Thiago “Marreta” Santos came closer than anyone has to dethroning the greatest light heavyweight in history, and no one really cares.
MMA is an odd sport. It is unforgiving, complicated, and brutal, and upsets are common. Mostly, though, they tend to come from young fighters and unknown quantities.
Thiago “Marreta” Santos is not young, and he is not an unknown quantity; he’s a big Brazilian banger, as quiet outside the cage as he is violent inside it, with powerful kicks, loopy punches, and a noted tendency to self-destruct in pressure situations. He’s four years older than the unbeatable champion Jon Jones, and carries a resume littered with bad, weird losses. He was outboxed and knocked out by the historically powerless David Branch, submitted by the deeply unathletic Eric Spicely, and outwrestled by Leonardo Santos, an admittedly good fighter who now makes his way in a division a full 50 pounds lighter than the division in which Santos now fights.
On paper, it did not look good for his chances against Jon Jones, The Greatest Fighter In The World. MMA has its own gravity, where events and people to roll together and gather mass, and become wells of attention. This gravity had already been pulling towards Jorge Masvidal and Ben Askren, and only intensified when Masvidal stiffened the wrestler with an electrifying flying knee. Thiago Santos, by comparison, was a +400 underdog to a dominant champion, and something of an afterthought by the time the main event rolled around.
Jon Jones, The Greatest Fighter In The World, is gangly and top heavy. He largely wins his fights by being a so-so range kickboxer who is dangerous to actively clinch up with. He is unwilling to lead with punches, and when he fought Santos he found himself foxed by the Brazilian’s tactic of patiently waiting for kicks and then coming back with his own. Jones would peck cautiously away at the Brazilian while Santos punted his lead leg out from under him in return.
It was going poorly for Jones until Santos threw a kick that grazed Jones’ knee. Santos tried to pull the kick, and his left knee twisted and gave out as it greedily swallowed up angular momentum.
This was not the turning point that it maybe should have been. Santos refused to go away, refused to panic, and Jones found himself continually puzzled at how to approach someone that kicked back at him, who countered almost every one of the champion’s kicks with wild shots of his own. Even as Santos’ lateral movement was slowed by the damage to his knee, Jones refused to shoot in on him.
The Greatest Fighter In The World attempted his favored clinch entry technique, which is to hold his arms up like a child pretending to be a zombie, shoulders hunched around the ears, and plod blindly into the opponent…but Thiago Santos is not Glover Teixeira, who instinctively embraces tie-ups. He started slipping around and zipping counters at the champion, who decided the better of it. He’d just seen his teammate get knocked out while standing on one leg, and this would be a similarly silly way to get starched. He went back to trading kicks.
And so went the rest of the fight. Santos would hit harder, and Jones would land cleaner. In the end, there was one clear Santos round (the first) and two clear Jones rounds (the third and fourth). The second and fifth were up for debate. From a probabilistic perspective Jones was more likely to come out on top, and more than this there was a general sense of momentum, a kind of acceptance between the two of them. Jones has a marvelous poker face and a tremendous capacity for absorbing damage, and so he spent the entire five rounds looking the same, and fighting the same. Conversely, it felt like Santos was on the ragged edge, using every spark of willpower left in him to stay in the fight, figuring out that he couldn’t balance on his left leg to throw and stumbling after Jones to fling that left shin into the taller man’s gut instead.
After twenty-five strange, tense minutes the scores were called, and there was a sense of things falling back into place with call for Jones, the reveal which you only hear in title fights “… and still.”
It already feels like people are not talking much about it. The result was an underperformance from Jones, rather than a contender coming into his own. In defiance of those who achieved less with more, it doesn’t feel transformative for Marreta. Perhaps he’ll get a rematch down the line, but Dana White is already heavily downplaying any success he had. This fight was, to the UFC president’s cash-glutted mind, nothing like that razor-close Cerrone-Ferguson bout, decided as it was by a single, late punch.
There are things which Jones could do (lit: punch or wrestle) which could make a difference in a runback…but Santos will always remain a tricky proposition for him. Jon Jones, The Greatest Fighter In The World, does not really do shot takedowns, or punching into the clinch, or back-foot counters or leading with punches. He might learn one of these things in the interim, but he won’t learn all of them.
Santos remains a high-risk, low-reward proposition, and so a more likely outcome is that he will never fight Jones again, and that he’ll be used to test up-and-comers until he loses. The UFC is more likely to fast track the more meme-friendly Johnny Walker as a title challenger (“Santos did well against Bones, so how well can this guy do?! He’s like Santos but bigger! Crazier! Worse!”). MMA’s gravity will be directed away from Santos.
For those other men who fought Jones, and did OK, their legacies are broadly secure – Daniel Cormier’s rise to popularity has been partially thanks to his rivalry with Jones, and he sits on top of the P4P lists despite losing to him. Alexander Gustafsson was able to turn his own near-upset into the basis for a reasonably lucrative (by MMA’s sad standards) career, with consistent main event slots and six figure paydays. Even Anthony Smith got more post-fight praise than Santos, for little more than shelling up, surviving five rounds and not taking a way out when Jones kneed him in the head.
Santos’ main advantage over these men is in the cards. A largely unheralded journeyman and former paratrooper from the poorest part of Rio, he came closer than anyone else has to beating Jon Jones. The only man who’s taken a card from the champ, the only one who’s won a fifth round over one of MMA’s great round-winners.
The question remains what that slight victory cost him. Knees are easy to screw up. The joint is tied together with four ligaments, and three of Marreta’s were at least partially torn. The damage was almost certainly made much worse because Santos had somehow continued to fight for over twenty minutes after his knee gave out, continuing to win rounds against the Greatest Fighter In The World while turning, kicking, stumbling, and climbing back to his feet. If he had fought like the Marreta of old, if he’d just thrown caution to the wind and launched himself bodily at Jones to get taken down; if he’d imploded under sustained pressure by the fence, then maybe he could have just been knocked the fuck out. If he’d told his corner that hey, he couldn’t balance or pivot on his left leg and it was time to call it a day, then he could have rested and healed. He could have gone back to his prior schedule of having five crazy fights a year. Instead he absorbed damage which, at 35 years old, may have ended his career.
As the scores were called, Santos raised his head, a little look of surprise on his face at hearing his name called. He smiled, thanked his cornermen, Jones, his team, basically everyone.“You changed the life of a boy from ‘Cidade de Deus.’ Getting here to where I have is already a big feat. No crying, no lamenting, just gratitude to everyone for the opportunity and the help.” Perhaps this vast overperformance was enough for him. After all, he’s never wanted to be Jon Jones, or Anderson Silva, just Marreta, the man who markets himself with ‘punches to the face, kicks and elbows’ and gives out free martial arts lessons to the local kids.
Ariel Helwani wrote about how he saw the Brazilian leaving the arena in a wheelchair, surrounded by his cornermen. No one apart from Chael Sonnen, who perhaps understands a little about coming close to gold, came up to congratulate him on how well he had done.