Paradise, Nevada was on the verge of descending into hell for light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who came within a scorecard of losing a split decision to gutsy contender Thiago Santos at UFC 239 on Saturday night. One opinion is literally all that stood between continuity and a seismic shift in the division ushering in a new era in MMA.
A visibly stunned audience at the T-Mobile Arena watched in complete disbelief as a weary and injured Santos was helped back to the locker room. Not far behind him was Jones, arguably the greatest fighter in MMA history, leaning on a couple human crutches himself after five rounds of attrition; or rather, five rounds of newfound hope for a light heavyweight division growing stagnant from a lack of star power, aside from its incandescent king.
That isn’t to suggest Thiago Santos successfully solved the human Rubik’s Cube, although he did add to a burgeoning blueprint of doing so. Jon Jones had every opportunity to move in for a takedown, especially with Santos heavily favoring his left leg after a right knee injury, and potentially putting the competitive odds out of reach. Yet, he opted to stand and bang with a man that has turned more lights out than a public utilities company.
“I felt like I was winning,” Jones told UFC commentator Joe Rogan after the fight. “There was no need in going for a shot. We were playing a very high level chess match in there, and I think he made me look bad. I’ve got to go back and watch the fight for myself, but any time you out-kickbox a guy who’s a black belt in Muay Thai, you shouldn’t hold your head down.”
Jon Jones certainly shouldn’t hold his head down after successfully defending his belt for a second straight time this year. Neither should Santos or the rest of the light heavyweight division, which is basically being treated as hors d’oeuvres to Jones’ eventual heavyweight feast waiting in the wings. Santos essentially let his fists do the talking for every contender without a household name and reminded the world why light heavyweight was never the graveyard division it was made out to be.
Promising contenders like Dominick Reyes and Corey Anderson provide new threats Jones could potentially face. Grizzled MMA veteran Jan Blachowicz, who is fresh off a knockout win over former middleweight champ Luke Rockhold, is quietly climbing into the contender ranks after winning five of his last six bouts. Chris Weidman, another former middleweight champ, could find himself in the light heavyweight title hunt after his recent move. Not to mention the obvious rematches with Santos and Anthony Smith, which would likely produce the highest level of intrigue right now.
Make no mistake, there is plenty of work left to be done at light heavyweight if Jon Jones chooses to prolong his stay.
He will likely go back to the drawing board and come back an even better fighter, which is a scary thought in its own right. It’s his modus operandi after snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. When Vitor Belfort nearly broke his arm with a submission attempt, Jon Jones made a special effort to diligently work on his ground game. Then we saw him return with better cage-cutting and boxing defense after the near loss to Alexander Gustafsson. One can only assume he’ll be checking leg kicks and working for more takedowns after the Santos fight.
As for the rest of the division, every contender could have gleaned some semblance of hope from Santos’ performance. He might not have toppled the king, but he did humanize him in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Gustafsson fight.
That small slither of hope is all that’s needed to invigorate the next massive underdog contender, who will undoubtedly be hell-bent on finishing what Thiago Santos started.
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 7/9/2019.