a great jabber in the grand scheme of all of MMA, but he’s one of the better ones at light heavyweight, and it allowed him to mark up Manuwa as Manuwa plodded towards him (even jabbing to the body at times, and sometimes trying to hook around the guard).
Jan also looked sharp on the counter against Manuwa; he was able to stun Manuwa with an uppercut as Manuwa tried to pressure him, and was able to wait on Manuwa’s right hand late in the fight to land a few clean combinations. Blachowicz showed his grappling ability in his submission of Nikita Krylov, but it isn’t a consistent part of his game; while Blachowicz has skills in every arena, he prefers to box and boxes better than most in the division.
In contrast, Thiago Santos (or “Marreta”, translating to “sledgehammer”) avoids boxing as much as possible; while he can enthusiastically throw hands if forced to, Santos’ technical boxing leaves a lot to be desired. Santos has shown real grappling deficiencies in the past, and his resiliency can be put into question by both his last fight (where he was hurt badly multiple times by a Manuwa who was halfway-done for most of it) and by his last loss (in which Dave Branch sparked him).
What ties the game of Thiago Santos together (most of the time) is exactly what his nickname suggests; Santos has a lot of holes in his skillset from a purist’s perspective, but his power is of the sort that even light heavyweights don’t see often. Santos throws everything with malicious intention, and it gets him into trouble as a technical boxer; however, it also makes his technical boxing irrelevant against the vast majority of light heavyweights. Santos is a decent puncher who can trade in the pocket with legitimate venom if he’s forced to do so (which is how the Manuwa fight shook out), yet he’s strongest playing the outside and dealing damage with his kicking game.
Thiago is a deceptively smart kicker; he kicks the body and the leg as well as the head, and he has enough of a grasp of setups that he’s a legitimate danger to engage on the outside. Santos was able to make Steve Bosse key on the body kick to starch him with the head kick in thirty seconds, and he was able to put away current light heavyweight top contender Anthony Smith with a vicious body kick. “Marreta” is one of the more robust forms of the 205-plus archetype; he’s big and violent and not much else, but he makes it work.
Conclusions and Capping
Santos is dangerous, but one has to question how far he can go with his athletically-centered game, and Jan Blachowicz may be a bridge too far.
Santos has already beaten an excellent puncher in Manuwa, but it was an enormously messy victory that was qualified by Manuwa’s rapidly degrading chin; Santos wasn’t able to kick a whole lot in that fight, and his boxing technique looked as wild as ever. Santos isn’t good enough on the counter to really trust him to defuse the shifting attack of Blachowicz, and he looked legitimately uncomfortable when he was under pressure from Branch. Blachowicz should be able to touch him at will with his jab when in range, and Santos doesn’t have a whole lot that can keep a strong boxer on the outside (nothing in the way of a jab or a linear kick, and not great at alleviating pressure).
If Blachowicz can close distance, he’s advantaged, and his advantages would only compound as Santos becomes exhausted (Santos fought the Manuwa fight at a pace too high for his own good, as his attacks were downright ponderous at the end of the first round). If Blachowicz lingers too long at the edge of Santos’ reach, “Marreta” has the tools to put him away, but the dynamic favors Blachowicz.
Prediction: Jan Blachowicz via TKO (round 3). This writer caps Blachowicz at -160.