Jon Jones escaped a game, if injured, Thiago Santos at UFC 239 on Saturday in Las Vegas, keeping the light heavyweight strap around his waist, if only by the slimmest of margins.
Santos opened with a strong first round, effectively attacking Jones’ lead leg with low kicks to the calf muscle. Jones returned fire on most of those, but Santos was a little busier and started to land punch combinations later in the frame.
Momentum quickly shifted to Jones’ favor in the second round. Santos started strong, again attacking Jones’ lead leg with kicks, but seemed to hurt his right knee as he did so. After that, Jones was attacking, while Santos favored his right leg, frequently holding it back, and not using it to attack the way he did in round one.
Round three was another good one for Jones. Santos continued to favor his right knee as Jones took advantage and attacked it at will.
As Santos favored the knee, Jones pressed forward a little more assertively, and landed a short elbow that briefly dropped Santos to a knee. Jones didn’t rush the fight, however, and continued attacking Santos’ right leg.
The fourth frame was much of the same. Santos kept attacking, doing what he could, but more and more obviously favored his right knee. As he did so, Jones continued to attack with oblique and inside kicks effectively continuing to sap Santos’ power.
Santos’ right leg continued to buckle throughout the final frame, but he wouldn’t back down. He fought through whatever injury he had, and threw everything he could at the champion. Jones continued to play it safe and assault the injured leg, chipping away as the clock wore down.
When the fight was over and the judges’ scorecards were read, everyone was holding his breath. The first announced score had the fight 48-47 in Santos’ favor, but the other two judges scored it for Jones by the same margin, handing him a narrow split-decision victory.
“Oh my goodness. Boy was he tough,” Jones said after the fight. “Hey guys, I am so sorry. Thiago, we all know, his best chance of winning this fight was the knockout. I played it safe and played it smart bringing this home for my team and for my family.”
Though he may have played it safe, Jones held his head high, despite holding his left leg off the ground as he need assistance to leave the cageside area.
“I’m proud of myself actually. I stood and traded with a guy that has been kickboxing way longer than me,” said Jones, who still credited Santos for a strong performance.
“He did a really good job. He exploited a hole in my game and that’s something that won’t be there next time.”
Depending upon the extent of his injuries, Jones will now head to the sidelines to heal from a very difficult fight before determining his next move. He hopes to fight again late in the year before resuming a busy schedule in 2020, but even a narrow victory keeps his record intact as the widely regarded greatest fighter of all time.