After competing just once in each of the last five calendar years, Jon Jones is back to being a fighting champion. His second trip to the Octagon in 2019 takes place at Saturday’s UFC 239, when he steps into the cage opposite Thiago Santos, a 35-year-old Brazilian who is as unlikely a challenger as Jones has had during his brilliant yet turbulent tenure at the vanguard of the UFC light-heavyweight division. This is quite literally true. According to MMA gambling website BestFightOdds, Jones is currently around a -800 favorite against Santos, a number he hasn’t seen since he competed against a fighter who was then seen as a middling contender, Alexander Gustafsson, six years ago.
Those odds — and Gustafsson’s ensuing career — show how wrong the consensus can be while analyzing a sport with limited data sets. It also served as something of an athletic wakeup call to Jones, who believed the hype and was taken to the limit that night before escaping with a win. Since then, he has not had a fight that has been remotely close.
Saturday’s fight harkens back to then, as few believe Santos can challenge Jones in any facet of fighting aside from raw power. While we may be proven wrong — unpredictability is the main lure of the sport, after all —Jones has little margin for error when it comes to public expectations. This is a fight where he is supposed to blow Santos away.
Listed at 6-foot-2, Santos is hardly a small man, yet he’s seemed dwarfed by Jones during their face-offs. He’s spent most of his career at middleweight, and has only three wins at 205 pounds, though they have been quite emphatic, a trio of knockouts against Eryk Anders, Jimi Manuwa and Jan Blachowicz. While that’s certainly a strong little run, Santos does’t have a single win on his resume against a former champion, or even against a top-three rated opponent. This is not to disparage his record; he is an unlikely challenger because he somehow managed to compile this streak (which includes victories in eight of his last nine fights overall) at a stage of his career where most fighters are beginning to flounder, if they have not yet washed out of the promotion.
It is only to say that Jones is so good — so impossibly, historically great — that on paper, it’s a fight he can only lose through a bolt of lightning one-shot. That can happen. We’ve seen it in this sport before; just queue up the Matt Serra highlight reel. Santos has undeniable power, as his 15 career knockouts and sledgehammer chest tattoo can attest. He has hands that can change history. It’s just hard to imagine that he’s going to be the one to land that cudgel. Him, not Daniel Cormier or Gustafsson in the rematch or Rashad Evans or Lyoto Machida, or any of the greats that Jones has waylaid.
These kinds of expectations ultimately lead us to the question, what exactly does a win over Santos mean? For Jones, it’s just another notch on the belt, but one with little historical significance.
In some ways, these kinds of matchups are the toughest ones, because they are all risk with little reward, similar to a “trap game” in football. Yet in a sport that searches for legacy as things unfold in real time, not all victories are created equal. Since Jones is universally viewed as an all-time talent, there is a wide desire to see him fight foes of equal peer. Right now, that is a mission impossible within his division. In lieu of it, however, there are other alternatives. Namely, Jones can move up to heavyweight to pursue a second belt. Double-championship chasing is all the rage in the UFC, but of all those to do it, no one with the exception of Georges St-Pierre can boast of a similar resume. So if Jones can’t chase a peer, he should chase history.
The alternative is a few more years of fighting other 205-pounders on the come-up, names like Dominick Reyes or Aleksander Rakic or Johnny Walker. Few of those matchups truly ignite the imagination, at least not yet, and similar to the Santos or Anthony Smith matchups, will do little to add to his legacy.
After wasting a large chunk of his career to personal problems, Jones has a decision to make. He can stay where he is, fighting little-known but hungry guys on the rise, or he can move up to pursue the monsters of heavyweight. He can go conservative or roll the dice.
The DNA that runs through mixed martial arts, and through sports in general, is in the chase. Jones has his throne, and if that is enough for him, we will all sit back and watch him in awe, knowing his owes us nothing. But we also know what we want him to do. We want the self-professed “wild motherf—ker” to want to go big-game hunting. To chase Cormier on to his own turf, without cutting weight. To want to lock horns with Stipe Miocic or step into the fire with Francis Ngannou. Every fight against a Smith or Santos puts that all at risk, and for what?
Once upon a time, Jones told the world that he wanted to be the Michael Jordan of mixed martial arts. Athletically, he is there. He is as dominant an athlete as we have seen. Jordan always wanted to face the best. To him, it was a personal affront that anyone else’s name be mentioned alongside his. That person had to be defeated at all costs. For Jones, there is nothing else to accomplish but this very thing. To put the GOAT debate to rest once, and maybe for all time.