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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 145’s Thiago Santos

Perhaps Capoeira’s best representative, Thiago Santos, will look to continue his successful Light Heavyweight run opposite skilled veteran, Jan Blachowicz, this Saturday (Feb. 23, 2019) at UFC Fight Night 145 from inside 02 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic.

It took a bit of time, but Thiago Santos is finally on his way to being one of the better known action fighters on the roster. Known best for his brutally powerful kicks, Santos’ pair of Light Heavyweight bouts have not seen him shut down foes in one swift kick. Instead, the Brazilian has been getting into ridiculous slugfests. Luckily, the results have still been great — two knockout wins and two bonuses on top. Now ranked at No. 6, Santos is closing in on the title hunt, and this fight with the Top 5-ranked Blachowicz is just what he needs to really confirm himself as a title contender. To pre-emptively answer the skeptics: no, a title fight with Jon Jones probably wouldn’t go well, which is the case for every other contender, too. With Santos, at least, there’s a guarantee of pure action for as long as it lasts.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:


As one might expect of a black belt in Muay Thai and green rope in Capoeira, Santos kicks extremely hard. As mentioned, his approach has shifted. Against men 20 pounds larger than he was facing previously, Santos is less able to simply obliterate men with a single kick. Instead, his destructive kicks now add to his overall approach of breaking down foes with an endless volume of powerful strikes.

Most of the time, Santos fights from the Orthodox stance, but he’ll switch to Southpaw often enough. In truth, it’s less that Santos is a switch stance fighter and more that the Orthodox stance cannot contain Santos’ desire to smash (GIF). As shown in that clip, the best way to describe Santos’ boxing is enthusiastic. The man does hit plenty hard and loves to leap in with a pair of heavy hooks. He will eventually play on the threat of his looping shots by trying to place an uppercut straight through the guard, but it’s rarely more complicated than stringing together power shots until one slips through the guard.

Take a look at the finishing sequence from his recent knockout win over Jimi Manuwa (GIF), for example. This is not technical boxing — Santos is whinging punches and falling all over the place. At the same time, he’s not completely without process. Santos is in good cage position, and the pace he’d previously set was so absurdly high that no one could expect to remain perfectly technical. Lunging shots or not, Santos managed to pull away from Manuwa’s shots, switch from his usual Orthodox to Southpaw, and fire different looping punches around Manuwa’s high guard.

Santos’ kicking remains a great asset even if it’s not stopping foes in their tracks immediately. It still most be noted the Santos’ kicking power is elite — arguably the best pound-for-pound on the roster alongside Edson Barboza. One clean kick is a fight-changing experience. A major weapon for Santos is definitely the switch kick. Switching his feet quickly, Santos will power through a left kick to the body or head of an orthodox opponent. Usually, this power kick is set up by a few quick switch kicks to the inside of the leg.

Santos has a few other ways to set up the power left kick though. At times, he will fully switch to Southpaw before shuffling forward directly into a full power kick (GIF). That shuffle is very important, as it allows Santos to close distance and load up the kick. If his opponent tries to back away — wouldn’t you back away from Santos’ suddenly pushing forward quickly? — it benefits the Brazilian, who will end up in perfect position to land with the shin.

Santos’ strike selection is smart. His left leg is his biggest weapon, and he adjusts to his opponent’s stance well. Against Orthodox foes, he’s going to target the body and head with his quick switch or by fully committing to the Southpaw switch before firing. Against a Southpaw like Eryk Anders, Santos will more actively chop to the available lead leg with his left and throw his right kick more often to the open side.

Another great kicking tactic of Santos is to give ground before kicking. In this week’s technique highlight, we’ll talk about Santos’ strategy of giving up ground to immediately land strikes.

Defensively, Santos is certainly a hittable fighter. When attacking with his hands, he can get more than overzealous, leaving plenty of opportunities for opponents. The bigger problem though is that Santos is terribly vulnerable when placed onto the fence, as he’ll try to throw a wide check hook rather than protect himself.


For most of his career, wrestling has been a dirty word for Santos, as defensive grappling in general is responsible for most of his career losses. However, his defense has come a long way over the years. Even more impressive, Santos has scored five takedowns in his previous three fights, which is more takedowns than the previous 14 Octagon bouts.

Against a short-notice replacement and smaller man in Kevin Holland, Santos had little trouble over-powering him with double legs along the fence. Generally, the sequences went something like this: stun Holland with a punch or kick, flurry along the fence, dump him with a double leg takedown, and then pound away. Somehow, Holland survived the assault(s), but it was a nice little display of well-rounded violence from the Brazilian. Against bigger men in Anders and Manuwa, Santos was still able to find success in distracting foes with a wild exchange before tackling the legs along the fence.

Simple and effective.

Defensively, Santos’ biggest issue is that he gets way too wild. When kicking at range, Santos is powerful and denies takedown entries easily. It’s when he rushes forward and abandons stance that Santos struggles with giving up top position. Against Anthony Smith, for example, Santos rocked his foe with a spinning kick and attempted to follow up with a flying high kick. It sort of landed, but Santos also flew by right past “Lionheart.” Smith latched on and landed in mount!

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Outside of an arm triangle attempt opposite Holland, Santos doesn’t do jiu-jitsu, he elbows the hell out of people.

Santos’ defensive jiu-jitsu shares the same problem as his defensive wrestling. At this point, Santos is definitely technically capable of defending himself. He survived some very bad positions opposite Gerald Meerschaert, for example, which is impressive considering “GM3” holds 20 career victories via tapout.

In that bout — and in other recent examples like when mounted by Smith — Santos was patient and waited for his moment to explode out. Other times, Santos just tries to yank away and stand up far too quickly, which is what allowed Eric Spicely to climb onto his back and choke him out. As with much of Santos’ approach, reckless aggression is a consistent double-edged sword, but he only seems to be improving at managing the risk.


Santos is one of the most entertaining fighters on the roster, and he’s a legitimate contender at 205 pounds. He’s exactly what the barren Light Heavyweight division needs right now: a talented fighter to bolster the Top 10, a new face for Jon Jones to most likely destroy, and guaranteed fun no matter the match up.

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.

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