Coming off a win over Alexander Gustafsson in his last outing, Smith is cemented atop the rankings at 205 pounds, which is why he has a vested interest in the upcoming battle between Jones and Santos.
On top of that, Smith knows these two fighters very well after just recently locking horns with Jones and then a ‘Fight of the Night’ performance against Santos in his final middleweight bout last year.
Many believe that Santos is overmatched going up against arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time in Jones but Smith knows first hand the kind of knockout power the upstart Brazilian contender is packing.
That’s why he cautions counting Santos out, although admittedly Smith concedes that Jones definitely has an easier path to victory based on one of his opponent’s glaring deficiencies.
“If anyone has a chance to catch Jon Jones with something powerful, it’s definitely Thiago,” Smith told MMA Fighting ahead of UFC 239. “He absolutely has a chance. He can win. I do think that Thiago has a gaping hole in his ground game, though, and I think Jon is way too smart not to take advantage of that.
“If you looked at Jon and I’s fight, the times when we did go to the ground, he didn’t actually engage with me that much because they do their homework. Most people will write my ground game off and they won’t really talk about it or they won’t even acknowledge it but Jon was very aware that I’m dangerous on the ground and he didn’t engage there.”
While Smith sees Santos’ ground game as his biggest weakness, he believes there are still ways he could damage Jones on the feet to stop the fight from ever hitting the canvas.
As invincible as Jones has seemed throughout his career, Smith says there are tendencies and patterns in his style that could put him in danger against somebody as powerful as Santos.
“If Thiago can find a way to stay on his feet and he can control his output and he doesn’t gas himself trying to explode and reach Jon, I think it will be a closer fight than people are expecting,” Smith said. “I think that’s where the keys to victory are for Thiago. He’s got to be able to stay upright and he’s got to be able to control his output and his bursts so he doesn’t get tired.
“Because if you get tired with a guy like Jon Jones, you are in trouble. If Jon wants to stay safe, he can’t be as upright as he always is and he can’t evade straight back as he tends to do because Thiago has too many tools going forward. I think those are two spots where those guys need to be careful.”
Ultimately, Smith sees Jones’ strengths far greater than any weaknesses that might exist, which is why he expects the reigning light heavyweight champion to exploit Santos on the ground to carry him through to another title defense.
“Thiago has too big of a hole [on the ground],” Smith said. “I think that Jon will be safe, he’ll stay on the outside, he’ll pick Thiago apart and then he’ll take him down and that will be it.”