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Retro Robbery Review: Jon Jones vs. Thiago Santos at UFC 239

Thiago Santos and Jon Jones
Thiago Santos and Jon Jones at UFC 239 in Las Vegas on July 6
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Few things infuriate MMA fans more than a fight being scored incorrectly, though the term “robbery” tends to be thrown around carelessly and is often steeped in bias. With Robbery Review, we’ll take a look back at controversial fights and determine whether the judges were rightly criticized for their decision or if pundits need to examine their own knee-jerk reactions.

There’s a segment of critics out there who believe that UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones should be on a two-fight losing streak right now. We’ve already covered how “Bones” got away with one in his most recent title defense when he earned a unanimous nod over Dominick Reyes, but it was the fight before that close call that had fans beginning to question if Jones’ dominance was a thing of the past.

Monday marks the one-year anniversary of Jones’ five-round fight with Thiago Santos at UFC 239, a bout that saw Santos go the distance with the champ despite suffering severe injuries to his left leg. “Marreta” didn’t just make it to the final bell, in the eyes of some he did enough to capture the title and become the first man to hand Jones a legitimate loss.

Santos fell short on the scorecards, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see whether he was truly robbed of his opportunity to wear the light heavyweight crown.

What was the official result?

Jon Jones def. Thiago Santos via split decision.

How did the fight go?

Let’s get this out of the way right now: As far as sheer output goes, there isn’t a lot to score in this fight (for reasons that will become clear in the second round). Santos supporters would have you believe that Jones was absolutely handled in the striking department here, a suggestion that doesn’t stand up to the slightest level of scrutiny.

That said, Santos won round one. Call it Jones being a slow starter or just wary of an opponent with one-strike KO potential, but Jones seemed hesitant to take risks. The first round was primarily a battle of leg kicks and it was Santos who drew the first roar from the crowd with a wicked kick to Jones’ calf that had Jones dancing for a second.

Jones caught a Santos kick, but couldn’t get a takedown or connect with a spinning back elbow on the follow-up. Suddenly, we have the makings of a live dog. Santos showed beautiful work on the feet in round one and he grew bolder as the round progressed. The commentary leaned towards Santos after the first five minutes, and rightfully so.

Alas, just seconds into round two, disaster struck. Santos landed a leg kick, but his plant leg buckled. He was visibly hurt. Jones attempted to pounce, but was met with a flurry of punches. It says a lot that Jones remains respectful of Santos’ striking from this point forward despite it being obvious that Santos was hobbled. The champion looked to establish his jab, though he didn’t commit to it. Jones’ body work shouldn’t be ignored and he landed some powerful kicks to Santos’ mid-section throughout the fight. By the way, credit to Dr. Joe Rogan for identifying that Santos had a torn ACL in between rounds.

It is crazy how Santos continued to throw effective kicks in the later rounds. Not only that, he was springing forward with punching combinations that weren’t 100 percent successful, but still enough to give Jones pause. It’s in the third that we see Jones assert himself though. A counter elbow by Jones knocked Santos down (more of a trip) and then he connected with a glancing flying knee. It also became clear that—for better or for worse—Jones had no interest in using his wrestling to win and he’s confident in his kickboxing. He admitted as much post-fight.

The injury took a lot of steam out of Santos’ offense and Jones won the most convincing round of the fight yet heading into the championship frames. Jones had zero sympathy for Santos’ injuries as he continued to rifle kicks into Santos’ body and legs, including the dreaded oblique kick. His leg work was almost sinister, and I mean that as a compliment. Jones’ arm reach was finally starting to give Santos problems too and it looked like the fight was at worst, for Jones, tied up heading into round five.

Both guys look fresh in the fifth and let’s just reiterate one more time that Santos was still winning exchanges despite competing with MULTIPLE TORN LIGAMENTS against arguably the greatest fighter in MMA history. He won the first minute of round five, but could he sustain it? Jones walked the challenger down and though his output wasn’t extraordinary, it was consistent. He’s scoring just enough.

The question is, was Santos landing the harder strikes? He won the crowd over and if it were up to them, we would have heard “and new” at night’s end. But it wasn’t to be.

What did the judges say?

Michael Bell scored it 48-47 Jones.

Derek Cleary scored it 48-47 Jones.

Junichiro Kamijo scored it 48-47 Santos.

The judges were in agreement on two of the rounds, giving Santos the first and Jones the third. Here’s the breakdown of the rest:

Round 2 - Jones (Bell, Cleary)

Round 4 - Santos (Cleary, Kamijo)

Round 5 - Jones (Cleary, Kamijo)

Cleary’s scorecard mattered the most in the final round as Bell had Jones up 39-37 on his card, while Kamijo had it 39-37 for Santos. Only Cleary had it tied through four rounds.

What did the numbers say?

(Statistics per UFC Stats)

If we’re just looking at the raw stats, Jones has a credible claim that he matched Santos on the feet. Santos was unquestionably the busier fighter, but Jones was more effective. Here are the significant strike numbers:

Jones — 59/90 (65 percent)

Santos — 43/166 (25 percent)

This isn’t to say that Santos should be penalized for inaccuracy, just that he may not have been as successful with some of his flurries as it appeared at first glance. After round one, which Santos won 11-7, Jones had the striking advantage in every round (R2: 11-7, R3: 14-6, R4: 11-8, R5: 16-11). It’s here that we need to mention the usual disclaimer that not all significant strikes are created equal and it’s certainly possible that Santos was landing the more damaging strikes even if he was connecting less frequently.

One aspect of the fight that may have been overlooked is Jones’ body work. He ended up with a 16-7 advantage in that department, and also had the slight edge in head strikes (11-9) and leg strikes (32-27).

There were no takedowns or knockdowns (including Jones’ counter elbow in round two that tripped up an off-balance Santos) in the fight.

What did the media say?

Of the 18 media member scores tallied by MMA Decisions, 14 scored the fight for Jones, 4 for Santos (including our own Jed Meshew).

Four people gave the fight to Jones 49-46, while the biggest deviation came from MMA Junkie, who gave all five rounds (50-45) to the champion.

What did the people say?

(Data derived from MMA Decisions and Verdict MMA)

Voters on MMA Decisions know what they saw and that’s a win for Santos. Almost 50 percent scored the fight 48-47 Santos, and the number goes over that mark if you count the 3.4 percent who scored it 49-46 for the challenger.

The second highest fan score was 48-47 Jones at 29.7 percent, with 8.2 percent scoring it 49-46 Jones. A draw result was hardly considered as it garnered only 2.4 percent of the vote.

Over at Verdict MMA, voters leaned the opposite way, giving Jones the last four rounds, including huge marks in the third and fourth.

The Verdict MMA scoring system takes the cumulative total of every submitted fan score (filtering out aberrant scores like random 10-7s if they comprise less than one percent of the total) in every round and divides by the amount of submitted scores to determine the winner of each round and also in totality.

Jones’ final margin of victory was 133 points. His performance in rounds three and four more than made up for the close second and fifth rounds, while Santos’ 46-point win in round one wasn’t enough to close the gap. This was a convincing win according to Verdict MMA math.

MMA Fighting did not issue a formal poll following the fight, but did ask for fan feedback on the result, which can be seen in the conversation below:

How did I score it?

Jones won, despite a performance that was at times uninspiring and confounding.

I distinctly recall giving Jones round 2-5 watching this live, but upon review I can see an argument for 48-47 Santos. The first and third round shouldn’t be up for dispute, but rounds two and five were close. I favored the defensive skills of Jones, which became more prominent as the fight progressed even as Santos kept searching for new ways to attack. He missed a lot though and I didn’t need a stat sheet to tell me that.

Jones’ refusal to grapple also made me want to score the fight against him, but Santos doesn’t get points for Jones ignoring one of his greatest strengths. If anything, Jones is correct in his assessment that his striking held up against the highly vaunted kickboxing of “Marreta,” even though people won’t be mistaking Jones for prime Remy Bonjasky anytime soon.

I actually stand by my original score of Jones 49-46. Upon review, Jones was scoring to the body more than people (including myself) remember and that was a big factor in him retaining.

Was it a robbery?

After seeing Jones go unchallenged for so long outside of a few rounds against Daniel Cormier, it would be fun to say “robbery” here, wouldn’t it?

Santos winning the first round definitely shifted the whole narrative right out of the gate. An undersized challenger with a fan-friendly style, seeing Santos stand toe-to-toe with Jones was genuinely exciting. He was clearly up 10-9 to start and by round two the “Santos is doing better than expected” storyline was in full gear. Add in the fact that he was fighting with an injury and how could you not root for him?

It’s a great story and Santos is heroic. But he wasn’t dominant against Jones and there isn’t enough evidence, anecdotal or statistical, to validate any outrage over the judges’ decision.

The final verdict

Not a robbery.


Was Jon Jones’ win over Thiago Santos a robbery?

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