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UFC 259: Santos v Rakic Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Vegas 50’s Thiago Santos

Muay Thai and Capoeira striker, Thiago Santos, will go to war opposite Combat Sambo specialist, Magomed Ankalaev, this Saturday (March 12, 2022) at UFC Vegas 50 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Much as I may hate to admit it, it feels like Santos’ time as a 205-pound contender has run up. Since destroying his knee in a split-decision loss to Jon Jones for the title, Santos has yet to really impress. He managed to badly hurt Glover Teixeira before getting submitted, but then, that’s standard for “Hands Of Stone.” His subsequent fights with Aleksandar Rakic and Johnny Walker were uneventful to the max, and it’s not clear if “Marreta” still has that insane viciousness that drove him toward the top.

In short, this fight is make-or-break. Santos either upsets the division’s top prospect and returns to the title mix, or that portion of the 38-year-old’s career is sadly over.

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

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Striking

First and foremost, Santos is a kicker. At Middleweight, he routinely send foes to the canvas with a single shin to the liver or skull. Though his larger opponents at 205 pounds have been better able to handle his power, breaking opponents down with hard kicks remains an important pillar of his game.

Most of the time, Santos fights from the Orthodox stance, but he’ll switch to Southpaw often enough. Santos punches 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.

UFC 231 Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Take a look at the finishing sequence from his knockout win over Jimi Manuwa (GIF), for example. This is not technical boxing — Santos is winging 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. One clean kick remains 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. 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. Alternatively, Santos will take a step back from Orthodox into Southpaw, and when his opponent steps forward to fill that space, he’ll fire the kick.

UFC Fight Night: Santos v Anders Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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.

In many of his recent fights, Santos has showed a new patient approach, and the most successful outcome came vs. Jan Blachowicz. Rather than try to overwhelm the Polish fighter, Santos hung back and worked his right low kick, really digging into the calf. The first round was close, but Santos’ patient attrition work built up and saw him begin to take over in the second. When Blachowicz charged forward in the third, a pair of counter hooks ended his night (GIF).

Santos attempted a similar game plan against Jones! Hanging back, Santos circled and fired power kicks at the legs, confident that he could do more damage with his round kicks than Jones’ arsenal of rangy kicks. For a time, he was largely correct. Any time Jones really stepped forward, Santos would swarm with a huge volley of power shots to keep his foe away.

Until the leg disintegrated, it was working quite well.

The struggle to balance patience and chaos is arguably the reason Santos lost his last two bouts. Against Teixeira, Santos stunned his opponent then lost all composure on multiple occasions, resulting in takedowns from the durable Brazilian. He fell too far in the other direction vs. Aleksandar Rakic, failing to ever really explode and break up the occasional trades of kicks.

UFC Fight Night: Santos v Walker Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

The Johnny Walker fight was a step in the right direction ... sort of. Santos landed enough heavy punches to barely sway the judges to his side, but the long lulls of inactivity plagued both men. When the fight hangs in the balance with five minutes remaining and neither man has done anything terribly significant in the previous 20, there’s still room for improvement.

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. It worked out against Blachowicz, but other fights have managed to get inside the hook and crack him.

Wrestling

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, particularly as Santos has grown to be a more physical fighter.

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, Blachowicz, 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.

UFC 227 Dillashaw v Garbrandt 2 Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Defensively, Santos’ biggest issue is that he gets way too wild. When kicking at range, Santos is powerful and denies takedown entries easily — good luck trying to catch that guy’s kick! 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 landed in mount!

Still, Santos managed not to get taken down a single time by Jon Jones. Even if “Bones” wasn’t particularly active with his takedown attempts, that’s an accomplishment. Meanwhile, Teixeira only secured takedowns following knockdowns, a unique Teixeira skill.

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 26 career victories via tapout.

UFC 213: Nunes vs Shevchenko Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

In that bout — and in other 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.

Conclusion

Santos’ back is to the wall here, as defeat ejects him from the title picture if not the Top 10 entirely. At the same time, Ankalaev could be the best victory yet, so the outcome of this match up will really decide what’s left of his professional career. Likely, it’ll come down to how well Santos is able to manage activity and aggression against an expert counter striker and wrestler — an appropriate test of Santos’ historic flaw.


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.


Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 50 fight card right here, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance (also on ESPN+) at 7 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 50: “Santos vs. Ankalaev” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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