Tonight’s UFC main event is a light heavyweight matchup between Thiago Santos and Magomed Anklaev.
The fight is the featured bout from the UFC Fight Night 203 event that is currently underway at the UFC Apex facility.
Santos steps back into the cage after a win against Johnny Walker in October. Ankalaev is undefeated in his last seven fights in the UFC with most recent victories against Volkan Oezdemir in October and Nikita Krylov in February 2021 as well.
- Santos: +460
- Ankalaev: -650
Santos across his career has become famous for his devastating finishing ability backed by the tenacity to chase those highlight reels. At his best he can very much be described as one of the scarier fighters to grace the octagon, but what makes him even more troublesome at this point in his career is past adversity has also forced him to implement more calculation into his chaos. He is very much a fighter who started out with dangerous raw ability and through training has learned to constrain it and use his talents suitably to whoever stands across from him. While he still throws with ferocity, his more recent fights saw him throw less, but control the timing and distance between and keep himself safe until he did choose to unload.
One of the reasons he is able to dictate being in control is that he has a wide range of attacks, he may burst forward cross-stepping with a barrage of straight punches, or he may well sit back and utilize his stiff body and leg kicks. His options are unpredictable which has allowed him to make best use of a few attacks that make sense. Against Johnny Walker in his last fight, both Walker and Santos kept themselves at a hesitant pace for much of the bout largely in part because Santos’ feints had the potential for dangerous consequence, which allowed him to continually go back to the right body kick.
He usually fights in the orthodox stance, but switches for certain techniques such as that right body kick. What’s most important is because Santos is able to hang back and fight safely now, it does have the potential to leave his opponents playing catch up later on. In doing so he baits them into chasing him in the octagon and into the full brunt of his power. However, playing the calculated striking game will be especially difficult against someone like Ankalaev.
Ankalaev likes to counter, either walking forward to put pressure on his opponents to lash out first, or sitting back and sniping them as he fades away from their leading shots. Expect a tentative first round between Santos and Ankalaev before both look to move forward and draw out attacks with feints. Ankalaev in particular likes to feint before dipping right and coming back with the left hook or shooting a takedown underneath. If Santos is the one who builds momentum being the aggressor, it’s likely that Ankalaev will circle with his back to the fence and look to throw long straight punches should Santos try to burst in on a line.
I believe that Santos has the overall grappling advantage although it is neither of their specialties. Santos may look to attack takedowns off of the end of his rush if he is finding difficulty breaking through Ankalaev’s range, however, Ankalaev may also readily look to mix in takedowns, although probably more in order to mix things up and look to land punches on the break or as Santos tries to scramble.
I believe this fight will be competitive, however, because they both base their success on controlling the range in the fight, I think that whoever does this has the most of an edge. This will probably be Ankalaev in my estimate, but should he find success here the more risks we may see Santos take, which both plays into Ankalaev’s style but at the same time puts him in danger of meeting a classic wild KO attempt from Santos. Regardless, ultimately I see the two in a competitive fight with Santos running into Ankalaev’s strikes more than vice versa.
Prediction: Ankalaev to win
Even though he fights in a thin division, has dominated in the UFC since dropping his debut, and could be in line for a title shot soon, Ankalaev is a relatively unknown fighter to many UFC fans. I suspect this is because he averages 2 fights a year and his most recent fights have not been fan-friendly. Nevertheless, Ankalaev is an intelligent and well-rounded fighter who has shown impressive power coupled with an ability to still win fights when his power is negated. When on the feet, Ankalaev will slowly but pathologically move forward. His boxing is technical and his slower but his right hand is heavy and his volume is consistent. Then, suddenly and more quickly than expected, he will throw a kick targeted at his opponent’s head. Professionally, Ankalaev has 3 head kick knockouts. While Ankalaev is a sneaky striker, his forte is his wrestling. Similar to many other Dagestan wrestlers with a Combat-Sambo background, Ankalaev prefers to secure takedowns after crashing his opponent into the cage, clinching and hand fighting, and then dragging them down to the mat. He keeps great head position, solid wrist control, and lays heavily on his opponent. From here, he can rack up points by clinch fighting or take the fight down. Once on the mat, Ankalaev continues his slow but methodical pressure with heavy and suffocating top control.
Santos, at his peak, was anything but slow and methodical. When fighting at his best, Santos is an impressive and devastating combination of speed and power. It’s hard to believe someone who is 6’2 and all of 205 (probably around 225 on fight day) once fought, successfully, at 185. Down in that weight class, Santos was able to move with much smaller fighters. That lateral movement, up at 205, was often an advantage and provided him the opportunity to find openings for his power shots. I’m writing in past tense because, after his controversial loss to Jon Jones in 2019, Santos has not been the same. He’s had to recover from awful injuries, in both knees, and those injuries have compromised his ability to plant a base for his power shots and his ability to fluidly move. In short, his injuries cost him the two best aspects of his game and we haven’t seen him the same sense. Now, most of his fights result in Santos standing at range, threatening to unload serious power; but, without his knees stabilizing him, the power and movement just aren’t there anymore.
If the Santos who fought Jones comes in Saturday, even if he’s 75% of that Santos, this fight could go very differently. His power can change the tides immediately. Unfortunately, I don’t think that Santos exists anymore. Instead, I see Ankalaev taking his time, methodically picking his shots early; then, landing a big shot in the middle rounds and finding the finish soon after.
Prediction: Ankalaev by 4th round KO/TKO
Ankalaev has the connotation of being a future title contender with a legitimate chance of being the champion of the light heavyweight division in the near future. This is largely due to him being a well-rounded fighter in a division that is lacking significant-top talent. His well-rounded acumen is a strong combination of having a very nice straight left hand out of the southpaw position with a track record of having strong wrestling. The problem for Ankalaev is he has shown a tendency to fall in love with his striking, and this is a problem due to him having a heavy lead leg that allows his opponent to land damaging outside leg kicks from distance. But, when Ankalaev uses wrestling as a setup to his striking, and vice versa, he can confuse his opponent and control the pace and style of the fight precisely as he wants it, which is an extremely positive attribute to possess.
Santos is the fight fighter to make Jon Jones look human in the octagon, as he lost a close split decision back in 2019. In that fight, Santos suffered a significant injury to his lead leg early in the bout, but battled back and put on an impressive performance. The issue is that since the fight against Jones, Santos has not looked as athletic and powerful as he did prior, likely due to the injury he incurred on his leg and him being 38 years old. Not being as twitchy of an athlete, Santos has seemingly lost his most feared weapon – his massive left hand from the southpaw stance. I believe this weapon is lost due to him going 5-rounds with Johnny Walker and not finishing him; meanwhile, Walker suffered a viral KO at the hands of Jamahal Hill in the first round of the fight. If the power of Santos is indeed lost, he will need to show a better well-rounded game of having movement, throwing his solid left foot more frequently, and display a far greater defensive takedown rate than his historical 66% clip. If he does not, particularly, does not improve his grappling defense, and Ankalaev decides to wrestle early in the bout, Santos could be in for a long 5-round affair.
This fight is likely a changing of the guard with the younger, Ankalaev, beating the battle-tested veteran, Santos. Ankalaev’s solid striking paired with impressive wrestling is a combination that does not bode well for Santos. Moreover, Ankalaev’s worst attribute as a fighter is his heavy lead leg being easily kicked but given both fighters stand southpaw, this weakness is not a significant concern given the outside leg-kick won’t be an attack Ankalaev needs to defend. For this reason, the only way I see Santos winning is if Ankalaev decides to stand toe-to-toe and Santos shows his left hand has one more KO in it; but, believing Ankalaev will wrestle, I anticipate Ankalaev getting Santos to the mat quite quickly and easily, and once there, he has the ground and pound ability to finish the fight.
Bet: Ankalaev by KO