UFC 239: Unpacking Jon Jones vs. Thiago Santos

As an MMA fan, I’m used to disappointment. I’m used to feeling a sense of loss after UFC pay-per-views, a loss of time, money and effort. But I did not experience any such feelings after UFC 239.

The crowning jewel of the UFC’s annual July event, International Fight Week, held at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada this most recent Saturday was in my opinion a resounding success. This success is the result of multiple factors, and even the negative of the card still made it a perfectly dramatic and enjoyable card. With some time between us and the event, let us examine the happenings with sober eyes of the card previous.

To start off from the bottom of the card, in the night’s curtain jerker, Julia Avila, a geologist by trade, won her UFC debut, and climbed to a record of 7-1, winning against Pannie Kianzad. Chance Recountree, a +400 underdog, won a dominant decision against “The Austrian Superboy,” Ismail Naurdiev, who was a -600 favourite. The featured fight on Fight Pass bout was between the Glendale-based Armenian-American Edmen Shahbazyan and the Welsh Jack Marshman. Shahbazyan, a protege of controversial coach Edmond Tarverdyan, submitted Marshman in less than two minutes in an impressive outing. “The Golden Boy” is currently twenty-one years old, and while he’s distant from the top right now, the young prospect is certainly on a positive trajectory for his career.

Moving on to the televised prelims on ESPN, the prelims marched on with a first round knockout by Team Alpha Male member Yadong Song, who put #13 ranked Alejandro Perez to sleep. The knockout was considered impressive enough for Song to win a performance of the night bonus, and in all likelihood a spot on the rankings when they are updated. Following that was a fight between former strawweight title challenger Claudia Gadhela and Randa Markos. Gadhela won the match handily, with all three judges scoring the bout 30-27. However, the fight did not totally assuage concerns about her. While her gas tank did not fail her (a staple of her recent fights) the fight proved to be lackluster, defined by a low output by both women. Regardless, a win is a win. 

Next was the fight between Marlon “Chito” Vera, and Nohelin Hernandez, who was making his UFC debut as a replacement for “Suga” Sean O’Malley. The Ecuadorian Prospect seemed to easily control the fight early, dominating Hernandez on the ground, particularly with his usage of back control. However, the position was reversed and Hernandez took charge, doing significant damage. The trend towards Hernandez continued into the second, until Vera hurt Hernandez with strikes, took the back once more and finally got the submission he was looking for. While Hernandez was making his debut, this fight proved that Chito can come back from adversity.

The featured fight on the prelims was contested at the featherweight division between Arnold Allen, an English prospect who had a 14-1 record prior, and Gilbert Melendez, the former and final Strikeforce lightweight champion and two-time title challenger in the UFC. Before the fight, it was viewed that this fight would serve as a litmus test as to how far “El Nino” has fallen from grace, and as it turns out, he has fallen very far. For three rounds Gilbert’s limited offence was consistently shut down by Arnold Allen while taking significant damage himself. Melendez lost in every aspect of the fight. With the win, Allen moved up to 15-1, and gained the #13 spot in the UFC’s featherweight rankings, making his top-15 debut.

Main Card Madness

Opening the main card was a fight between two winners of The Ultimate Fighter, between season one winner and lightweight title challenger Diego Sanchez, and winner of season thirteen Michael Chiesa. This fight serves best in my opinion as a testament to proper coaching, as Sanchez chose to leave legendary camp Jackson-Winkeljohn in favour of a self-help coach with zero MMA experience in both fighting and coaching, and who is quite frankly a nutjob and likely grifter. This shake-up in coaching came with that Diego had only one cornerman, that being It’s likely that Chiesa would have won the fight no matter who Diego had in his corner, as Chiesa, to his credit has looked fantastic at welterweight. His frame is much better suited to the 170 pound division, and despite him being a former 155-er, he looks to be very strong for the weight class. Nevertheless, Sanchez had terrible advice during the fight, which likely contributed to a very lopsided decision win for the rising Michael Chiesa. 

The second fight on the main card was fought by then-ranked #6 Jan Blachowicz and former middleweight Strikeforce and UFC mhampion Luke Rockhold, who was making his debut in the UFC’s 205 pound division. I had argued before the bout that this fight represented for Luke Rockhold a make or break moment. If he had a chance at reclaiming UFC gold, this time at light heavyweight, this fight was a must-win. Suffice to say, Luke “broke it.” The first signs were the large brace Rockhold had on his left leg, followed by a lackluster first round. Rockhold controlled the pace for the bulk of it, trying to bring the Polish fighter to the mat. However, Rockhold’s attempts to grapple failed, and immediately following the grappling exchanges on the fence was a different Luke Rockhold, one who was barely moving and throwing little. The round closed with Blachowicz wobbling the ex-champ with a head kick, and Rockhold seemed to still be hurt leading into the second. Partway into the second round Jan landed a thunderous left hand, which sent Luke flying to the canvas, followed by a short burst of ground-and-pound which sent Rockhold to the shadow realm, thus making Jan Blachowicz the official inheritor of the title of “Left-hook Larry.” This was a terrible performance by Rockhold, which is made worse by the fact that Jan broke his jaw in this fight. On top of that, Rockhold has had poor activity recently, fighting only once each year since 2016. In all likelihood Rockhold will be out until 2020, and without the opportunity he had in this fight, I find it hard to believe he will even get the chance to challenge for a belt ever again. In this case, I agree with Dana White in that Rockhold should retire, for both an inability to accomplish more in the sport and for the sake of his own health. Blachowicz on the other hand is now ranked at #5 by the UFC, and with Dominick Reyes is now the only man within the top five to not lose to Jon Jones (more on that later.) Since this is only a one-fight streak, it is unlikely that this will win Blachowicz a title shot, but the performance was good enough to garner Blachowicz a performance of the night bonus, and one has to think that he is reasonably close to a shot at the top spot at 205.

The middle fight of the main card is almost undoubtedly the highlight of the event. Jorge Masvidal, who was ranked at #4 in the welterweight division, faced off with the undefeated former Bellator MMA and ONE champion, and Olympian, #5 Ben Askren. Many people thought Jorge had a decent chance at ending Askren’s 19-fight unbeaten streak, but none outside of the walls of American Top Team had any clue as to how the fight would end. As the ref calls for action to open the bout, Masvidal moved to his right to fake his intentions, as the Olympic-calibre wrestler Askren ducks his head to shoot in for a takedown, which is met with a brutal switch-knee, which immediately stiffened Askren, and thus ended one of MMA’s most legendary win-streaks in highlight-reel fashion. On top of that, the fight ending in just five seconds makes it the fastest knockout in organization history, and pushed Masvidal up to #3 in the division and to stardom, along with an extra check of $50,000. While the UFC’s position is currently ambiguous, with a performance like that it is difficult to believe that “Gamebred” won’t get the next shot at Kamaru Usman. Askren on the other hand fell from #5 to #9, but seems to be handling the loss incredibly well, and did not suffer any serious injury despite the brutal knee. We will see Ben Askren back in the octagon without a doubt. Given the possible title implications of the fight, the trash talk and rivalry between the two, the unbeaten streak of Askren and the resurgence of Masvidal, and the manner and speed of the knockout, this will likely go down as one of the greatest finishes in the sports history, let alone the year. 

In the co-main event, and in the continuing streak of first-round knockouts, Amanda Nunes, the reigning UFC bantamweight and featherweight Champion, and the consensus WMMA GOAT defended her bantamweight belt for the fourth consecutive time, and expanded an already legendary resume with a first round TKO over former bantamweight champion and then-ranked #2 Holly Holm. Despite Nunes not taking the fight to the ground successfully, she was able to outstrike the former boxing world champion and kickboxing specialist, leading to a stoppage via strikes The victory is even more notable since it came via way through a head kick, the signature move of the former champion. With the win, Nunes moves to a record of 18-4, and has essentially cleared out the division. With her legacy further cemented in the division with a victory over the final former featherweight or bantamweight champion she had yet to beat, there is little left for Amanda to do. She is already the greatest female fighter in the sports history, and one of the all time greats, with an incredible resume. For Holm, who is now 1-4 in title bouts, she may have reached the end of the road as well, albeit with a more negative connotation. While this is only her first loss via strikes, and she has taken a relatively small amount of damage in her career compared to the aforementioned Luke Rockhold, her path to reclaiming the belt just got a lot narrower. She’s already 37 years old, and has a clear blueprint to beating her. The choice about her career lies with her, and with her only, and I expect to see her again in the octagon, but the time left in her career has to be limited.

Finally, the main event; the light heavyweight championship fight between one of the greatest talents in the sports history, the multi-time 205 pound king Jon Jones and #2 ranked surging contender Thiago “Marreta” Santos. Most people, including myself, expected Jon Jones to win, and to win handily. The former proved to be accurate, but the latter… not so much. The fight proved to be scored tightly, with the incumbent champion winning just three rounds out of five on two of the judges scorecards, and two out of five on the third, becoming Jon’s first ever split decision win in the UFC. The fight was not competitive in the same spirit as Jones-Gustafsson I, which is a legendary fight for the sheer effort put in by both men in the contest, but rather was defined by both men being tentative, as Jon Jones was very wary of the power of Marreta, and Santos trying to counterstrike the much longer man in Jon Jones. Santos, in my opinion had his best moments in his offensive blitzes, and in his leg kicks, but when he sat back and tried to wait on Jon Jones, he was unable to do much. In his defence, his left knee all but gave out early in the fight, so he was fighting with only one good leg, which should be damning for a muay thai fighter like Thiago Santos. Personally, and this view was reinforced with a second viewing of the fight, and a good look at the statistics, I scored the fight 3-2 for Jones, with the caveat that I could see either a 3-2 for Marreta or a 4-1 for Jon being within the realm of reason. While Thiago had furious blitzes, throwing hammers at “Bones,” Jon managed to land more than Thiago did while throwing significantly less, a testament to his accuracy. While the initial outrage over the controversial decision has dissipated in the aftermath, with the margin on MMADecisions.com closing between those who thought Jon won and those who though Thiago won, it still stands that Jon Jones, a given for a Mount Rushmore of MMA, almost lost to a man who spent over 80% of the fight with one leg working due to a sheer lack of activity. No matter who you scored it for, this was a remarkably poor performance by the champion. It is impossible to diagnose why this performance was what it was without more data; that is until Jon fights again, but it will be fascinating what kind of fights Jon has in the near future. Was this fight as close as it was because of the talent of Thiago Santos to confuse, and shut down the king? Was it due to not-unfamiliar turbulence for the champion outside of the cage, or just a poor night? Is this the Jon Jones of the USADA era? We will find out soon enough.

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