UFC 239 preview/prediction: Jon Jones vs. Thiago Santos

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

LAS VEGAS — Randall “Tex” Cobb, the colorful and frequently outrageous former heavyweight boxer whose one-sided title fight loss to Larry Holmes caused Howard Cosell to permanently walk away from boxing, once astutely observed of the fight game, “If you screw things up in tennis, it’s 15-0. If you screw up in boxing, it’s your ass.”

The sentiment applies to all combat sports, and it’s the challenge that light heavyweight champion Jon Jones will face Saturday when he defends his belt against Thiago Santos in the main event of UFC 239 at T-Mobile Arena (10 p.m. ET, PPV).

Jones is a massive minus-900 favorite to defeat Santos at the MGM Grand sportsbook and is widely expected to win without much difficulty.

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All the arguments against Santos — he’s lost six times as a pro, and twice more in four fights on “The Ultimate Fighter” and was a middleweight as recently as Aug. 4, 2018, at UFC 227 — ignore one pertinent fact: He’s among the hardest punchers Jones will ever have faced.

Getting to Jones’ chin has been near-impossible for most of his opponents, because of Jones’ length and range. His 84-½-inch reach creates almost insurmountable problems for those who have faced him.

He’ll have two inches in height and 8 ½ inches in reach on Santos and if he chooses, could stay so far away from Santos that Santos won’t be able to reach him.

Santos will need to fight in that middle distance where Jones’ length will work against him. Jones is an expert in the clinch and surely will dominate in that position. But Daniel Cormier showed in his rematch with Jones the value of getting to that middle distance. He connected with several punches in the second round from that range and was far more effective than he was in their first fight when Jones controlled the distance and the match.

(L-R) Jon Jones will defend his light heavyweight title vs. Thiago Santos on Saturday at UFC 239 in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)
(L-R) Jon Jones will defend his light heavyweight title vs. Thiago Santos on Saturday at UFC 239 in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)

Santos doesn’t seem all that concerned about Jones’ ability to keep him at range, and pointed out that there have been many instances in which the shorter fighter managed to get inside and win.

“We worked on that [controlling the distance] because we know the type of opponent we’re fighting,” Santos said. “This isn’t the first time you’ll have seen a guy with a bigger reach fighting a guy with a shorter reach. How many times have you seen the guy with the shorter reach come out on top? We’re ready. We trained for it. It’s normal and we’ve created our strategy and our game plan to deal with it.”

The problem for Santos is that no one has ever been able to solve that problem against Jones, including fighters who are far more accomplished than he is.

But compounding the issue for Santos is that Jones is a vastly superior wrestler. Though Jones hasn’t used his wrestling as an offensive maneuver much in recent fights, it wouldn’t be a shock if he were to look to repeatedly take Santos down in this one.

Santos has a 67 percent takedown defense, while Jones has a 47 percent takedown accuracy. But Jones has been in with far better wrestlers, including the likes of Cormier, the former U.S. Olympic wrestling team captain, and Chael Sonnen.

Santos’ power is his best bet to win the fight. Since moving to light heavyweight after his victory at middleweight over Kevin Holland at UFC 227 11 months ago, Santos has gone 3-0 with three knockouts. He stopped Eryk Anders and Jan Blachowicz in the third round and Jimi Manuwa in the second.

In his 18 UFC fights, Santos has won by knockout 11 times, including five in the first round.

Jones is so good that sometimes he makes mistakes and he gets away with them, but a mistake against Santos could be different.

Jones is as smart of a fighter as there is in the sport, and he’s not going to leave himself vulnerable to Santos’ only real hope of winning the fight. Santos has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but has never scored a submission in the UFC and has been submitted by Cezar Ferreira at UFC 163 with a guillotine and by Eric Spicely at a 2016 UFC Fight Night event in Brazil with a rear-naked choke.

Jones is by far the best grappler he’s met. Expect Jones to mix things up but use his wrestling as an offensive weapon far more than he has done recently.

I say he finishes Santos in the first half of the third with a series of elbows from the top position.

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