Thiago Santos a live underdog, Luke Rockhold wants next, new contenders emerging in UFC light heavyweight division

first_imgBehind them, fighters like Magomed Ankalaev, Michal Olieksiejczuk and Khalil Rountree Jr. have all delivered eye-opening performances to increase their profiles and get people excited about their potential, while former Top 10 fighter Tyson Pedro remains one of the youngest competitors in the division and someone capable of rebounding from his recent struggles to emerge as a factor in the not too distant future.There is also the trio of Contender Series alums — Jimmy Crute, Alonzo Menifield and Ryan Spann — who have gone a combined 6-0 with five stoppage victories since getting called up to the UFC last summer.That’s nearly a dozen fighters with undetermined ceilings and the potential to grow into divisional fixtures, if not more, over the next two or three years, which is an infinitely brighter future than the light heavyweight ranks have had in quite some time. Join DAZN and watch more than 100 fight nights a yearThis weekend, the 31-year-old titleholder seeks to push his unbeaten streak to 17 and register his third victory in seven months when he squares off with surging challenger Thiago Santos in the main event of UFC 239 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. He is an overwhelming favorite and has dispatched far more accomplished fighters than “Marreta” in the past, all of which makes Saturday’s finale feel a fait accompli and that things will carry on the same way so long as Jones remains stationed atop the division.That could very well be the case — he’s that good — but reducing Santos’ potential to pull off the upset to a proverbial “Puncher’s Chance” and suggesting there are no other threats to Jones on the horizon would be a mistake.The Case for Thiago SantosDespite being a considerable underdog heading into Saturday’s championship showdown with Jones, there are elements that Santos brings to the Octagon that make him more of a live ‘dog and less of a challenger desperate to land a “lucky punch” and change his fortunes.First and foremost, the 35-year-old former paratrooper is relentlessly aggressive, moving forward regardless of what lies ahead. There is no feeling out period with Santos — he gets in the cage and starts attacking, first with kicks before switching to punches once he gets into range and everything is thrown with murderous intent.But none of it is careless.He’s not crashing forward without consideration. Santos marches offensive fighters down and forces them out of their comfort zone, making them respond to what he’s doing rather than dictate the terms of engagement themselves as they’re used to and it creates openings and opportunities for him to land a single shot that alters the course of the exchanges or suffocates them with a never-ending barrage of hard, heavy shots.The next piece is that aggression is being doled out by a man with an uncanny combination of power and speed for someone of his stature.Standing six-foot-two and looking like he was carved out of granite, Santos is a physical specimen. His movements are fluid and the way he kicks is like if you leveled up Edson Barboza until he was a light heavyweight. Everything hits faster than you expect and harder than you expect and every blow that lands has a more significant impact than you rightfully expect it to.While he can get a little hurried when he gets into punching range and has an opponent on the ropes, Santos has the kind of power that alters exchanges and he trusts his chin to the point that he’s willing to get hit in order to land one of his own. More often than naught, it’s been a winning calculation.Lastly — and perhaps most importantly — Santos has zero history with Jones and isn’t the type of fighter to get pre-emptively shaken by the mystique of the man he’s about to share the Octagon with this weekend.Jones’ standing as the consensus greatest fighter of all time may burrow its way into the minds of some of the men who ready to face him and the genuine dislike Daniel Cormier feels for “Bones” certainly impacted his performance in each of their two meetings, but Santos has more of a terminator vibe than anyone else Jones has faced and nothing the champion says this week or has done in the past is going to cause him to question his skills and ability to shock the world heading into Saturday night’s main event.He may fall like all the rest, but Santos has ways to win this fight and it is a far more compelling matchup than some might lead you to believe.Luke Rockhold’s Championship AuditionBefore Jones and Santos step into the Octagon to battle over the light heavyweight title, former middleweight champ Luke Rockhold will return to the cage for the first time since last February and he’ll do so as the newest addition to the 205-pound ranks.After years of grueling weight cuts and a body that became increasingly susceptible to injuries, the 34-year-old announced last December that he was moving up to the light heavyweight division and immediately started lobbying for a chance to face Jones.From a marketability standpoint, it might be the best option the UFC has in the division at the moment, but before Rockhold can challenge for championship gold in a second weight class, he has to get through Jan Blachowicz this weekend.This is the perfect matchup to see where Rockhold fits in the light heavyweight division, as the Polish veteran has been a fixture in the Top 10 for the last several years and was on a four-fight winning streak before running into Santos earlier this year in Prague. Blachowicz is the type of well-rounded, battle-tested veteran who could spoil the Ralph Lauren model’s divisional debut and scuttle his plans for taking out Jones before they ever really take root.Though this weekend’s card is littered with meaningful pairings that will garner a great deal of attention, there might not be any more interesting than Rockhold’s first foray into the cage as a light heavyweight.His talent has never been in question and neither has his confidence, but having been knocked out in two of his last three and limited to just those three outings since winning the middleweight title all the way back at UFC 194 in December 2015, Rockhold has a great deal to prove this weekend.His championship pedigree, abundant talent and sandpapery personality makes him an obvious candidate to jump to the front of the list of contenders in the light heavyweight division, but he needs to secure a victory — ideally in dominant fashion — in order to make that happen. While he’s understandably favored to topple Blachowicz on Saturday night, this fight, like the championship main event, isn’t as cut and dry as the odds might indicate.The Future is BrightFor the first time in a number of years, the future of the light heavyweight division looks promising.Once the glamour division of the UFC, the 205-pound ranks got real stale, real quick once Jones ascended to the throne and started running through former champions and familiar names.In addition to Jones’ dominance, the gap between the contenders he handled with relative ease and the next tier down was so great that it meant very few new names ever managed to rise through the ranks and establish themselves as viable threats. Winning streaks died in the middle of the rankings, where veterans like Blachowicz and Glover Teixiera knocked off numerous upstarts, only to have contenders like Alexander Gustafsson return the favor.But over the last year, former middleweights like Santos and Anthony Smith have injected new life into the contender ranks and a crop of impressive, intriguing new names have started to gain traction and make headway within the division.Dominick Reyes, Johnny Walker and Aleksander Rakic have emerged as potential contenders, while former “The Ultimate Fighter” winner Corey Anderson continues to make slow and steady progress as the guy no one ever really talks about in the 205-pound ranks. Officially, Jon Jones hasn’t lost a fight in nearly a decade.Unofficially, the reigning, defending, undisputed UFC light heavyweight champion is undefeated, as most view his disqualification against Matt Hamill at The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights Finale on December 5, 2009 to be a controversial decision made by a referee who should have stopped the fight earlier and even then made the wrong judgment call.last_img read more