Anthony Smith’s fast — and impressive — rise in 2018 led him to a title shot against Jon Jones at UFC 235, but he’s not the only middleweight making waves at light heavyweight.
Thiago Santos, the last man to beat Smith at 185 pounds, has won two in a row since moving up in weight in September, pocketing a pair of bonuses after stoppage win over Eryk Anders and Jimi Manuwa.
“Marreta” returns to action on Saturday, facing Jan Blachowicz in the main event of UFC Prague. Entering his sixth fight in less than 13 months, he credits his constant presence inside the Octagon and exciting fighting style as reasons why he’s moving up so fast in the light heavyweight class.
”My style always gets fans on their feet in the end,” Santos told MMA Fighting. “People love my fighting style, and that influences how promoters see you.”
Santos went 4-1 in the UFC in 2018, suffering his only defeat by the hands of David Branch. Currently ranked No. 6 in the light heavyweight division, he would definitely be closer to a shot at the belt with a win over Blachowicz, No. 4, on Saturday.
If he continues that active and victorious in 2019, which is his plan, would he challenge for the UFC gold before the end of the year?
”I don’t think about that right now, but that possibility exists,” Santos said. “I try to focus on each fight at a time. When (the title shot) happens, it will happen naturally. We’re getting close, of course, but I try not to think about it and create expectations. Keep winning fights and when it happens, it happens.”
Having the UFC championship belt as his main goal but not thinking about it after every hard training session is not easy, though, but Santos says it has to be done.
“If I focus too much on that, I add more weight over my shoulders. ‘Oh, two more wins and I’ll fight for the belt.’ You add extra weight, more obligation to win the fight,” Santos said. “I’m fighting Jan Blachowicz as if I was fighting a non-ranked opponent, or the No. 15, so there’s no extra pressure.
”I’ll go there and fight my next main event, my first fight in Europe. That’s what I focus on. Of course that being the UFC champion is my dream, but I can’t put that weight over my shoulders all the time. I have to go step by step.”
Blachowicz enters his first UFC main event coming off four wins in a row over Nikita Krylov, Jimi Manuwa, Jared Cannonier and Devin Clark, and “Marreta” sees him as a dangerous that can’t be overlooked.
”Many people don’t see Blachowicz as a tough guy, but I respect him a lot,” Santos said. “He’s a tough opponent, very dangerous. He can give anyone trouble. He’s always that underdog that finds a way to win his fights, so we have to respect him and be careful. I’m ready to bring this victory to Brazil. Respecting him, but I’m going for the knockout.”
”It’s a fact that he will try to take me down, there’s no other way,” he continued, “but he’s a kickboxer and he knows that everyone that desperately tried to take me down ended up gassed or beaten up, so he won’t be so desperate for the takedown. He has some striking, he’s a kickboxer, so he will stand a bit, but he will try to take me down eventually to grapple because that’s where he thinks he can give me trouble.”
Blachowicz has never been knocked out throughout his 30-fight career in MMA, but Santos is confident that his hands and kicks can get the job done in Czech Republic.
”He’s a complicated opponent, very smart,” Santos said. “He fought other strikers and was able to get them to the scorecards and win. He uses the right strategy to win no matter what. It’s a five-round fight and I have to be smart. I want the knockout, but I can’t be too desperate. He’s used to fighting three rounds, so we have to think in a strategic way. Don’t be so desperate last my last fight [laughs], but I will go for the knockout on the right time.”
Santos guarantees he will follow the strategy this time in Prague. In his last bout, he informed his coach minutes before entering the cage to face Manuwa that he wanted to slug it out instead of doing what they had trained for UFC 231.
“(This desire to brawl) comes from the inside, but I knew I could do that against Manuwa,” Santos said. “Manuwa wouldn’t try to grapple me, no one changes your entire game in a few months. I was able to get more comfortable on the feet, but I can’t now. I know this guy will try to take me down if he finds an opening so I have to be smart and defend the takedowns. It’s different.”