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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Vegas 38’s Thiago Santos

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UFC Fighter Portraits Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Dynamic kickboxer, Thiago Santos, will duel with fellow knockout artist, Johnny Walker, this Saturday (Oct. 2, 2021) at UFC Vegas 38 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.

I am an unabashed fan of Santos, the wild man with a giant hammer tattoo who tries to melt his opponents with kicks and chaos. Few saw him as a potential title contender, but when “Marreta” moved up to Light Heavyweight, he went on a tear that very nearly saw him dethrone Jon Jones. Unfortunately, when it rains, it pours. Santos lost the split-decision and destroyed his knee in the process. He’s winless since returning from injury, and while his performances haven’t been poor necessarily, one has to be concerned for his future if he’s unable to bounce back here.

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

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Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Sat., Oct. 23, 2021, with a highly-anticipated match up in the Middleweight division, as No. 2-ranked contender Paulo Costa returns to action against No. 5-seeded Marvin Vettori. In UFC Vegas 41’s Lightweight co-main event, Grant Dawson looks to remain undefeated in UFC when he locks horns with Ricky Glenn

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Striking

At 185 pounds, Santos ended many opponents with a single kick. The bigger men of Light Heavyweight have so far been able to avoid that fate, but Santos still does seriously damage with his kick.

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. 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 the guard.

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 is still 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. 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.

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 his most recent win, Santos showed an unusually patient approach. Rather than try to overwhelm Jan Blachowicz, 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).

It surprised me quite a bit, but 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 wonderfully.

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.

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.

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 24 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.

Conclusion

Santos has only lost to top contenders during his current struggles, and he still holds a win over the current champion. If “Marreta” can rebound here, he’s still a relevant player at 205 pounds, and the unlikely title dream is alive.


Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 38 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 on ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 38: “Santos vs. Walker” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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.